What is a Better Angels Debate?

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You probably haven’t experienced anything like a Better Angels Debate. It’s not a political debate, where competing candidates attempt to win votes. Nor is it a high school or college debate, where people advocate positions in which they may not believe for the sole purpose of vanquishing their foes.

A Better Angels Debate is a highly structured conversation in which a group of people think together, listen carefully to one another, and allow themselves to be touched and perhaps changed by each other’s ideas. When done well, everyone walks out a little closer to the truth, more aware of the validity in opposing views, and with tighter community relationships.

The skillful choice of a resolution (the idea under discussion), together with a highly structured format, encourages the passionate and energetic expression of ideas and, likewise, the passionate and energetic challenging and supporting of those ideas through questions and subsequent speeches. However, the format requires that all questions be addressed to the Chair, which insulates people somewhat from speeches and questions challenging their positions, and dampens the potential for individual reactivity.

The conversation grows and develops through a series of speeches supporting or opposing the resolution. After a participant speaks, the Chair asks for one or two questions from the body. The speaker responds to the questions, then is thanked and returns to their seat, and another speaker takes the floor. All speakers are encouraged to bring up new ideas as they wish, but to place them in context of the prior speeches, and to directly express responses to prior speeches.

While people are encouraged to support or oppose the resolution in order to sharpen their points, they are welcome to express nuance and ambiguity, and to admit that they are not really sure which side they support when that’s the case. What’s critical is that people should articulate what they actually believe, even if it’s complicated or incomplete, rather than making an airtight case they don’t really subscribe to.

Usually a debate should go for at least an hour. Two hours is a good time frame, and three or more is not unheard of, if interest and energy is high, and the group is prepared for it. For a less experienced Chair, two hours is probably a reasonable duration. Ideally, at least half of the participants give speeches and more than two-thirds ask at least one question.

The ideal group size is from 20 to 30 although, with an experienced Chair, up to 50 people might participate. Everybody who attends is free to speak; nobody is relegated to “observer” status. The group size lends itself to developing a sense of intimacy, and to the growth of relationships between members of the group. Organizers often plan a social event immediately after the debate, so that people can continue to connect.

What Does the Chair Do?

A good Chair sets the tone for the room with everything they do, not just when they speak, but also by observing the body, and by listening to speakers with respect and interest. Their objective is to facilitate the debate, not to be in the spotlight.

They know and apply the rules consistently and even-handedly, and engage with good-natured confidence in the running of the debate. The Chair encourages those who are new to this kind of conversation to speak, even if they are anxious about talking in front of others. They provide correction and offer guidance with kindness and tact.

They promote an engaged and energetic conversation with enthusiasm, humor and, when necessary, with calm and steady firmness. They ensure the delivery of an experience that participants want to repeat.

The Chair:

  • Collaborates with or coaches the debate’s organizers on the choice of the debate topic.
  • Helps the group recruit the first four speakers.
  • Consults on the date, venue, and publicity.
  • Helps greet participants, and creates a welcoming, friendly tone as people arrive.
  • When the body has assembled, welcomes everyone, offers introductory remarks, explains the debate process, and demonstrates some debate elements if the group is not experienced.
  • Calls the debate to order, and facilitates it.
  • Brings the debate to a close, and offers participants the opportunity to respond to a feedback question, popcorn-style.
  • Distributes and collects feedback forms.

Qualifications

This role may be a good match for you if:

  • You’re comfortable in front of groups that range from 20-50 people.
  • You can create a welcoming atmosphere for often-nervous participants, filling the room with a confident, spirited welcome.
  • You’re able to notice and willing to intervene promptly with sensitivity, humor, and authority when people deviate from the format.
  • You can set your personal views aside, and show no positive or negative reaction to the views participants express.
  • You’re able to remain aware of all who are in the room, being especially alert for those who don’t seem to be enjoying themselves, and endeavor to somehow draw them in.
  • You can create space for everyone to participate, including as many people as possible.
  • You’re willing to set aside what you already know about debates in order to learn and apply the debate model we use.

Skills to Develop Fully Through Chair Training

You should be confident that, after training, you’ll be able to:

  • Exercise self-assured and good-natured command of the room, and hold the leadership of a group of 20-50 people.
  • Understand the process of preparing the resolution, and be able to explain it to others, and guide or coach them when needed.
  • Understand the debate process, and be able to communicate it clearly to others before calling the debate to order, and throughout the debate as necessary.
  • Be comfortable with formal meeting procedures (for example, being addressed as Mr. or Madam Chair), and with asking participants to adopt the same degree of formality.
  • Repeatedly invite people who might be nervous speaking publicly to give a brief talk, welcoming their contribution.
  • Include as many participants as possible.
  • Exercise discernment and good judgement, distinguishing passion from malice, and firmly and tactfully coach those who aren’t exhibiting respectful behavior.

If you think you’d like to chair Better Angels Debates, please complete our application here: https://betterangels.typeform.com/to/xcuRr0

More to explore

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Depolarization, as we at Better Angels see it, is not so much about reducing partisanship or increasing moderation, as it is about re-building social ties and relationships across partisan divides, and reducing individuals’ sense of disgust for people of opposing political opinions.

Bob Shrum

Diagnosing the Divide with Bob Shrum

Democratic strategist Bob Shrum stops by The Better Angels Podcast to talk polarization, campus politics and the challenges facing the Democratic field.

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