What is a Better Angels Debate?
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.
How Does a Better Angels Debate Work?
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.
How Many People Can Attend?
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 Debate 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.
To learn more, watch the videos above.