Lesson 2.10

Managing Topics And Focus When Managing Debate

Dive into this topic via the key explanations and exercises below:

  • One of the most common ways good debates get derailed is when we switch topics mid-debate.

Debate “defocus” can be prevented by clarifying up front (and re-clarifying throughout) what singular topic the debate is about.

  • It is okay, when someone veers into another topic, to say, “That’s a different topic than the one we’re debating right now. Let’s put a pin in that and specifically address that once we’ve addressed this one.”

  • Often people will protest that what you’ve just “put a pin in” is relevant to the current debate.

  • When this happens, usually the relevance relies on a “false analogy,” which is a fallacy, or a historical precedent, which is often a fallacy as well.

  • You can either address this by pointing out the fallacy, or by arguing that the conclusions of the debate you are having ought to be able to stand on their own.

Let’s walk through a couple of scenarios:

Pay attention to the subtle topic-switching in the following scenarios, and think about times when this has happened in your own recent conversations:


    • You’re speaking with your boss on whether to give a promotion to a team member you supervise. The conversation goes like this:

    • You: “I’d like to promote Alice to Director.”

    • Boss: “Why?”

    • You: “She has met all the qualifications to become a Director and is ready to lead.”

    • Boss: “But it took your team member Joe 2 years to become a Director, and Alice has only been here for 6 months.”

    • You, identifying that the topic of debate could get derailed right here if you aren’t careful: “Why it took Joe 2 years to become a Director is a different topic. I’d be glad to discuss that separately from this. The issue is whether Alice is qualified for the role.”

    • Boss: “That’s very astute of you. It makes me think I’d like to promote you to President of the company!”

    • You: “Let’s definitely discuss that separately, too! Meanwhile, can I give Alice that promotion?”


    • You’re speaking with your boss about a decision you don’t agree with that was made while you were on vacation:

    • You: “Why are we now charging a cash-out fee to our users if it doesn’t actually cost us anything for them to cash out?”

    • Boss: “Because we need to get profitable.”

    • You: “Okay. That doesn’t answer the question, though. The question is why are we calling it a cash-out fee?”

    • Boss: “Because if we don’t do this, we won’t get profitable.”

    • You: “So the goal of this is to find a way to get profitable.”

    • Boss: “Exactly.”

    • You: “And you’re saying this is the only way to do it?”

    • Boss: “Yes.”

    • You: “My theory is there could be other ways to make that money and get profitable. But that is a separate debate we can have. The debate right now is why are we pretending it costs us something to let our users cash out?”

    • Boss: “Because we need to get profitable.”

As you can see in this example, sometimes people you debate with will have a hard time realizing that their topic switching doesn’t make sense. When this person has more power than you, such as with the boss in this example, it can be hard to get anywhere. But in the long run it pays off to be patient and persistent when it comes to good debate behavior.

(This also illustrates why it’s so important for leaders to have Intellectual Humility, the topic we’ll be digging into in Part III of this course!)

Bonus video:

To dig in deeper on this subject, check out the below episode of the Jordan Harbinger show on intellectual dishonesty. (Or listen to the audio/podcast version here if you like.)