Lesson 2.6

The Rules Of Productive Debate

Dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key concepts below:


Key Concepts:



  • A productive debate can involve any number of participants, so long as they participate fully and thereby don’t leave potential ideas on the table.

  • There’s no universal “right” number of people for a debate—though two is the easiest to manage, especially if there’s a chance that people might hold back in front of a larger group.

5 Ground Rules For Productive Debates:

  1. Start with a well-defined objective and a spirit of inquiry.

  2. Everyone is on the same team.

    • We’re comrades, not adversaries.

    • There is no “winner.” The team wins if we make progress.

    • Everyone is an equal participant; no hierarchy or special treatment.

    • Assume that everyone’s intentions are good; we are all coming from a good place here.

  3. No making things personal.

    • No name calling or personal attacks.

    • No “how could you believe that?” or “why can’t you see?” questions. Pose “what” questions instead like “what makes you feel that way?” or “what has led you to that conclusion?”

    • Give people the benefit of the doubt.

    • Nobody loses face for changing their mind.

    • Reward people for pushing the group forward over being “right.”

    • No taking things personally yourself.

  4. Keep the debate about facts, logic, and the topic at hand.

    • The debate is not about who cares more, who’s loudest, who’s most powerful, or who's most articulate.

    • If things get emotional or personal, gently identify it and reset.

    • Distinguish between facts and interpretations (stories).

    • Identify logical fallacies and step back.

    • Check the validity of assertions of fact, and analyze the quality of evidence, not just the evidence.

    • If the debate veers into other topics, identify it and reset.

  5. Be intellectually honest and humble.

    • No tricky rhetorical tactics.

    • Listen to and respect every viewpoint, even if you disagree.

    • Admit when you realize you’re wrong, and concede when others have good points.

Want To Have A Debate With Yourself? Try The Scientific Method:

Scientists have a well-established method for finding the truth about things:

  1. Make an observation

  2. Ask a question

  3. Make a hypothesis

  4. Devise a test to try to disprove the hypothesis

  5. Draw a conclusion based on the test

  6. Go back to step 2 and repeat, testing different questions and hypotheses, until you can draw strong, repeatable conclusions

We can borrow from their playbook when we’re trying to get to the truth of things in our own work, like so:

  1. Take an argument you or someone has recently put forward about something in your work or life. In real life, this exercise would start when someone expresses an idea or theory/argument about something. E.g. I think everyone at the company should get Friday afternoons off.

  2. Back up and identify the observation that originally spurred this argument. E.g. After team lunch every Friday, employees don’t seem to accomplish as much as on other days of the week.

  3. Now ask some questions based on that observation. E.g. How much less productive is Friday afternoon than other days? Why is that? What could we do to make employees more productive, given this?

  4. Now re-frame the original argument in terms of a hypothesis. E.g. If we give employees Friday afternoons off, it won’t hurt overall weekly productivity, because Friday afternoons aren’t productive anyway. And giving people this time off will increase morale and lead people to be more productive throughout the rest of the week.

  5. Now force yourself come up with some other hypotheses based on the observation and questions. E.g. If we get rid of Friday lunch and instead have a Friday “hors d’oeuvres and happy hour” at the end of the day, people will be more productive on Fridays and therefore the whole week—and employees will be just as happy because we are still providing them with a nice perk on Fridays.

  6. Come up with a way to test your best hypothesis (or test multiple hypotheses!). E.g. Tell everyone you’re trying the Friday hors d’oeuvres thing for a month, and see what happens. And/or announce that the next Friday afternoon will be a half-day off as a “treat” for the company, and see how productivity and morale go for the week.

  7. Have an objective way to measure the results of your test. (Make sure you do this before running your test.) E.g. Have managers report productivity of their teams, and compare regular weeks against your test weeks. Also issue an employee survey to compare and judge morale.

  8. Draw a conclusion based on your measurements, and if things look promising, try it again! If the data doesn’t look good, repeat the process, while now including your new observations from your test.

The Scientific Method works for more than just science and work experiments. It’s also a great way to frame research or general problem-solving inquiries. Try it out!