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Debating in a Toxic Environment

As MD of Speakers Corner, former Chairman of the European Association of Speaker Bureaus and Co-Chair of the 2017 IASB (International Association of Speaker Bureaus), I am so lucky that my job and passion are one and the same. I have always aspired to ensure our clients secure the best speaker, presenter or host for their events or conferences.

We live in a world where the art of debating seems to have turned into a fight where an understanding of the different perspectives is secondary to winning by any means necessary.

Unfortunately, this concept of ‘Any Means Necessary’ seems to lead many to deliberately undermine their ‘opponents’, including personal attacks, a choice interpretation of ‘fact’ and a heavy dose of whataboutery.

There are many different nuances in the definition of the word debate but fundamentally it is a discussion about a subject on which people have different views, which usually results in a conclusion or decision about what is to be done.

The critical element is the concept of a debate being a discussion with people of different views. There is no reference to it being about right or wrong or even about forming consensus, but rather about people with differing opinions pointing their points forward to reach a way forward.

I would suggest that we need to take stock of this and understand how we can move back to a place where debate is seen as an art form, and participants understand that success is achieved through learning from other points of view rather than force of personality demanding scoring points.

If during my immersion in the world of speaking, I have seen the rise of the great speaker being elevated to levels of pop star success and people willing to invest both their time and their money into listening to these speakers in order to learn and improve as individuals.

I have then seen, which I perceive as a by-product of the financial crisis in 2009, that speakers are no longer the experts who will provide answers on stage but rather they have the credibility, the stage presence, the content and the gravitas to deliver their opinions and the audience will respect them for their opinions, but, and this is the critical point, will no longer take these opinions as gospel or fact.

Audiences instead take what they hear and apply it to their own knowledge so they can form their own opinions and make decisions based on a variety of sources and life experiences, including the speaker they have just listened to.

Understanding and accepting this idea puts us in a position where we can look to reclaim the art of the debate and turn what is currently a toxic environment which, even at the highest levels of debating forums such as the House of Commons, into a school ground spat of ‘he said, she said’ and ‘if I shout loudest I must be right’.

Let’s be honest - no-one really has a clear understanding of what happens next, whether this be because of the fourth industrial revolution and the rate of change and unknowns that has bought or whether it is because we, as a species, are questioning our purpose and our role on planet Earth. The fear of the unknown has resulted in us becoming more belligerent in trying to prove we are right, and we can provide clarity and direction that rises above the fears pervading society.

But the thing is, we don’t need to be right, we don’t need to show strength – our strength comes from the collective, the basic roots of democracy lie in our ability to debate and to hear other people’s opinions. The art of debating should be a positive art form where we celebrate other people’s viewpoints, and positively defend and promote our thoughts, but not by putting down the other party.

I fear the toxic environment that we see all around us is going to be further enhanced as the UK moved into full UK General Election campaign. I wish right now that society sees respect as the antidote to toxicity. We will have the leader debates, the press will judge the winners and losers.

But I would suggest that the only true winners and losers will be the public who need to judge whether they have learnt and broadened their knowledge through the debates, or whether they have seen leaders utilise a platform to belittle and undermine others.

If I am talking about debating in a toxic environment, how can I go a whole 800 words without mentioning Brexit. I will be brave and put it out there that the only common point agreed by most voters (or even non-voters) in the referendum is that in 2016, we didn’t understand or at least we were not given the full picture. The debate at the time was slogans and soundbites which generally was about winning the vote and putting down the other side rather than by elevating the debate to a place where respect was given to the voters to make their own decisions based on knowledge.

We are lucky that we have access to the largest amount of knowledge of all times in the palms of our hand, surely we should be embracing this and encouraging everyone to strive to learn and further themselves so that debate is no longer seen as game with victors and losers?

The role of debate, with differing views and opinions, is to help us become better as individuals and as custodians of the planet. It’s time we went back to basics, to understand the purpose and rationale of what we’re debating, so that we can further ourselves for the betterment of all through respect and appreciation of different views and opinions knowing that right and wrong is never as simple as black and white.

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