Debating: Mind Your Manners

V.P. candidates, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence (“The Finger.”)

If you watched Trump and Clinton battle it out last week or Pence and Kaine go at it last night, you’d be forgiven for thinking debate is just a fancy word for a dirty old argument. History tells a different story and we’d be wise to look towards it as a means of brushing up on our communication skills — lest we find ourselves, like our presidential candidates, in a repelling rather than attracting verbal boxing match.

Unsurprisingly, our story starts with the Ancient Greeks, an honorable bunch whom we have much to thank for. Take the Olympics and Theater, for example, and that tiny idea called democracy.

At the heart of the Greek idea of democracy lay debate — the art of convincing by a combination of discussion, argumentation and persuasion. To engage in debate in Greek society there was but one rule — speak freely but do so in a thought-out fashion.

Fast-forward to London in the late 16th and 17th Centuries. The city was high on commerce but knee-deep in plague. Still, good sense reigned in the British Parliament where parliamentary procedure, that’s the rules, ethics and customs governing political debates, were codified. Early rules included discussing one subject at a time, avoiding personal attacks and limiting discussion of a question to its merits.

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Roll on the 18th and 19th Centuries and the age of enlightenment. Debating societies were popping up quicker than Darwin could say “evolution”. On both sides of the Atlantic these took hold in Universities, the most famous of which was Cambridge. Now over two hundred years old, the society has hosted everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to the Dalai Lama and Robert Downey Jr. all with the aim of, “considering the world around us by thinking about different arguments, engaging with opposing views and speaking strategically.”


“To engage in debate in Greek society there was but one rule — speak freely but do so in a thought-out fashion.”

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As simple as these examples are, as a gal who makes the art of communication her livelihood, I can attest that within them lay masterful tips on communicating. You may never find yourself debating foreign policy, the federal deficit or the war on terror but the next time you’re at loggerheads with your spouse, colleague or neighbor I urge you to stop, listen, take a breath and practice a little old fashioned polite dialogue. Please. And thank you.

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