Presentation Hack: Invitation to Debate

Do you ever invite your audience or students into debate? 

For some teachers, trainers, or public speakers, a passionate disagreement between audience members or students is something to be avoided and prevented at any cost. It might be seen as disruptive, a loss of control, abrasive, or uncivilized, or disrespectful. But for me, I embrace my role as a moderator of both deliberate and spontaneous debate in the classroom. 

Now I realize not every circumstance or setup is ideal for audience participation. Large conference style presentations do not always lend themselves well to open, organic discussion or debate. But for crowds under one-hundred in number [1], sparking a debate might be among the best methods to learn about complex topics.

Let's first define a complex topic. Complexity, in this context, is when a situation, challenge, opportunity, or circumstance:
  • has no firm right or wrong answers or process;
  • has unpredictable second- or third-order effects;
  • has multiple perspectives, participants, or stakeholders;
  • requires prioritization of multiple issues;
  • has certain variables might be unknown or unknowable;
  • requires decisions based on values, beliefs, and experience;
  • has competing or lack of research or science;
  • will end up with tradeoffs and compromises;
  • has no agreed upon "best practices;"
  • has options that may be in tension with each other.
This isn't some exact or definitive checklist. But I do hope it serves as a guide for you to begin pondering what it is in your work or life that fits as a "complex" topic or issue. To boil it down, maybe this definition of complexity is better:
Things that experts still argue about.
And because people still argue about it, our learners might benefit from seeing those multiple perspectives, stances, or positions. 

Founded in military contexts, "red-teaming" is a valuable way to pick apart challenges and probe options. In red teaming, Blue Teams invite Red Teams to test their plans, capabilities, skills, and systems. The Blue Team (the control or good guys) is tested by a Red Team (the attacker or enemy) by countering movements. In forcing a situation or decisions to be analyzed more thoroughly, red-teaming builds awareness and critical thinking skills. It's about exposing vulnerabilities that can be better accounted for or addressed.

I see intra-class debate as a form of red-teaming. But how do we draw out those perspectives while still maintaining respect and civility...and keep the class from getting too far off-course? Not everyone in the room might be so willing to participate in a red-teaming exercise. It requires some Emotional Intelligence on the part of the moderator, teacher, or trainer to massage debate or dissent in a productive manner.

We have to overcome a tendency for participants or students to sit quietly and passively in the room. We have to create an environment where their participation and thoughts are welcomed. How can we do this? By acknowledging what barriers exist. I'll pick three (3) big ones:
  1. Barrier between audience & teacher/presenter/trainer: Be aware of the power and authority differential between the person standing at the front and the people sitting in nice, neat rows like compliant little second graders.
  2. Barrier between majority & minority: Recognizing that not everyone in the audience thinks the exact same way about everything. (Gosh, at least I hope they're not!)
  3. Barrier between insiders & outsiders: There is probably a group, community, or industry outside your class or room that feels quite different about your topic than those inside the room.
Now I'm going to move onto a real life example of drawing out debate in a classroom:

I am a police trainer, who provides training workshops both inside my police department and outside as a private consultant. Some of my favorite workshops are those on police tactics and use of force [2]. In many of them, I use this particular video. (NOTE: You don't have to watch it; I'll explain it enough under the screen.):

In this above video, police officers respond to a family's call for help with a suicidal family member. The man-in-crisis is contained to a bathroom with no other exit than this doorway. During their attempts to talk to the man, police officers open the door and confront the man.

Even among audiences made up entirely of police officers, opening the door tends to be the first of many complex decisions made by the police officers.

So how do I, as moderator, elicit multiple opinions or viewpoints on the decision to open the door?

One (1) thing is certain: I have to create a safe environment for dissent and understanding and removing the barriers to debate. There is no particular order or recipe, as group dynamics are different in every class or audience.

I reserve, mask, or delay any personal opinion I have of the decision or the topic. I will take on the role of Devil's Advocate against any position taken in class. But I also announce that up minimize any power or authority differential. While some students will argue with the teacher for sport, I've learned most would rather not. Opposition with the teacher can be seen as disrespectful or unwelcomed. In many classroom or training environments, openly arguing with a teacher can be the quickest route to public embarrassment -- when the teacher tries to put that student in his place. ("How dare you question me!") If a student doesn't know my feelings on the matter, how can he unintentionally attack me? He can't.

When a student does offer an opinion, position, or argument, I would rather not be the Devil's Advocate; I prefer another member of the audience play that role. Let me offer two (2) conflicting tactics to solicit that dissenting opinion:
  1. "Does anyone disagree with her.......?"
  2. "Whether you agree with that position or not, someone take a counter-position."
In #1, it requires actually holding opposition to a person and what she believes, and then being willing enough to show that opposition.
In #2, it detaches the position from the person, and also detaches the counter-position.

Tactic #2 is safer because it is less personal and rather focused on the perspective not the person. It does not isolate any person or group from the rest. It merely defines perspectives.

But let's back up. How do we get that first opinion to be shared with the crowd? That can be an awfully vulnerable step to take in a room - regardless if peers, complete strangers, or close friends. This is especially significant when the opinion might run against the majority.

Instead of opinions, I ask for options. Options are considerations, alternatives, and choices. Opinions are personal biases, tendencies, or preferences. Asking for options is safer because it (again!) removes that connection between person and idea. As a moderator of the above police video case study, I might say something like:

"These officers opened the door. Whether you think they're reasonable or not, what other limitless options exist?"

I wait for options to be shared.

"OK. So there are advantages and disadvantages to each of those options. What are the tradeoffs? Let's explore each of them. Option A...."

Then we return to an impersonal list of pros & cons, tradeoffs, and compromises for each any every perspective.

In US policing, there is a natural tension. There is a perpetual Power versus Rights balance with the Fourth Amendment issues of Search & Seizure. There exists a political divide between liberals and conservatives on how police should act and behave in a free society. So many police officer decisions are based on subjective reasonableness as opposed to a binary right or wrong (Yes, I said subjective! /wink). As such, it's relatively easy to provoke debate on so many police issues, including in cases such as those like the above video.

At times, I will split the audience or class into halves. To simulate a lawsuit against police, I assign courtroom roles as:
  • Respondent team (to defend the police actions)
  • Petitioner team (to attack the police actions)
This is part case study, part red-teaming, part debate team, part gamification. It requires the group, as a whole, to be exposed to two (2) perspectives of the situation. It's a method to critique decisions, propose alternatives, and judge the potential consequences of actions. And most importantly, it does so safely - by stripping personal opinions from the environment. It demands an outside opinion that might not otherwise exist from inside the room.

Debate leads to a better understanding of sense-making, non-linear thinking, predictability, and the How & Why behind decisions.

In an age of heightened accountability (and I'm not only talking about police!), we need to be better prepared to justify our decisions and actions. I believe we can make better decisions, founded on better understanding of our situations, when we critique and debate...even when we do not agree upon an answer, decision, solution, or intervention.
"It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it." - Joseph Joubert (1896)
In the spirit of Joubert, my class attendees often leave with more questions than answers. That's sort of my intention. I want them to better understand the complexity, the tradeoffs, the perspectives, the disadvantages & advantages, and the impossibility to settle on best practices or firm answers. To do so, we must acknowledge and destroy the emotional barriers to critical thinking and sharing ideas in groups. We have to send warm invitations to participate and open their (and our!) minds to new ideas.

I hope this blog post helps you to nurture how to think, not what to think. 

That's my agenda. You might disagree.



[1] My personal classroom and public speaking experience shows me that something changes in an audience when the number of attendees hits 100-125. Participation is much more difficult, and loses effectiveness. I think a better gauge for soliciting participation is whether the speaker/teacher/trainer needs to use a microphone. A room size that requires a microphone is probably not suited for debate or open discussion. That also tends to be when audience size reaches a 125-150 point.

[2] Attorney Keith Karlson is masterful at this debate tactic in the classroom. He stands apart from others in his skill and public speaking / moderation. I've partnered with him for about ten (10) workshops on police use of force for Indiana and Illinois law enforcement.


Aside from writing on a variety of topics, I publish a column of blog posts under the label Presentation Hack. Check them out for ideas, tips, and tricks to better public speaking or classroom experiences!


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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