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Tales of the unexpected - lessons from the Brexit debate

I suspect I am not alone in wondering how history will speak of The Great British Brexit Debate. Will it be marked as the time when things changed for the worse or the better? Could it be a mere footnote in a wider narrative of 21st century politics? Will generations of future school children have to learn the names of the key figures and their policies (pity them if they do). Believe me, no-one knows. However, whichever position you take on the current stramash, one thing that we and history may agree on is that in these tumultuous times, the quality of debate has been less than exemplary.

The House of Commons has dissolved into grandstanding shouting matches, where few seem to pay heed to Archbishop Tutu’s sound advice: “don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”. We’ve become inured to pictures of MPs being fiercely verbally abused on-line and on the streets. Much of the “free” press steadfastly refuse to explain or investigate the arguments but focus on personal and emotional vitriol. Members of the public feel increasingly disengaged from a debate which is meant to have them at the core.

Whatever the result of Brexit may be, the political sector is surely the loser.

So what then can the third sector learn from how the Brexit debate (debacle?) has been handled by the so-called experts? Debate doesn’t always happen in the House Of Commons (if indeed it really happens there at all). It happens in board rooms; in community meetings; in funding applications; in campaigns and in chats with our neighbours. If we agree that the Third Sector has a role to persuade, to challenge and to change hearts and minds, then debating effectively is necessary whether we are in communications; policy; fundraising or service delivery.

Could at least one long-term benefit of Brexit be to remind us how to debate well? Its maybe timely to record for posterity some of the key elements of a “good” debate:

• A debate is an argument with a purpose – not an excuse for a rammy. If you are not clear in your own mind why you are engaged in that argument – maybe to get someone to change a policy; to allocate you funds; or to lend you support – you will never succeed.

• A good debate allows all parties not just time to talk but also space to listen. Make sure you really hear (rather than assume) what the other side is saying, even if you disagree with it. By understanding the other’s argument, you may make your argument more understandable to them.

• Humans are emotional creatures and research shows that we respond as much (if not more) to impassioned pleas as to logic. Debating a point doesn’t always need to be unemotional nor does it always need to be polite. It does, however, always require to be respectful.

• Know who your audience is and who you are actually trying to convince. While you may be directing your comments to one person, be constantly aware who else may be listening in and how they may help or hinder you achieve your goal.

• Remember that you are engaged in a people exercise – that the person you are debating with has feelings, limitations and visions that you will not always see but may well influence their response to your points. Empathy for the individual never goes wrong, even with someone who represents an organisation or viewpoint you love to hate.

Of course, successful debating looks and feels different for everyone and in every situation. But being conscious about what we are doing, why we are doing it and who we are doing it with may allow us not just to debate – but argue – with dignity. It’s ironic that when I first started teaching debate skills in schools nearly 30 years ago, I used to say that in order to learn good debating, children should observe MPs. That advice is no longer part of my repertoire. Instead, let the children of our future see that good debating – that good arguing – is possible, is empowering and is transformational. And that the Third Sector is where the lessons are to be learned.

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