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Context before Debate
2 min read

Context before Debate

Time and time again, I've noticed this happen: You will make a point about a specific issue, and three to four comments down, someone will introduce a completely different issue altogether - though they are vaguely related. It doesn't take long before it deescalates into political opinions.

It is incredibly hard to nurture a healthy debate or build consensus if the arguments essentially become opinions.

A few years ago, I got quite enamoured by this topic and started to dig into this - how do you build the structure for a debate rooted in civility. Someone pointed me towards Tarka Sastra.

In the format that they propose in Tarka Sastra, they set a disproportionately large amount of time to set the context.

For eg, the debate could be on the matter of "Can a pot hold water?"

So while defining the context, they'd go into exquisite detail. Verbatim on the text, it explains, that the word "pot" cannot hold water. Nor can a pot that has many holes in it. or one held upside down. So pot for the purposes of this debate is one in the shape of a container, made of clay (and baked) and without holes except for one in the top.

When I first read that, I was confused - and wondering why were they wasting so much time getting into details that were so obvious. Fact is, what is obvious to one, seldom is to everyone else.

And before you ask, no, they didn't waste all their time debating issues as silly as whether a pot can hold water. They debated issues as intricate as the dharma of the gods and came out of it not wanting to kill each other.


The takeaway for all of us is that before you set up a brainstorming meeting, take the effort to set the context. Send folks reading material - so that everyone is on the same page. Three things should be ready before folks arrive at the table - an understanding of the subject, the context of the issue and possible solutions.

In the scenario that you find folks not doing their reading, the amazon method of circulating a memo and dedicating "reading time" so that everyone is on the same page helps.

Far too often, I notice that in a brainstorming session, in minute one of the session there will be opinions flying - It is easy to tell right then and there that there won't be any consensus arrived at that issue that day.

And when setting context, if you find yourself writing a sentence like "As you know" or words like "Obviously..." you are doing it wrong. Like the structure of Tarka Sastra dictates, state facts not opinions or your emotions to set the context.

If you don't set the context and frame the issue appropriately, you are at best lucky if you get anything productive out of the session.

And take your time doing this. You'll realize the meetings become far more productive, and folks are less emotional (and prone to spurring politics and biases).

Debate the issue, not people. And remind folks when you begin, the mission is important, and it is the mission that comes before anyone else - including the self.

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