Healthy debate

Published Categorized as emotional literacy

I believe that as a nation, we are rubbish at debate. Although debate does happen in schools, learning how to debate healthily does not. Part of the issue might also be down to our education system having too much onus on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and the need to draw firm conclusions, people’s tendency to exercise confirmation bias and our political system – as a well-known example of how to debate – being so adversarial and including too many personal insults. As a result of lack of healthy debate I see all too often social media discussions becoming verbally aggressive, often resulting in personal attacks and absolutely no learning happening from either side of the debate. And on a bigger scale, I see a nation that has become incredibly polarised, with little ability to listen to anyone who is not in full agreement with the same view. And I see this issue as partly an emotional intelligence issue. I would though wouldn’t I? But why? Let me explain my opinion.

Many of us are brought up in a way that leaves us feeling a sense of shame when someone disagrees with us. And if we are not feeling shame, we usually have a strong emotional need to be right as being wrong is very uncomfortable. This can be true even when we air opinions. In a nutshell, a heated debate often whips up defensive reactions and once they have arrived, our ability to receive new information and ‘debate’ by truly exploring an issue becomes inhibited. Things can sometimes start to get personal and far more about ego than the topic being discussed. Healthy debate requires us to manage the negative emotional response disagreement causes so we can remain open to new facts and ideas (and it should certainly never include personal attacks).

So what can we teach to help our children debate more healthily? Here are some suggestions:

  • Help your child understand the difference between fact and opinion – true facts cannot be challenged (unless we go quantum!) but opinions can. You could get you child to sort some statements into ‘facts’ and ‘opinions’.
  • Explore different opinions, starting simply with questions like: Which colour do you think is the nicest to paint a bedroom wall? Which animal makes the best pet? Or which lesson at school is the most useful? Often children want you to share the same opinion as it gives their choice approval but show them that it is absolutely fine to think or believe different things. Praise them for considering their choice well.
  • Encourage your child to give reasons for their opinions. Viewpoints can be supported by both facts and further opinions. Help them see whether they are using an opinion or a fact to support their viewpoint.
  • Consider the variety of viewpoints different people can hold about any particular topic and why they might hold the opinion they do. Example topics: Does money make you happy? What makes a person ‘good’? What happens after we die?
  • Teach your child to respect the right people have to hold different opinions. (Proviso: as long as those opinions do not impact on the rights of others). It does not mean those opinions cannot be challenged but a different opinion should have no impact on how much you value that person.
  • Help your child see that when you learn new facts they can make you change your opinion (See the activity below from one of my PSHE books). Teach your child that it is completely fine to revise your opinion. Explain that there are nearly always new facts you can learn about a situation that can make you change you mind.
  • Help your child to become comfortable with being disagreed with. Discuss whether it feels more comfortable when someone agrees with you or disagrees. Ask your child to imagine agreeing with someone who insisted the sky was green. Would that be right? Try to help your child see a learning opportunity when someone disagrees with them. Understanding how someone has arrived at a different viewpoint from your own can be interesting and often gives you a new perspective.


An activity to show how opinions can change when you learn more information (from PSHE 7-9 by Molly Potter)

Changing opinions

An opinion is what you think about something based on what you know. Opinions can change, facts do not. Read the following story and after each part, consider what you think of King Jonas and what made you have this opinion.

King Jonas

King Jonas ruled the land of Gorgolio and most of his subjects thought he was a kind and fair king. He was a cheery man who liked to laugh and throw big parties for everyone.

  • What is you opinion of King Jonas now? What fact made you arrive at your opinion?

There was a small village called Harvelli in the far west of the country. King Jonas treated the people that lived here quite differently from everyone else in his kingdom. He would not let anyone leave the village of Harvelli and he would not let anyone visit the people that lived there. They were treated like prisoners.

  • What is you opinion of King Jonas now? What fact made you change your opinion – if you did.

King Jonas made the decision to keep the people of Harvelli separate from the rest of the people in his kingdom because they were three times as big as anyone else in the kingdom. He told people that it would be far safer if the two different sized people were kept separated.

  • What is you opinion of King Jonas now? What fact made you change your opinion – if you did.

The people of Harvelli were sure that King Jonas kept them trapped in their own village because he was scared that they would take over the whole island and stop him from being king. The people of Harvelli insisted that they have no intention of trying to rule the land of Gorgolio, they just wanted their freedom. Being trapped in their village made the Harvellians very sad.

  • What is you opinion of King Jonas now? What fact made you change your opinion – if you did.

When King Jonas first became king, the people of Harvelli were allowed to roam all over the land of Gorgolio. When this happened, many of the smaller people were injured or killed. At one point a giant Harvellian woman was arrested for deliberately stamping on sheep. King Jonas did not want to keep the Harvellians as prisoners but all the Harvellians agreed that the woman had not done anything wrong at all and too much fuss had been made over a few dead sheep.

  • What is you opinion of King Jonas now? What fact made you change your opinion – if you did.