It’s confession time. I need to share something with you. I’ve watched almost every presidential primary debate. I know, I have a problem – and yes, this feels good to get off my chest. If you don’t follow this sort of thing, you may not realize how big of a problem I have. By my count, we’ve had twelve Republican primary presidential debates and eight Democratic ones (not counting town halls). That’s a lot of television time.

But, here’s the thing – I’m not alone. Republican debates, especially the ones with the least civility, have been smashing debate viewership records. The first Republican primary debate of this presidential cycle received the highest non-sports related rating in history, drawing in more than 24 million viewers. People can’t seem to get enough of them.

But, while more people are watching, it seems most are not enjoying what they are seeing and hearing. According to a recent New York Times / CBS News poll, 60% of Republicans are embarrassed by their party’s presidential campaigns. Granted, this is just a reflection of the Republican primary, but I’ve heard from people on both sides who are simply tired of the constant yelling and infighting – both of which are present at all of the presidential debates I’ve watched.

As you probably guessed, I love a great debate. It’s great theater – the back and forth, the zingers, and the scorecards from the pundits afterward. But, I also hate them. And it’s for pretty much the same reasons. Debates are the train wreck that I – and many others – can’t turn away from. But, on top of all of that, I’m scared about how debates are affecting the way we all interact with one another.

Two Fears

While debates are at times interesting and entertaining, they scare mThe Difference Between Debating and Discussinge too. Specifically, I have two suspicions – and fears – about how these spectacles are affecting the dialogue in our culture.

My first suspicion is that more of our interactions are starting to resemble debates. We’re talking at each other more than with one another. And, our interactions are growing more contentious (at least according to my Facebook feed).

A second suspicion and fear is that many of us are avoiding important conversations because we’re scared they will turn into contentious debates. While discernment is good, complete avoidance of difficult topics is problematic. Good people with thoughtful viewpoints, questions, hopes, and dreams, often wind up staying silent in order to avoid the fray.

A few weeks ago I sat down with a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile, and we had a phenomenal discussion about politics and religion – the two things you should never talk about! And, it wound up being a life-giving discussion. It helped me grow.

The world needs more of these types of thoughtful conversations on things that matter, not less. Which begs the question: how do we have more life-giving discussions and less argumentative debates?

To start, I think it’s good to isolate the differences between debates and discussions. While most of us want to have meaningful discussions, it’s easy to fall into the trap of debate thinking. So, be on the lookout for these differences in the way we talk to one another:

Winning Versus Learning

While preparing for this post, I googled “Debate Tips.” One article shared this gem: “Act like you’re winning, even when you aren’t.” That’s putting it bluntly. But when you watch a presidential debate, they all take this advice because it’s all about perception. They want to be seen as the winner.

Winning, unfortunately, is rarely about substance. When I was in High School, I participated in an extra-curricular program called Model United Nations, where students would represent countries in a mock debate. This group was instrumental in my life. It’s where I discovered a love for public speaking. But I also discovered something a little dangerous. I learned that if you say something confidently, it doesn’t always matter if it’s true. Winning didn’t require research if it was said convincingly.

True discussions depend upon substance and a mutual desire to learn. This requires humility, where both people agree to put egos aside for edification. The goal is to learn, not win.

Looking Versus Listening

In a debate, contestants are always looking for the next opportunity to insert their voice into the dialogue. It’s why many of them look like whiny children who simply have to be heard. In the process, it’s clear they aren’t actually listening to what the other candidates are saying. They’re ready to jump in with their talking point.

I do this all the time too. I have often found myself in an important conversation waiting for the other person to take a breath so that I can insert my opinion before it’s too late. When I do that, I’m not really listening. I’m waiting to strike. Not only is this rude, it’s counterproductive. There is no way a life-changing conversation can happen if I’m not listening.

Pivoting Versus Authenticity

In a debate, it’s almost sacrilegious to say, “I don’t know.” If a question or topic is particularly challenging to their viewpoint, a great debater will pivot; they will quickly shift topics back to familiar territory. Instead of openness, you’ll hear a well-rehearsed line, statistic, or quote.

Pivoting kills a good discussion. If another person brings up a challenging viewpoint, it should be wrestled with and thoughtfully considered. The best conversations I’ve been a part of always include authenticity, where each person understands the limits of their knowledge of the facts and experiences.

The Big Difference

Ultimately, the difference between a debate and a discussion involves openness. If one or both participants in a conversation are open to new ideas, it opens the way for a discussion. If both believe there is no way they would ever change their opinion in anyway, it will always turn into a debate.

Debates aren’t always bad; often they’re held not for the participants but instead for those watching or listening. It’s great to hear passionate people defend their beliefs and positions. But, it is always more life changing to join in a compelling discussion that challenges us to engage our own hearts and minds and wrestle with people who have different opinions. Respectful wrestling makes everyone stronger.

Let’s make this the year of civil discussions – conversations that are more about learning than winning, where we look to listen first and are authentic in what we know and don’t know. These are the interactions that will change the world, one discussion at a time.