Six Elements of a Healthy D.E.B.A.T.E.

Piper Hendricks
7 min readMay 21, 2021

Seventeen seconds of hideous audio prompted me to write this article.

That a town hall meeting in Utah could devolve into boos and jeers so shortly after it began perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given what we saw last fall on the national stage — not to mention the daily deluge of verbal boxing matches masquerading as news. (Not sure if this clip from 2014 is still “the worst;” it now seems pretty standard.)

We’re surrounded by examples of destructive arguments rather than healthy debate about the merits of an issue — and that’s not doing any of us any good.

In fact, even sharing my intention to write this article set off a debate with a friend about the word “debate.” She’d tell you we had a “discussion” because the word “debate” has such negative connotations. I’ll tell you that whatever you want to call it — conversation, talk, disagreement, discussion — the fact that the very word “debate” can trigger such a response underscores our collective need to pause and be more thoughtful in our interactions.

Crosswalk sign with a red hand to “stop” (or pause)
Florian Schmetz on Unsplash

If you know me, you know I love a good acronym so it will surprise no one that I developed one to easily remember the six elements of a useful, productive, and respectful debate. I outline D.E.B.A.T.E. here, but in reverse — and you’ll see why:


Think of the last time you opened a board game. What’s the first thing to do after taking off the lid? Read the rules so that you know how to play.

People playing Scrabble, a board game.
John Benitez on Unsplash

The same should apply to a major conversation. Whether playing Scrabble or participating in a public meeting, we need clear expectations about our role and how to productively engage. I can’t help but think that the town hall meeting would not have unraveled to the point of being adjourned in literally less than one minute had those convening clearly conveyed expectations.

This isn’t a control thing; it’s a clarity thing — and done right, a fairness and

Piper Hendricks

Stubborn Optimist. Pondering Nomad. Not-yet-recovered Workaholic, but working hard on that. I write about advocacy, balance, words, being real, and being human.