I remember my first focus group vividly (yes, they still exist, and yes, in the right context and when thoughtfully designed, they’re incredibly valuable). I sat behind the glass and looked on eagerly as our moderator began. As he laid out the guidelines for the discussion, he made a comment I still remember equally vividly.

“We don’t have to all agree, we don’t have to leave here holding hands and singing kum-ba-yah, but we do need to be honest with our opinions and open to others”

It broke the ice wonderfully well. The group warmed up and gave us a lively few hours of honest (but respectful) discussion, the clients left with the insight they needed, and I quickly slotted the intro into my own focus group warm-up routine.

However, I’d never truly re-appraised the idea until recently, when I read Krista Tippett’s excellent book, Becoming Wise. One chapter is dedicated to words. Specifically, the power not just in providing them, but in receiving them. In this chapter, Tippett highlights an approach to discussion and debate that fascinated me.

“…invite searching – not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side; not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all”

There is an interesting insight within the nuance here: The world at large has gotten exceedingly good at debating for resolution. The challenge is, we often overlook the idea of debating for empathy.

Debate for Resolution: Protecting What’s Yours

Think about how the idea of “debate” is generally approached. You bring your opinion and the person you’re debating brings theirs. You both listen (and respond) to each other’s arguments, and ultimately, you work towards an outcome that you can both live with. The end result, typically, is that your ingoing belief prevails despite the concessions you may have made along the way.

We hear and see the consequences of this approach to debate daily. It has created an echo chamber of perspective and opinion, which is only perpetuated by the constant presence of social feeds and forums that generally reaffirm what we always believed.

Debate for Empathy: Revealing the New

Debating for empathy allows us to leave our opinion at the door and adopt an almost childlike fascination with things we might not yet understand.

It allows us to walk away with a totally different appreciation of and perspective on the subject. Sometimes, you walk away having confirmed your in-going thinking or hypothesis, other times the new thinking you’re exposed to allows you to frame the challenge and the solution in new and inspiring ways. In either event, this framework for debate provides you with a greater body of context, more dots and data points to play with and draw from.

This is particularly important for those working in the innovation profession (though I would argue that most industries would benefit from adopting this approach). As innovators, understanding and empathy are the connection points that make our work so exciting and allow us to bring something new and better into the world. Having an expansive range of experiences and perspective to draw from allows us to see very challenge from multiple angles, it removes our blinkers and promotes the abstract thinking from which new ideas, products and services are so often born.

The Value of a Blended Approach

While the difference between debating for resolution and debating for empathy may seem slight, at Fahrenheit 212, the innovation consulting firm where I work as Head of Research, we’ve seen clear benefits in our practice and projects as a result of the conscious application of both approaches.

Debate for empathy requires three fundamental shifts in the way we approach discussions:

1. Place value on the question not the answer. Often, teams view discussions as a means of “getting to the answer.” By doing this we’re – subconsciously or otherwise – trying to formulate the answer on the fly and missing a wealth of richness that can be recognized only when we’re looking to understand and empathize. Focus on asking generous questions with the goal of understanding, not validation.

2. Encourage unrestrained exploration. With less of an immediate need for resolution teams are free simply to explore, to probe, and to let curiosity lead. Free your teams from frameworks, structures, and ingoing rhetoric that limit the breadth and depth of many discussions.

3. Focus on finding and understanding new points of view rather than defending existing ones. By removing the need for opinions or perspectives to be “right,” you promote an honest approach to conversation that focuses greater emphasis on listening to, understanding, and appreciating new ideas before applying, cementing, or championing existing thinking.

Of course there are project deadlines and realities that sometimes require swift resolution of contrasting or conflicting points of view. Hitting deadlines is imperative and endless exploration of the subject (no matter how empathetically driven) can prove exhausting and frustrating and lead to late and stress fueled nights as deadlines approach. Leaders need to know when and how to lean in and play decision maker if the process does not appear to have an organic end in sight.

Teams that are able to shift between these two approaches to debate are stronger, able to create more diverse idea portfolios, and ultimately feel they have a greater sense of agency over the process. Strong leaders know when to suspend judgement and expectation but can also drive their team towards decisions and actions when the time is right.

Innovation is about championing the new. Debate for empathy is a crucial approach in providing us with fresh context and perspective to unlock any challenge, be it in a focus group, a board-room or at any point in our professional journeys.