The facilitator and mediator in me has been really intrigued as the hype ramps up in advance of the first presidential debate tonight. In addition to the candidates themselves, much has been made of the role of the moderator and this person’s influence on the debate process. While I love the attention to the way that process guidance impacts the overall outcome of an exchange, I am saddened at the ways that our current approach to political discourse seems to limit thoughtful discussions of issues. Even with insightful, balanced, and skilled moderators, much of the candidates responses are likely to be about sound bytes, zinger attacks, and personality contests. It makes me wonder:
How might the role of a moderator be similar or different to the role of a facilitator?
How might the structure and process of debates be changed to better meet the needs of the voting public?
Are Presidential Debate Moderators Facilitators?
As a facilitator, it is my job to help do its best thinking together. In many groups, this means helping people to share and consider information from different perspectives. Facilitators help keep the flow of information balanced, rigorous, and focused. Facilitators ask probing questions to help the group create shared and profound understanding. They push people to consider reality from a variety of perspectives and expand on their thinking. Importantly, facilitators are neutral outsiders without a stake in the outcomes that their groups create. Given this definition, moderators do indeed serve a similar function as facilitators.
If we view the voting public as a group (like any number of my clients), I immediately think about the structures and processes that would allow this team to do their best thinking together. I think about ways to draw out the multitude of stories that make up distinct realities, shape priorities, and influence decision-making. In the case of a presidential election, this group of voters needs rich information about their options. While the whole group doesn’t have to agree on a decision together (each voter decide his/her vote independently), we will collectively live with the outcome that represents the will of the group.
Viewed in this light, tonight’s debate is an opportunity for the candidates to:
- Tell their own stories and interests.
- Acknowledge the stories and interests of others.
- Illustrate their own creative thinking and the ideas they have to solve the country’s most pressing problems.
In the primary debates moderators were both extolled and excoriated for the ways that they intervened or didn’t intervene in the candidates’ responses and interactions. In advance of tonight’s debate, we’ve heard a lot about whether or not the moderator should be playing the role of fact-checker or whether it’s perhaps the opposing candidate’s responsibility to contradict what they say as inaccurate statements from their opponent. Even the BBC has taken the opportunity to explore Lester Holt’s challenge as moderator. These questions, while important, seem to cloud the greater role of a moderator.
If we think about the moderator as a facilitator, as a person who helps the voting public do it’s best thinking, it seems that they real key to success lies in thoughtful questioning, not fact checking. When I’m facilitating a contract negotiation, contradicting information shared by one side or another really doesn’t help. Rather, if something that one side shares surprises the other, I can best help the group by probing and asking, “Can you tell us a little more about how you came to that understanding.” At times, as will certainly be the case in tonight’s debate, parties come in with vastly different pictures of reality. As a facilitator, it’s not helpful for me to referee whose “reality” is more real. Rather, I can support the team to work together to uncover the roots of those differences and, more importantly, explore the possible implications for interests and priorities that may go with either side’s perspective. When we stop fighting over the facts and instead focus on our interests, what matters most in a possible solution, it becomes much easier to create logical and agreeable solutions.
Facilitator’s Advice for Lester Holt
Given that Lester Holt is trained as a journalist, not a trained facilitator, and given the immense scrutiny that he will, no doubt, be under tonight, I’d like to offer a few words of advice.
- Establish and maintain a civil tone– Name calling, arguing, and tit-for-tat attacks don’t add substantive information for voters. Set a high bar for civility and thoughtful exchange early. Interrupt candidates immediately if they violate thisexpectation.
- Focus on learning– Ask questions that will help draw out the candidates’ stories, beliefs, and priorities. Push them to explain each of these in a way that doesn’t just sound good in a sound byte but also actually informs the voters on issues of importance.
- Prioritize the issues– While questions of family, history, style, and more get ratings, they do little to help the electorate make decision based on substantive issues. Character matters but it’s more important to know where the candidates stand on issues we will face in the future. An autopsy of past mistakes unnecessarily distracts viewers’ focus on substantive issues and ideas.
Facilitator’s Advice for the Audience
Beyond the eye towards the moderator’s role in tonight’s debate, it’s worth considering what behaviors and characteristics of a strong “group member” can best serve the public good. We don’t need to come to agreement about the candidates but we can still apply lessons from consensus-based groups to consider our own behavior during the debate and campaign. Here are a few ideas:
- Reflect on your own story– As you think about your beliefs, consider the stories that shaped those beliefs. Consider the events and experiences that lead you to think like you do. Try to tease apart beliefs that seem to have been simply handed down to you from ones you’ve really come to on your own. Consider how your beliefs might be different had you lived different experiences in your past.
- Listen to learn– Your own story is true and real…and it’s just one of many stories that make up our nation’s collective experience. Be open to realities and priorities that look very different from your own. Ask questions to understand other people’s experience and the ways they have shaped other people’s beliefs and priorities.
- Probe for deeper understanding– Don’t take an answer, particularly a sound byte, and leave it at that. Dig for more information from a variety of sources. Be curious and be open to being surprised in your searching.
- Focus on the issues– Character matters and… so does the ways that a candidate will influence policy in meaningful ways. What are the issues that are most important to you and what are the ways you see candidates speaking to those issues? What specifics do they offer that may convince you that candidate is the best equipped to address key issues in ways that align with your own priorities? What about the issues that are maybe less important to you but critically important to others? If we’re all in this together, as Americans, which candidate has plans that seem to address issues that are pressing across demographic groups?
- Keep a long-term view– As heated as things get in this hotly contested election year, consider our country’s long history. For all our flaws, our democracy has been one of the most stable and peaceful in all of history. Our constitution’s set of checks and balances, a well informed public, a creative and resilient American spirit, and the arc of history that bends toward justice assures us that it will all be OK. The sky is not falling. You will not having to move to Canada in November to escape the coming tyranny of whichever side wins.
In Other News
I hope you’ll join me, Carrie Bennett, and my colleagues from the League of Women Voters of Larimer County for local candidate forums this fall. The first of these will be on Thursday, September 29 at 7:00 PM in the Fort Collins City Council Chambers. The second will be on Wednesday, October 5 at 7:00 PM in the Loveland City Council Chambers. You can stay up to date with all the League of Women Voters of Larimer County election news and events online.
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