16 October 2019

Disagreeing agreeably: the language of debate

Farrer Kane PR Assistant Eleanor Toal on the fine art of staying agreeable when you disagree

We know that language, used well, can be powerful. Well-timed, measured language can avert crises and resolve conflicts. When arguments become heated, however, the force of words can often splinter until the direction of debate becomes lost in the noise.

The language of debate recently went awry on the political battleground. Following the Supreme Court's ruling on the prorogation of parliament, tensions in the House of Commons boiled over into indiscriminate shouting matches. The invocation of Jo Cox in the midst of the exchanges sparked a huge backlash which led to the Speaker of the House condemning the inflammatory language used on both sides of the divide.

Language choices are particularly important for those in positions of influence. When emotions run high, the quality of debate can be skewed beyond recognition. The Attorney General Geoffrey Cox argued "if I hadn't been driven to this language, I would never have used it". This reasoning interestingly strikes at the heart of why language can fragment under the pressure cooker of debate.

Getting your point across effectively whilst disagreeing respectfully is a useful skill in the communications industry. Simple and practical techniques can enhance the value of debate and avoid losing a grip on language.

Listening carefully and then repeating someone else's point of view back to them to check your understanding of their argument is one way of agreeing to disagree in a sensible manner. Starting on common ground, before setting out your points of division, is another step to debating constructively. Tone is critical: a genuine curiosity about another person's perspective will help foster tolerance whereas an accusatory stance will likely not help your own argument gain any ground.

For those in high profile positions, treating language carelessly puts them at risk of being dismissed as spouting style over substance. Flippant linguistic choices leading to dismissals of irrelevance recently played out when Jacob Rees-Mogg's list of banned words and phrases was revealed. Despite the aim of clarifying communications, the linguistic recommendations were met with mirth and seen as out-of-touch. Whilst this is a light-hearted example of language straying from its intended purpose, how might the recent political discord in Parliament have been resolved more agreeably had language been treated with more care?

Whilst we shouldn't shy away from conflict, rash language choices can damage a strong case. If your choice of words and tone do not support the strength of your point, debates can soon turn sour. Understanding the force of words, and when to time them, may be the key to agreeing to disagree.