What might we learn from primary discourse instead of primary debates?

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Like many of my peers, I struggled to watch the latest Democratic debate. I admire each of the remaining candidates, but watching them constantly interrupt each other only to share nearly identical visions for the future provides little context to effectively evaluate each candidate’s potential to govern. As an organizational consultant who coaches leaders around communicating vision and shaping the culture of their organizations, I can’t help but wonder whether there could be a better format to help Americans make informed decisions in the voting booth.

What we know from our research and practice is the structure of a conversation dictates its outcome. So what outcomes does the current structure produce? It sews discord between candidates (and their supporters) despite the fact that there is agreement on most of the issues that concern the electorate. And this discord is undermining the very coalition that the Democrats will need in November to realize their shared vision. The format of the debates also creates an illusion that presidents govern by dictate and that a candidate who speaks the loudest and interrupts the most is best equipped to lead. And in so doing, it provides little opportunity for candidates to showcase the qualities that true leaders possess: an ability to analyze complex problems, to engage in conversation with trusted advisors, to make educated decisions, and to bring people together across divides.

If the outcome we want is to learn which candidate is best prepared to lead in such a perilous time, let’s try a new format. Consider what we might learn—and the strong coalitions we might build—if we foster constructive discourse between the candidates and the supporters they hope to gain. Think about how refreshing it could be to replace a line with a circle and to bring audience members who ask questions directly joining the conversation. Imagine if we formulate the “debate stage” in a manner that emulates the environment in which an elected candidate will govern while allowing voters to experience and even engage with the very leadership qualities that best prepare presidents for the cabinet meetings and other meetings they will need to lead, in which important decisions are made.

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