Have a Spirited Debate, Not a Heated Debate During a Panel Discussion

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Since we desperately want diverse points of view on a panel (otherwise, it’s just plain boring), I am often asked how a panel moderator can make sure the conversation is “spirited.” After all, we aspire to lively discussion; not a “heated” debate!

A spirited debate occurs where people are comfortable in saying, “No, I don’t agree with you. I’ve got a different viewpoint.” And there is a freedom to express these diverse opinions without harsh judgement or finger-pointing. (Unlike what we currently see on TV!)

Unfortunately, this is easy to say, but not easy to do. In my humble experience, there are plenty of panelists who simply don’t want to look like “the jerk” on the panel. It’s much safer to be polite. Stay safe. Don’t rock the boat.

So how do you ensure your panelists will share their diverse opinions?

In talking with frequent panelist, Ian Cleary, he says, “It’s got to be based on careful selection of the people on the panel. So evaluate the right people on the panel.”

When thinking through whom you are going to invite, make sure the panelists themselves have differing viewpoints.

  1. Do your research and you’ll probably be able to figure it out.
  2. Or during your pre-work, just call them up and ask! For example, you could ask, “Among your esteemed colleagues, where do you have different opinions when it comes to nutritional standards for centenarians?”  Then probe a bit more…because sometimes they can actually be in close agreement!
  3. While it may not be their opinion, ask each panelist, “What is the most controversial thing you have seen in the world of food being served and eaten by centenarians?”  It may be that the controversial component isn’t represented on the panel – in which case you have two options:
    • Ask another panelist who does represent that viewpoint to join the session, or
    • Suck it up. Figure out how you are going to make this panel discussion lively and informative!



Related Articles:

How Moderators Can Manage Awkward Audience Comments

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion Tip #185 with Jeffrey Hayzlett: Finishing Panel Discussions


For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. To have Kristin moderate your next panel, visit the Powerful Panels official website.


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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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