Clever Cultural Diversity Debate Games

Want to win an inclusion debate? However, being able to nail someone who has difficulties embracing inclusion? Cultural diversity debates present teachable moments. Unfortunately, most of us are ill-equipped to take full advantage of those moments.

inclusion debate

Next time, instead of engaging in ineffective verbal sparring, try asking them a powerful question or two. The news media all too often offers us real life examples of ineffective verbal sparring and polarization. Seldom is the exchange more than fodder of supporters on each side. On rare occasion we get a glimpse into how to shift the other side’s point of view. Consider the recent set of exchanges two CNN commentators have had over the past three of months. CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord is a former member of the Ronald Reagan administration, journalist, and political strategic. He is currently a staunch supporter of Donald Trump for United States president. On March 1, 2016, he and CNN commentator and political activist Van Jones got into an on-air heated discussion about whether Donald Trump has disassociated himself from the white supremacy groups endorsing him.

Watch the first video of their first brief exchange.

This is a very good example of verbal sparring and polarization. In my opinion Jeffrey Lord won the round because Van Jones couldn’t avoid getting hooked by Lord’s verbal sucker punches. Lord used the “roper dope” to duck and dodge Jones’ requests for him to admit that Trump has a history of making insensitive and inflammatory comments about people of color.

Jeffrey Lord was very skilful in undermining Van Jones’ attempts to get Lord to agree that Trump’s behavior makes him less than worthy of the presidency. Van Jones got hooked in two ways. First, he tried to get Lord to agree that Trump makes statements about different cultural groups that are antagonist and “frightening” to a lot of people. The second is when Jones tries to make the case that Trump is less passionate about distancing himself from the KKK than he is about other issues, such as fighting terrorism. In both instances Lord turns the tables on Jones who was quickly on his heels after the first sucker punch and struggling to control his anger after the second. Lord had Jones exactly where he wanted him at that point.


Why? The passion Jones displayed is impressive and necessary at times (see How to Treat the Problem Instead of the Symptoms). The first conversation with Lord was not one of them. What the audience needed was for Jones to persuasively take advantage of the teachable moment Troop’s behaviors covered in recent news offered.

What could Van Jones have done differently? I have discussed some of the techniques more extensively in previous blogs (e.g., Post-Election Racial Tensions Challenge HR and Diversity Professionals; How to Stand Your Ground in Conversations About Gay Marriage and Christian Beliefs, & Powerful Questions for Correcting Someone’s Diversity Misconceptions).

Let it suffice here to say that considering the Jones-Lord dialog, the most important thing Jones could have done is to recognize Lord’s fancy footwork for what it is—attempts to deflect. Lord changed the topic when Jones’ grilling put him into a corner. One of Lord’s most effective techniques was to relate points made in the dialog to tangentially related past events. Here are a couple of the deflections and how Jones got hooked by them.

  1. Making a Comparison. Lord compared Trump’s offensive language to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s comments. Jones took issue with Lord’s comparison of the African American minister Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s statements with Trump. Jones gets hooked by participating in changing the main point of the conversation. He needed to keep the conversation focused on Trump’s personal responsibility for his actions rather than Jeremiah Wright who is not running for office.
  1. Watering Down the Stereotypical Image. When Lord tries to get Jones to make a distinction between the KKK and “leftists”, Jones takes the bait. It shows that a person may have the best argument, but ineffectively make it against someone using tactics the other person in the conversation is unaware of. Jones thinks it is a forthright dialog between him and a Trump supporter. What he is unaware of is that Lord entered the dialog armed with techniques designed to make certain that his candidate gets off as easily as possible in such debates.

Check out what Lord did to get Jones off point in the same video. [This conversation takes place after Jeffrey Lord makes the statement that the Democratic party patronizes people of color and that is what Donald Trump refuses to do by not being politically correct. Lord has just made the point that Reverend Wright is no different from the KKK.]

Van Jones: Reverend Wright never put anybody on a post. Reverend Wright never murdered anybody and you guys play these word games  . . . and it wrong to do in America. It is . . .

Jeffrey Lord: It is wrong to understand that these [white supremacy groups] are not leftists.

Van Jones: What difference does it make? What does it matter if you call them chipmunks?

Jeffrey Lord: It makes lot of difference.

Van Jones: They’ve [KKK] have killed people and don’t play games with that?

Jeffrey Lord: You’re right and you don’t hide and say that is not part of the base of the Democratic party?

Van Jones: I don’t care how they voted fifty years ago. I care about who they have killed.

Notice how the conversation shifts from whether or not Trump disavowed the white supremacists to Reverend Wright, then to how to label the Trump supporters. From there the conversation shifts to the historical roots of the KKK in the democratic party. Trump is no longer the conversation. Masterful work by Lord—only because Jones took the bait and didn’t quite know what was happening.

A third reason that Jones was ineffective is because he got caught up in labeling groups.

  1. Focusing diagnosing the person than on problem behaviors. Calling the KKK terrorists may not be a bad move on Jones’ because it is wrong, but because he is likely right. The problem in using the label in these conversations is that it is way too easy for a skilled debater like Lord to dodge a diagnosis of the candidate he supports. Jeffrey Lord made Jones look like the aggressor by changing the topic into a discussion about the distinction between leftist and terrorist organizations. Jones appeared to be tiring at that point.

Ready to see how things could have gone more favorably for Jones? Watch the second video of a similar exchange between Lord and Jones that took place on June 7, 2016 about three months later.

How to Win an Inclusion Debate: No Blaming, Shaming, or Complaining!

Van Jones illustrates how to disrupt Lord’s attempts to deflect and keep the focus on Trump. Jones remained focused because he was prepared to ask Lord an important question.

Here is an excerpt from the discussion.

Van Jones: If you can’t say this [Trump’s incendiary statements] is racism, you are beyond the ability for a rational mind to follow you.

Jeffrey Lord: You hear me? If I thought he were a racist, I would never have been here.

Van Jones: Fair enough. One question. I don’t think he is racist either.

Jeffrey Lord: Thank you.

Van Jones: I think he is a racial opportunist, which is different.

Jeffrey Lord: You think he’s Al Sharpton? He’s says . . .

Van Jones: Hold on a second. You say he is not a racist. Stay with me. We might be able to get somewhere. I think he is a racial opportunist. He says things that are racist. Do you think he has said anything that is racist? Not is [racist], but said it [racist statements].

Jeffrey Lord: No!

Van Jones: (Claps his hands once). Oh! I mean . . not one thing?

Jeffery Lord: No! No! No.

Van Jones wins this conversation. Why? The verbal sparring was minimal. Although Jones makes a couple of points about Trump’s personality, he came prepared with an important question. The question was so important for him to ask that he refuses to allow Lord to derail that topic when he brings up the question about Reverend Al Sharpton. Lord was so entrenched in his support of Trump that to offer an affirmative answer would have been too uncomfortable. Given that 7 in 10 Americans have a negative view of Trump, it is not difficult to imagine that the statements he makes about women, Muslims, African Americans, and Latino Americans contribute to his favorability rating. By disagreeing with such large numbers of other people, Lord appears to be less credible.

Jones set up the audience drawing the conclusion by starting off with “If you can’t say this [Trump’s incendiary statements] is racism, you are beyond the ability for a rational mind to follow”. Lord was between a rock and a hard place.

The Power of Powerful Questions

A powerful question aims to get a person to critically think about his or her point of view, assumptions, or position on a controversial issue. Van Jones’ question to Lord about whether Trump has made racist statements was impactful, but a bit short of powerful. The main reason is that Lord left the encounter without being forced to offer a heartfelt answer to Jones’ question. One reason is that the yes or no answer to his question about Trump’s use of racist remarks, did not require much self-searching.

Here are examples of a couple of powerful questions Van Jones could have used.

Question 1: What would it mean for you if it turns out that people are right about Trump—that he is using racist language? I am not asking you to believe that. I am simply asking you to consider participating in a thought experiment. What would it mean for you if they turn out to be right and you have been wrong about him?

Question 2: What would it mean for you if it turns out that Trump is actually a racist? I am not asking you to believe that. I am simply asking you to consider participating in a thought experiment. What would it mean for you if what many people have said about him all along turns out to be true?

Notice that each question asks Lord to consider his values in considering his support of Trump and the statements he has made. Lord is on record for publicly stating that he would not support Trump if he thought he was racist or uses racist language. Each Power Question requires him to take into consideration his personal values in generating a response. This often leads to tearful responses or quivering of the lips when answering—even though it is hypothetical. It does so because any shallow defensive rationale for supporting Trump the candidate is sincerely challenged by rational consideration of the candidate’s behaviors. That is the outcome of the conversation you want.

Notice that the Powerful Question technique is effective because the individual engages in critical thinking about personal values and beliefs as they relate to discussion. There is no shaming and blaming in using this approach. You do not have to label anybody or put them in a corner that they can easily wiggle out of by offering a yes or no response. Such questions are powerful because they cannot be answered in an all or none way.

The Powerful Question technique helps you avoid getting side tracked and holds people accountable in difficult dialog. The next time you have a teachable diversity and inclusion moment, conjure up a powerful question instead of getting entangled in verbal sparring.

Let me know what you think? Can a powerful question make a difference in the tough conversations you have?


About the author:

Billy Vaughn,, PhD (Dr. Billy) is an award-winning psychologist and cultural diversity expert. He has many publications, serves as the Diversity Executive Leadership Academy director, as well as consults and trains for Fortune 500, defense sector, and government clients. Learn much more about him at 


  1. Good analysis, Dr. Vaughn. Unfortunately, there were no winners in this discussion. None. These commentators are for the most part lawyers who are skilled at making arguments, debating, and winning points in the process in the same way prizefighters win points. You are right. In the final round, Van Jones skillfully used one simple technique. He mentally focused on his own question, and listened for an answer. He allowed nothing to drag him away from that. When he didn’t hear a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, he pulled back to the original question. The timing of it was good, the compliment he gave was good, his cool and collected nature was good. But the key was his emotionally neutral focus.

    In reality, most people in work-a-day America haven’t got the training and debate experience to do what Van Jones did (and, as you point out, what even he himself failed to do earlier). These guys do it every day. It’s what they get paid for. The average person will succumb to to the emotional land mine planted by the skilled but irrational debate opponent. They’ll end up taking the bait every time.

    The issue of win-lose in these kinds of discussions is a loser in and of itself. My guess is that there were very, very few viewers who tuned in to these debates whose minds were altered and opinions changed in the course of the discussion. It most likely simply entrenched opinions on either side.

    • Good points, Rob. Although it would be great to get the audience to make a shift, most of the work is done one person at a time. In this case, had Van Jones gotten Jeffrey Lord to emotionally connect to position and remarks in support of Trump, he would have likely gotten closer to that shift. That was the point of the article.

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