The most important thing you can do to help your team endure the noise and friction of debate is to build a strong relationship with each person who works directly for you. When you care personally about the people you're debating with, that is the most important "cushion" that will help keep the debate productive.
Create an obligation to dissent. McKinsey, the consulting firm, has a powerful culture of debate. A core value explained to every new hire is the "obligation to dissent." The idea is that if you disagree with something, or if you have a different perspective on a debate, it is your obligation to speak up even--no, especially-- if you just graduated from college and you're working with a senior partner at the firm. If debate is expected, if people feel uncomfortable when it's not happening rather than when it is, that assumption also serves as "grit," or a cushion that makes debate less jarring.
When an ex-McKinsey executive joined Apple, he led a team where the culture of debate was not flourishing. He bought gavels with the words "duty to dissent" printed on them, and would slide them to people who were being too quiet in meetings. The culture of debate blossomed.
3. Be willing to be wrong
In The Lost Interview Steve Jobs said, "I don't mind being wrong. And I'll admit that I'm wrong a lot. It doesn't really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing." Again, this willingness to be proven wrong points to the importance of pulling ego out of a debate. Rather than proving he was right, Steve Jobs used debate to collaborate to get to the right answer. Even though he was at first vehemently opposed to launching iTunes on the Windows platform, he allowed himself to be overruled. If he hadn't, the iPod would not have seen the success it did; it's likely there'd be no iPhone, no iPad. If you win every debate, your team will stop debating you. You've got to be willing to be wrong.
Be theatrical about your wrongness. Steve wasn't very gracious in the way he told the iPod team that they'd convinced him to launch iTunes on the Windows platform, but he was theatrical. A colleague told me he said, "You a--holes can do what you want," and left the room. It was a moment everyone remembered. You can be theatrical in a less harsh way, though. I am no Steve Jobs. To celebrate my wrongness at Google, I once gave somebody a two foot tall glass "I was wrong you were right" trophy.
Insist that people tell you when you're wrong. One of Steve's direct reports told a story about a debate he had with Steve. Eventually, he backed down not because Steve had convinced him, but because he was afraid to keep arguing the point. When events proved that Steve had been wrong in his position, he stormed into his employee's office and demanded, "Why did we do this??" When his employee pointed out that it had been Steve's call, Steve exclaimed, "Well, it was your job to convince me I was wrong, and you failed!" Not gentle or entirely fair, but his employee argued more vehemently the next time he thought Steve was wrong about something.
4. Know when debate is not appropriate
A culture of debate is important to building a team of people who are all doing the best work of their lives. But public debate is not always the fastest path to improvement, to a better answer, or to better work. There are times when private conversation is much more effective.