Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Art of Debate

Image from

The announcement came over the antiquated high school loudspeaker early my sophomore year: "Anyone interested in starting a debate club please see Ms. Jones, club advisor." (name changed). Something in me for some reason told me to pursue. I guess even at that time I was naturally drawn to take on "organizational challenges" so I followed the instructions. I met with the requisite teachers and became the club's President. All this despite not knowing thing one about debating.

Once all new members assembled our club's advisor, who was a speech teacher by day, began the most rudimentary course in the Art of Debate allowing our novice minds time to process and practice key debating lessons. She taught us the differences between a values vs. a policy debate [if interested, more info here]. She taught us that we must define our terms early in the discussion or be lost. She showed us the supreme importance of clash - which is ensuring we reject or at least address each point made by our opponents. She perfected our arguments and extracted eloquence from our nascent communication abilities. Through these lessons and these contests with other students from other schools we gained confidence. We gained the ability to synthesize our thoughts in the heat of a discussion and succinctly target our opponent's proposals. We also gained an incredible ability to deeply understand and pursue an argument from many opposing viewpoints.

I can't recommend enough the debating activity to anyone in high school or college. It will certainly arm you with skills you will use for the rest of your life.

One big advantage of having the ability to know your opponent's position is that it allows you to very successfully tear those arguments apart and convincingly build up your own case. When I transitioned into the working world equipped with this ability to deftly argue my point of view and easily disarm others I hadn't a clue how damaging it could be if used indiscriminately. These skills, used incorrectly, will actually hurt your ability to communicate effectively with your team members or your boss. An argumentative employee, even if they are right, will not be looked favorably upon by a manager nor find a warm reception from colleagues.

A few years into my young career I was achieving success but not as much as I had expected in the team/partnership area. I wondered why. In speaking to an informal mentor of mine about this he asked me the following question:

"Would you rather be right or be happy?"

At that time I naively thought those two were the same! I mistook being able to convince others that my viewpoint was the right one as being equivalent to success. In an unexpected way being armed with debating skills closed my mind to other forms of communication. Debate, by its very nature, is a confrontation. Sometimes confrontation is very necessary but in the real world it should be used sparingly and appropriately. 

Nowadays when mentees of mine approach me about being 'right' in a certain situation and are frustrated at their efforts at convincing others I recount for them my experiences and ask them the same question. I try to ensure they've only used the Art of Debate as a final resort rather than an opening move.  

To be clear I would not trade my debating experience for anything in the world. But now I'm grateful for the wisdom of knowing how and when to apply those capabilities and for being able to use some of those skills in less confrontational ways.

The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress. 

No comments: