How to Win a Debate with Anyone (Without Raising Your Voice)
When I was a teenager, I struggled to communicate my ideas and opinions with people who disagreed with me, or heck, even those who did. I knew I had strong feelings about things, but I didn’t know how to articulate them well. My sophomore year I took a speech and debate class to fulfill an elective credit (it was that or wood shop), and it was there I found I could turn my love of words and reading into something concrete and useful. By my senior year I was captain of the debate team (I was the coolest), inspired by the fact that two people could use logic, evidence, and a very civilized format to hash out differences in opinion.
Before we go any further, let’s get clear on what it means to “win” the debate. I don’t mean beat your “opponent” (note the quotation marks) into submission until the relationship is utterly destroyed. Oftentimes your “opponent” is a loved one, including your spouse, family member, or friend. Or they could be an employer or co-worker, in which case you’ll still need to work with them post-debate. If it’s your goal to humiliate them to the point of destroying your relationship, then this isn’t the post for you. However, if it’s your goal to have a healthy discussion about a disagreement, then this post is for you.
At its core, a healthy debate is really a problem-solving process. We may have a difference in opinion, but really we are trying to either persuade the other person to understand our point of view in an effort to find common ground, or get them to adopt it outright.
That said, here are some of the techniques I used to successfully achieve my goals in a debate:
Avoid doing it over social media
I continue to be flabbergasted at how vicious people can be over social media. There’s something about it all happening in a detached setting, while looking at a screen, that seems to give people the permission to say things they would never dream of saying face-to-face with the other person. Which is to say, if you want your debate to rapidly devolve into name-calling and personal threats, then by all means, social media is your place. However, if you truly want a productive outcome, then avoid this medium at all costs.
Make sure your logic is sound…
I wrote a whole post about thinking critically, which you can check out here. Developing your critical thinking skills is a great way to get prepared for the next high-stakes debate you encounter.
…And your evidence is legit
This falls under the umbrella of sound logic, but it’s worth mentioning in its own step because I see a lot of crappy evidence out there that undermines arguments. Bad evidence is usually from an unreliable source (like citing medical advice from someone who’s never been to med school) or is incomplete. For instance, in order to get an accurate picture of trends you need to look at more than just a handful of people. If you use bad evidence, and your opponent knows it, you’ve just destroyed your credibility and lost the debate.
Stay calm and carry on
In high school I won a fair number of debates not because I was smarter or better prepared (I most definitely wasn’t), but because I stayed extremely calm while my opponent lost their mind. Teenagers aren’t the only people who become aggressively emotional during an argument; lots of adults have trouble keeping their cool in the face of a challenge as well. So keep your voice level, maintain eye contact, breathe deeply, and even if they’re exploding with anger, don’t. If you need to, remain silent until you can think of something productive to say.
Make sure you don’t escalate the situation by antagonizing them, saying things you know are extreme or incendiary, or by being disrespectfully flippant. Staying calm doesn’t mean giving them the silent treatment or pretending they’re not there. You’re better than that.
Actually listen to them
Have you ever had an argument with someone, and they kept misinterpreting what you were trying to say? Or worse, they interrupted you while you tried to explain to them why you felt the way you did? Have you been that person who steamrolled the other person in an effort to be as right as possible as quickly as possible? A basic question like “Can you help me understand why you think this?” (asked earnestly, without snark) can go a long way towards understanding exactly what you’re debating about. Once you fully understand their point of view, then you can effectively debate its merits or demerits. Before that, it’s just noise and they’re not going to listen to you. You can learn more about active listening here.
Find common ground
In almost all arguments (save for extreme situations), there is more common ground for two opponents to stand on than not. The key is to keep asking open-ended, genuinely curious questions until you find it. Asking someone why they feel a certain way, and then looking for ways you can agree with them, opens the door for more agreement; it’s there you find something to work with. My deadliest tactic as a debater was to find ways to get my opponent to agree with me, and then build on those points.
If you’re interested in further building on this type of communication skill, I cannot recommend the book Crucial Conversations enough. When stakes are high, emotions are strong, and there’s a difference of opinion, then Crucial Conversations can help you navigate this tricky territory. At the end of the day, if you’re debating a heated topic with someone you care about, your goal should be a win-win situation, not a destructive winner-take-all outcome.