Disarm Them With Debate Skills

Meet Smith. He’s in a high-level meeting trying to convince his fellow executives that more of the company’s money should be put into research and development. The tough economic times won’t last forever, argues Smith, who is vice president of product development, and by investing now, when competitors are retrenching, the company will be well-positioned with innovative new products when the market rebounds.

But Miller, his counterpart in the finance department who has a history of friction with Smith, is having none of it. Revenues are down, expenses are up, and it’s simply not the right time for additional R&D spending. Miller says the company needs to hunker down, cut prices on existing products and ride out the recessionary storm.

Then, to Miller’s surprise, Smith does something out of character: He agrees with much of what Miller is saying. It is essential to be cautious given the current climate, Smith says... which is why he is suggesting lower-cost, targeted investments in product improvements and spinoffs. Miller feels his jaw start to unclench and his pulse rate return to normal. Maybe the two adversaries can find some common ground.

Smith has employed a little-used tactic from the world of debate, one where competitors regularly try to best each other through the use of reasoned discourse. The approach is known as strategic agreement: One side agrees with select points the other has made in order to appear more reasonable and logical. It was a tactic used with success by President Barack Obama in his election debates with John McCain, when Obama the candidate looked to find common ground with his opponent on topics such as climate change and immigration. McCain, on the other hand, rarely acknowledged any policy agreement, which communication experts believe probably cost him points with voters seeking a steady, pragmatic hand at the helm.

At first glance, it may seem that formal debate tactics have little relevance to our workaday speaking lives. Debate, after all, pits competitors head to head, has a defined scoring system and often relies on arcane research – conditions usually not present in our work or personal lives. But in a world where dogmatic assertions and loud invective too often pass for rational argument, many believe borrowing practices and habits from traditional debate can help us become more credible and persuasive in impromptu speaking situations.

Whether it’s negotiating a raise, agitating for a bigger budget or trying to close a sales deal, the skills honed in debate can improve outcomes in many communication scenarios. Those include listening acumen, note taking, using credible research, crafting quick responses and presenting coherent arguments.

So for Toastmasters clubs, it would be worthwhile to mix some formal debates into the meeting schedule. Staging such activities can be an interesting and entertaining departure from regular Toastmasters club programming – a variation with some important side benefits.

Debate and the Real World
Debate tactics that can be particularly potent in the workplace include the aforementioned practice of strategic agreement.

“People tend to think of debate or persuasive speaking like [they do] boxing, where the job is to knock the other person down,” says Kate Shuster, a former college debate champion. “But it’s more useful to think about it in terms of judo, where you try to use the other person’s strengths against them. People who are really effective at persuasion tend to agree as much as possible with the other side.”

Agreeing with components of the other side’s argument can make you seem more congenial and more willing to engage, she says, and can lead to more fruitful negotiation or compromise. “Too many people are afraid to agree in any fashion with the other side for fear of appearing weak, but by doing so they paint themselves into a corner,” says Shuster, executive director of a debate outreach program for middle-school students run by Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

Shuster says another fundamental debate tactic that can improve workplace influence is what’s called argument anticipation: “You start by thinking about what type of objections will be made to whatever you are presenting, then design your arguments specifically around rejoining or answering those objections.”

Many of us also downplay the importance of challenging the other side in discussions or arguments, she adds. In formal debate, no matter how poorly one side develops its argument, it is presumed to have won if that argument goes unchallenged.

“I tell my debate students it’s like playing ping-pong,” Shuster says. “You can choose not to hit the ball back, but you do so at your own peril.”

We Need More Logic, Less Insults
These days, rational argument supported by credible research is an endangered species, too often trumped by inflammatory rhetoric and baseless assertions reflected in reality TV shows and political campaigns. What’s needed, many debate experts believe, is to lift a page from Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign: more cool logic and sound reasoning, less partisan bickering.

In his best-selling book A Rulebook For Arguments (Hackett Publishing Company), author Anthony Weston lays out 45 specific suggestions or “rules” for injecting more logic into today’s argumentative discourse. In speaking about the all-important choice of language, Weston, a professor of philosophy at Elon University in North Carolina, says that prejudicial or loaded language “preaches only to the converted, but careful presentation of the facts can itself convert.” He later adds, “It’s not a mistake to have strong views. The mistake is to have nothing else.”

Nick Morgan, the president of Public Words, a Boston-based speech coaching firm, believes the research skills honed in formal debate can serve us well regardless of the speaking situation, as long as the research is judiciously used and doesn’t cross the line into a “data dump.” “Debate, as it’s formally practiced, has a fetish for fact, for the kind of research that goes a step beyond what your opponent does,” Morgan notes, “and that can aid you in many situations in your work or personal lives.”

Morgan encourages his clients to use a common debate tactic when they’re in situations that require influence skills: If someone challenges a suggestion or assertion a client makes in a meeting, he tells them to “give a strong headline and then three supporting arguments for your point.”

David Greenberg, a speech coach with Simple Speaking Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, agrees that it’s vital to hammer home that “big message” in such situations, but says it’s equally important to be selective in the use of supporting data or examples. It’s not unusual for clients he coaches to want to shoehorn too many points or statistics into their presentations.

“It’s far more effective if you do justice to fewer points rather than an injustice to many,” Greenberg says, adding that that usually requires leaving some compelling points or research on the cutting room floor.

Weston concurs, stressing in his book that “one argument well-developed is better than three only sketched.”

Revisiting the Building Blocks
It may seem elementary, Shuster says, but it’s important to use complete arguments when we’re selling our ideas or pushing certain positions. As she teaches her debate students, full arguments include:

  • An assertion, which is the major point of your argument.
  • Reasoning, or the “because” component of your argument – where you explain why you believe your position is right.
  • Evidence, offered in support of reasoning.

Too often even seasoned communicators will make an assertion, but then fall short on reasoning or evidence. In that sense, Shuster believes, many of us can benefit from a return to the fundamentals.

“We tend to think the main point – the assertion – is the whole argument,” Shuster says. “But that is only one piece of it. Anyone trying to persuade needs to come to the table armed with all of the essentials of debate.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer who divides his time between Wisconsin and South Carolina.

Beware the Logical Fallacy

One of the most common missteps in persuasive speaking is using logical fallacies. Simply put, these are arguments lacking in sound logic. Plenty of arguments that are fallacious or otherwise flawed are in fact widely accepted, say debate experts Kate Shuster and John Meany in their book On That Point: An Introduction to Parliamentary Debate (published by the International Debate Education Association). For example, the fallacy known as slippery slope, described below, appears repeatedly in public policy speeches.

Here are a few of the most common logical fallacies that Shuster and Meany suggest steering clear of during your next trip to the podium:

  • Slippery slope. This argument contends that events will set off an uncontrollable chain reaction when there is no real reason to expect that reaction will occur. Example: “If we start regulating carbon dioxide, the next thing you know the Proposition Team will be telling you what to eat for breakfast.”
  • False dichotomy. This fallacy occurs when an argument presents two alternatives and suggests that it is impossible to do both, or that there are no other options – e.g., “It’s either free school lunches or nuclear war”; “Either you let me go to the concert or my life will be ruined.”
  • Appeal to ignorance. When an argument has not been disproved, it does not therefore follow that it is true. Yet the appeal to ignorance works a surprisingly large amount of the time, say Shuster and Meany, particularly in conspiracy theories. “No one has yet proven that aliens have not landed on Earth, therefore our theory about ongoing colonization should be taken seriously.”
  • Appeal to emotions. Speakers routinely try to play on the emotions of the crowd instead of making real arguments. “I know this national missile defense plan has its detractors, but won’t someone please think of the children?”
  • Red herring. An old standby, the red herring is an attempt by the arguer to divert attention to another issue and then draw a conclusion based on that diversion. “The candidate has a weak stand on education: Just look at what she says about foreign policy.”