Debate has always been far more than a structured discussion in a room that comes with two teams and a jury. We see it each day in a multitude of forms. Some are more hostile, others are just for fun. Some are organized and some come as uncoordinated banter over wine late on a weekend night.
These five tips are for the kind of debate that we are most likely to see in nonprofit professional life: a cooperative team discussion where the goal is to identify merits and drawbacks rather than to “win.”
Concentrate on clarity. Many terms can be interpreted differently by different people. “Conservative” and “liberal,” for example, can both mean different things based on perspective. Cliché terms and jargon can easily be interpreted incorrectly, especially by people who disagree with the speaker.
Use evidence. To make an argument believable, cite concrete, objective evidence. Your own opinions, theories and gut feelings are not evidence, nor are those given by experts or authorities. To back up your argument well, use objective facts. Similarly, make sure these facts come from a reputable resource and use more than one source where possible. While you may support certain interest groups, religious groups or individuals, their publications are designed to promote their views and should not be used to support your arguments.
Avoid emotionally charged words. Certain words and terms, especially in subjects such as politics, sociology, psychology, race and religion, often generate emotions in debate participants. This can gradually (or quickly) change the focus from an objective search for truth to a contest over personal preference or integrity. Personal attacks are an extreme of this situation and should never be used. They generate a lot of opposition without bringing anything useful to the actual topic of discussion.
Don’t use innuendo either. Some people use innuendo rather than personal attacks when trying to break down a participant’s integrity. Innuendo is using a veiled allusion to some circumstance, rumor or popular belief. It takes advantage of popular prejudices without stating them explicitly, since explicit statement is more likely to expose the fundamental flaws of such arguments: they are based on opinion, not evidence. Like emotionally charged words, statements using innuendo are not backed up by evidence, create conflict rather than objective discussion, and contribute nothing to the goals of the conversation.
Understand your opponent’s arguments. Knowing your opponent’s point of view will help you follow the conversation, identify and question his or her basic assumptions, find the merits in the opposing arguments, and formulate better counter arguments. Have a friend play devil’s advocate to familiarize yourself with the points that will likely come your way. Finally, understanding your opponent’s arguments could even help you realize that she may be right after all.
Many points in this article were originally published by Thomas R. Scott in “On Debating” at http://www.truthtree.com/debates.shtml.