The first presidential debate is happening tonight and you can watch it here. However, once the candidates are done debating, you might find yourself in a debate of your own. If you want this discussion to be more productive than your last argument on Facebook, here are some strategies to help make sure you don’t walk away stressed out, having wasted your time and energy.
You don’t have to debate. It’s optional. Unless you’re one of the presidential candidates, you don’t have to do this.
Are you still with us? Still got a good reason to have this debate even though you’re not obligated to? Cool. Keep reading.
Define Your Audience
When politicians debate on stage, they’re not trying to convince each other of their arguments. They’re trying to convince you, the viewer. Their arguments are structured around accomplishing that goal. If you’re going to debate someone else, it’s helpful for you to make similar decisions about what you want to accomplish.
If you’re arguing in, say, a Facebook comment thread, then you might not have a very good chance at changing the mind of the person you’re debating. But the other people who may be reading are a different matter. Staying conscious of those people can help you keep your cool even when your opponent just. won’t. listen.
This can also help you avoid getting sucked into lengthy unproductive diatribes. If you just want to make sure everyone knows that something someone said is wrong, you can hop in, drop some facts, and bounce before things get ugly. It’s not your job to convince everyone! But you can undermine your own credibility if you get into an all-out fight trying to convince someone who can’t be convinced. Have a plan before you get involved about what you want to accomplish and who you want to affect before you start reaching for the Caps Lock key.
Debate the Steel Man of Their Argument
You might have heard the phrase “straw man” to describe a bad-faith debate technique where your opponent makes up a version of your argument that you don’t actually believe, and debates that instead. It’s not great practice and you should probably avoid that. But even better than not straw-manning someone’s argument is to intentionally steel man it instead.
“Steel man,” as the name implies, is when you try to find the strongest version of your opponent’s argument to debate against. It’s great if you can get your opponent to agree on a proposition first—for example, “Is your position that raising taxes is always bad?”—but you can also accomplish this by doing your research ahead of time.
As a general (though by no means absolute) rule, if you’re getting your argument from someone who is debunking a claim, it might not be the best form of the argument. For example, “These morons think global warming was made up by China!” is probably not the best version of the argument. However, if you can find the specific claims that your opponent actually believes, then you can be better equipped to respond to them.
Don’t Take the Posturing Bait
Have you ever found yourself in an argument where you start out debating one thing and 20 minutes later you’re on something else entirely? You started by talking about the deficit, but somehow you’ve landed on immigration, and every time you make a point, your opponent changes the subject, or focuses on some tiny portion of your response that was inelegantly phrased, rather than recognizing your argument as a whole. By the end, you’ve laid out all the facts you have and still gotten nowhere.
When this happens, it’s often because your opponent is playing a very different game than you are. They’re posturing. YouTube channel Innuendo Studios describes this strategy as never playing defense, and it tends to turn up when pretending like you’re winning is a more viable way to win over the audience than proving you’re right. The goal of posturing is to force your opponent to keep answering short, incorrect statements with long, detailed answers because it’s easier for an audience to understand the short accusation than the long detailed explanation.
If you’re in a formal debate situation—which most of us rarely are—one of the best ways to deal with this kind of posturing debate style is to stay focused and don’t let yourself get lost in the weeds. If the subject is taxes, stay focused on taxes. And if you find a weak point in their argument, don’t let go just because they’d rather talk about something else.
However, if you’re not in a public debate, one of the best ways to defeat this strategy is not to play. It doesn’t make you less intellectually honest to ignore bad faith accusations from randos on Twitter.
Ask More Questions Than You Make Statements
If you’re not arguing in public—a mercifully more tolerable experience—and instead talking to someone one-on-one, then your goal in a debate might be to change the mind of the person you’re talking to. And at least here, you’ve got a decent chance at it, but not if you blow it by being hostile right out of the gate.
Instead, try asking more questions. It sounds like a simple change, but your argument can be a lot more persuasive when you gently lead the other person there, rather than pummel them over the head with it. For example, saying “Do you think healthcare should be tied to employment?” can be more persuasive than trying to go through every point of the other guy’s healthcare plan point by point and “proving” why they’re bad.
This strategy tends to work because when you ask questions, not only do you come across as less hostile, but it positions the points of the debate as something to think about. Someone can ignore the factual arguments you lay out, waiting for their turn to get a word in, but if you ask a question, they have to come up with an answer. The more they have to think about answering the question, the more likely they might be to come around to your way of thinking.
Learn Your Facts and Fallacies (Before You Debate)
If you’re going to debate like you’ve got the facts on your side, you should probably get those facts first. A common trap that online arguments fall into, though, is trying to find facts in real time. This can lead to disaster if you find out halfway through an argument that you don’t have all the information. It sounds obvious but if you want to debate a topic, take some time to learn about it first.
This also goes for understanding how logical fallacies work. Too often, a debate can turn into trading arguments about whose straw man fell down the slippery slope onto Occam’s razor the most. But identifying a logical fallacy isn’t winning a debate. Instead, these are meant to be tools to help you understand what you’re learning better.
While you’re studying your subject, watch out for logical fallacies within your own thinking. Be mindful of when you’re assuming something’s true just because an authority figure said it, or when you’re confusing correlation with causation. By being aware of these common mistakes, and responding to them with more reading and studying, you’ll be in a better place to put forth a solid argument the next time it’s time for a debate.
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