<span class='p-name'>How to debate in real life</span>

How to debate in real life

We’ve all been in that situation where an informal conversation quickly becomes a discussion and then we find ourselves in a debate.

A debate is a wonderful opportunity to flex your intellectual muscles and can lead to a deeper level of understanding for all individuals involved. There are excellent opportunities to embed debates in classrooms to help prepare individuals for these circumstances. This post will focus on what to do when you find yourself in a friendly or formal argument with an acquaintance, friend, or family member.

A proper debate requires intellectual nimbleness, rigor, and attention. There is a need to remain open-minded and cognitively flexible to account for variations in the truth, situation, or the debate itself.

Debate also requires an understanding of the facts. It also requires an understanding of what you don’t know.

There are several keys to engaging in a debate:

  • Know your facts. Know what you don’t know.
  • Put yourself in your opponent’s shoes and understand their views.
  • Don’t recite & regurgitate their views. Give it your spin.
  • Find a common ground.
  • Consider and concede when you’re wrong.
  • Stay calm and civil.

Keep in mind that it is important for these keys to be followed by both parties in a debate.

How to debate in real life

Start a debate by asking questions. Beginning with questions allows you to probe a bit before fully realizing or uncovering the focus of the debate. You may not really know what side of the argument the other person is going to take, or what they necessarily believe in. Ask questions  and listen to narrow things down.

Listen and probe to understand the other person’s position. Dig deeper and ask questions to clarify any confusing areas. A person’s worldview may come out in the discussion, and this is often less than coherent. Keep in mind that in asking them to explain themselves, this may be the first time they’ve put those ideas together, and uttered them out loud to someone else. Use this listening and probing period to try to get them to focus on one line of argument and remain consistent. Once you think you understand their perspective, restate it until you both agree that is their focus.

Introduce your counter argument. After you’ve respectfully echoed their main argument or sentiment, introduce your counter argument. Explain what you believe and keep it as simple as possible. Explain how your framing runs counter to their argument. Try to be as clear and granular in your description as you just requested from them. Briefly explain your point as a belief that you hold. Do not frame it as a case of them being wrong.

Offer rebuttals to the other person’s argument. After you have stated your counter argument, present a rebuttal to their argument with evidence and supporting arguments of your own. Keep in mind that you may still be working to keep the other person’s argument and line of reasoning focused as you rebut their argument.

Listen and respond to the other person’s rebuttals. If the other person listens to your counter argument and rebuttals, the person you’re debating will take issue with some of the things you are saying. Listen to these statements and address them when the other person has finished speaking. Once again, this is a discussion about statements of fact. Do not frame this discussion as one group being right or wrong.

Wrap things up amicably. You may disagree with the person you’re debating. You may also not come to a resolution or common understanding. That is perfectly acceptable. You do not want to act like a sore loser or treat others with disrespect. However heated it gets, try to be friendly as you wrap things up.

Things to watch out for in a debate

As you debate another person in real life, keep an eye out for logical fallacies. It is appropriate to identify and correct it when someone makes an argument that isn’t sound in structure. This is why you want to listen and probe to identify the full intent of their focus in the debate. Common logical fallacies include slippery slope arguments, circular reasoning, and ad hominem attacks.

Stay away from certain topics. Don’t pursue a topic your friend or acquaintance doesn’t want to talk about. If you are both enjoying the debate, be sure to express friendliness and stay relaxed throughout. You can be nice to the other person, even if you’re debating them.

Don’t hog up the discussion. Despite the template listed above, this should be a free-flowing exchange of ideas. This is not an opportunity for you to rambling on or indicate why you’re right and they’re wrong.

Do not assume the other person means ill will toward you. Do not assume you know what they are going to say and think. Listen to them. They might misspeak or the debate could get unintentionally heated. Assume that the other person is coming at the debate expecting only some friendly verbal sparring. Give them a chance to express their point of view.

Be laid back about it. Do not raise your voice or let things get heated. Do not get wrapped up in the debate and you lose your cool. A debate should be civilized and enlightening, not a lesson in browbeating and shaming.

Know when to drop the issue and end the debate. Don’t rehash the same arguments over and over again. Some debates come full circle and then keep on going because neither party is willing to admit defeat. If you find yourself in this situation, it is better to back down and end the discussion. You can say, “Is there anything I can say to make you hear my point of view?” or “I respect your opinion. I don’t agree with you, but maybe I will in the future.” At that point, amicably walk away.


Hopefully this helps you as you engage in discussions and present your points of view. Please subscribe to my weekly newsletter for more content like this.

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1 Comment How to debate in real life

  1. Pingback: Oppositional Conversational Style | W. Ian O'Byrne

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