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August 21, 2012 / compassioninpolitics

How can I get better at debate?

* Technically I believe this is a both a re-post and cross-post, but I believe it deserves another run.

I did debate in high school and college and later coached it (I did both Lincoln-Douglas and policy and then later successfully coached policy for a number of years at the college level). If I were to narrow down the tools we used–I would suggest the following 34 tools or tactics for being a good debater:

1. Re-framing discussions
2. Getting to the heart of the matter (the nexus question as one debate scholar is noted for saying)
3. Prioritizing (Comparison & Contrast)
4. Defining terms
5. Analogies & metaphors
6. Case studies, examples, and history (ideally multiple forms of truth are best–your argument can reflect diverse perspectives & be multi-disciplinary)
7. Research, science, & data
8. Logical syllogisms (or more simply if-then statements)
9. Determining & assessing root causes [or quantifying or qualifying degrees of influence]
10. Determining & assessing risk (on both sides)
11. What constitutes proof? What constitutes the most credible type of proof?
12. What constitutes value? What are we trying to achieve? What is paramount?
13. Examining assumptions or the limits of arguments (on both sides)–think about this before your discussion.
14. Examining opportunity cost in terms of policy but also the discussion (SWOT does this a bit)
15. Ball parking–defining the criteria where all roads lead to your position
16. Pre-empting. This is answering your opponents argument before they make it. (this can be dangerous)
17. Framing your opponents
18. Learning & specifying what your opponent advocates
19. Creating agreements on core issues if possible (this way you narrow the discussion)
20. Brainstorming possible alternatives (what debaters often call counterplans). This is also really important in negotiations.
21. What is your distinction or nuance? (using contrast is super-key in debate). This along with alternatives is the way you get around saying the exact opposite of what your opponent says.
22. Know your opponents case–or the possible directions it could take.
23. Big picture. Understanding the connections (relationships & inter-relationships). This can also be important in terms of creating your over-arching narrative or theme or framing of the discussion and your case for it or against it. This relates pretty directly to the nexus question & the possible shapes it could take
24. Reflection & attention. Allow your ideas to incubate. Constantly refine (aka kaizen improvement based on research, discussion, & feedback)
25. Clearly identify your strengths and weaknesses as well as your opponents strengths and weaknesses.
25. Context that the debate considers (consider the whole scene–not just isolated or abstracted). This is also a question of framing of proof and what the ultimate problem is.
26. Thinking both/and
27. Think on a continuum–not just in polar terms.
28. Even-if. Even if you win that…..we will still win that. It can serve as a form of internal prioritization (or creating extra fire-walls).
29. “Imagine a world in which…..” is a thought experiment of sorts.
30. Identify generalizations & unpack them. Do this on both sides of the issue.
31. Be clear about the constraints or limitations of your argument. This is argument 101 by Stephen Toulmin.
32. Select the most credible for your proof & compare the relative credibility on each side. This is persuasion 101 from Aristotle.
33.Arguably you could study logical fallacies & human biases–but there are usually just a couple that are handy. The process of learning to identify the argument is probably more useful than the fallacies themselves.

Here is a quick summary of the 7 most important:
1. Proof (why or reason)
2. Priorities (i.e. values & objectives)
3. Research (think creatively here. follow the footnotes that seem most important)
4. What is your distinction (or nuance)
5. Thinking through the options (brainstorming with reflection)
6. Always think of the nexus question will be–what is the end game.
7. Alternatives & counterplans (this is arguably most useful for the “negative”)–but can be helpful for answering questions raised by the negative.

Prioritization, comparison, and contrast is primarily all around the values, principles, and mission statements of the organizations in question (be that government or business). This can help establish the most important issues in the discussion–making whole parts irrelevant. Essentially this is a way to establish our goals and our ultimate goals….and ideally to establish common ground. Otherwise you may end up in a discussion thats security versus rights–which have seemingly incompatible goals. Certainly you can have the security versus rights debate on both a policy & the values level–but its easier if there are some agreements.

Ball parking is just a way to do one or more of two things:
1. Dedicate time to prioritization & the paramount-ness of the values involved
2. Establish your argument as the root cause.
This allows you to “play at home versus away.” I think this works much better in hypothetical debates….than in real world problem-solving.

The other ways to think about comparison is (subsuming, risk, how long the value is supported, how long it takes to reach the value, or other potential tradeoffs involved).

Framing your opponents is often done in one of 2 ways:
1. historical example to frame (a similar example from history). Example is the GOPs use of both Jimmy Carter & Ronald Reagan. Another example of this is the use of the Vietnam example for military intervention (the opposite is the Republicans use of World War II)
2. metaphor

Pre-empting is either wrapping the refutation or objections into your argument (sometimes by explaining the limits of your arguments or perhaps key distinctions). Often this requires researching both sides–or at least knowing what the other side is going to say. I don’t think its effective in personal arguments as it is in political ones. In personal arguments, given that there aren’t time limits–I think there is more a need to listen to the other side.

Thinking both/and can be incredibly liberating. We often see two strategies or policies as mutually exclusive, but it doesn’t have to be. Bill Clinton is the best example I can think of this in terms of politics–you can be both a democrat & budget conscious. One way we’ve done this on the national stage is to have lots of state autonomy–so we have multiple policies on the state level rather than having one unified national policy. This is the doctrine of federalism. Both/and thinking allows you to integrate ideas which seem to be paradoxical or even contradictory. To achieve such integrations–sometimes you have to let your mind merinate….or stew….on the issue. Another way to say this is “its not mutually exclusive” or “its not a forced choice” or “you can have your cake and eat it too.”

Continuum. Even more important than both/and perhaps is finding the truth between the extremes. In an argument, there is usually truism on both sides. The difficulty is sussing out where the argument is wrong by dividing it into classes or segments–this is true for X, but not for Y. As well as looking for hyperbole–which isn’t grounded in anything.

Division & segmentation. When you hear an argument, you divide it into a class that its true of and a class that its not true of. You can create a different reason for the class that its not true of. This was used in the context of the war (some debate occurs at the level of the economy is good or bad…or we’re winning the war in Afghanistan or not…..but a more nuanced and accurate approach is to segment the parts of the economy that are good/bad or the regions we might be winning in Afghanistan versus the ones we aren’t)

In one respect context fits nicely with the need for division/analysis/categorization. Context is often:
1. the environmental or historical factors which led up to an event
2. or a big picture view or a systems view of the problem or the systems view of the attempt at the solution (the context can often be a rich place to find challenges to implementing a particular policy)
3. motivation & psychology (arguably should be included as well)
4. cultural context can be huge, as can the media context
But overall, this involved unpacking the complexity & the root causes of the problem. Moreover, it involves looking at the baseline for comparison (ie not just how the US did, but how the US did versus other similarly situatuated countries).

Even-if is basically a way to add a line of argument which serves as a backstop of sorts.
It happens to be a form of pre-empt in some cases. Even-if you win that X is true….we can still win because Z. In some respects its also a way of framing (if you think about a decision in terms of a flow chart or in terms of sketched out game theory chart….this comes into play).

One I left out is you have to evaluate each metaphor, analogy, or example and determine how much it fits the case. How analogous or similar it is. As well as deciding if it fits on your side–to some extent (perhaps something thats left out–some other context or data).


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