Magazine / A Champion Debater’s Guide to Winning Arguments

A Champion Debater’s Guide to Winning Arguments

Creativity Podcast Politics & Economics

When Bo Seo was eight years old, his family moved from Korea to Australia. He did not speak a word of English. At school, to deflect attention from his inarticulacy, he became an agreeable wallflower. But that all changed when Bo’s fifth-grade teacher introduced him to competitive debate. Bo was hooked, and in the years to come, he’d not only win two debate world championships but also go on to coach the Australian national team as well as the Debating Union at Harvard, where he earned his undergraduate degree and is currently a law student.

Earlier this year, Bo published his first book, Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard, which was chosen by our curators as one of the year’s eight best works of non-fiction. In today’s episode, Bo sits down with one of those curators, Adam Grant, to share time-honored techniques for getting your point across, changing minds without hurting feelings, dealing with bullies, and knowing when to shut up.

Listen to Bo’s appearance on the Next Big Idea podcast below. If you want to listen to this and other episodes ad-free, and enjoy hundreds of audio summaries of the best nonfiction books, written and read by the authors themselves, download the Next Big Idea app.

Adam Grant: You are the world debate champion. How did you become that?

Bo Seo: It took 15 years. I moved, when I was eight, from South Korea to Australia, and I didn’t speak English at the time. The hardest part was adjusting to real life conversation, and that the hardest conversations to adjust to were disagreements. I was also wary at that time of drawing attention to my differences from my peers as one of the few Asian kids in the suburbs of Sydney. And the combination of those two things made me resolve to be very agreeable.

The thing that broke me out of that was a promise that my fifth-grade teacher made me, which was that in debating when one person speaks, no one else does. To someone who had been spoken over and interrupted and spun out of conversation, that sounded pretty irresistible.

So it was a fit really, and once I was in, I was hooked. Competitive instincts took over. The joy of learning, the sense that there was a set of procedures and wisdoms and actions and drills and skills that you could trust, almost blindly, and hope that the results would follow—that’s what I took to, and I started competing for my state and then for Australia and then for Harvard where I did my undergraduate education.

It didn’t feel so much like chasing the prize of winning the world championship so much as giving into this current that had been running before I joined and that will run after I’ve left—this current of teaching people to make an art and a craft out of argument.

Adam: Talk to me about how to formulate a good argument, one that actually makes other people think. How do you do it?

Bo: I’ll say two things, and then I’ll try and give you the framework of how a debater actually constructs arguments.

So, first, a huge part of argumentation is making your thinking visible and legible to the person across the table from you. So often we think an argument is just a random collection of thoughts or emoting as if the thing you’re trying to demonstrate is your sincere belief. Usually, that is not what’s at issue. It’s about whether you can invite the other person in so that they too can partake in your point of view. And there’s a vulnerability that comes with that, of saying your certainty is based on something and that something might be flawed, it might be incomplete.

Second, it’s not just about what you think is important but what the other side might be thinking about. Debate doesn’t look like that on the surface. It looks like one person speaking and another person speaking. But behind the scenes, and in people’s minds, the best moments of a debate are the moments of anticipating what the other side might be asking, the conversation that’s unfolding in the audience’s mind.

“An argument is not just an expression of what you think.”

To give an example of that, we put together an argument in debate by saying, “There are two basic things that an argument has to prove. The first is that the main claim that you’re making is true. And the other is that it’s important.” So if you’re arguing that we should become vegetarian because it’s good for the environment, you have to show that it is, in fact, good for the environment, otherwise you don’t really have legs to stand on. And you have to show that the fact that it’s good for the environment means that you should go vegetarian as opposed to privileging the quality of taste or our lifestyle or something else.

One of the things that I came up with for the book as a way for people to hit those basic burdens is to say that an argument should answer four Ws. What is the argument that you’re trying to make? Why is it true? When has it happened before? And who cares?

The big step, I think, is in recognizing an argument is not just an expression of what you think. There’s a craft to it, and that craft involves, in the end, being responsive to the questions the other side is likely to have for you.

Adam: We live in a world that is full of bad arguments that I just feel this strong impulse to debunk, which strangely never goes well. Talk to me about how to rebut an argument, particularly from someone who is not receptive.

Bo: The first thing is reckoning with the loss that comes with having your arguments destroyed. It’s a loss of ego. It’s a loss of self. Sometimes it’s a loss of direction, because you used to have these thoughts that would guide what you do and the things that you pursue, and you’ve taken that away from them. I would work backwards from a recognition of that loss.

Now, there are two things that I think can help with that. One is you have to listen. It’s something like, “You go for the king, you can’t miss.” If you are going forward from that posture of criticism, you have to put in the work beforehand of knowing that it’s well aimed. So in debating you are really listening—paper and pen, writing down almost verbatim what the other side said—and in this component of the activity, it’s in your best interests to be as faithful as scribe as you can be for the other side, because otherwise they’ll say, “You didn’t actually respond to what I said. You talked about something else completely. That doesn’t have anything to do with me. You missed.” Your criticism has to connect.

The second part is that once you’ve gone through the process of dismantling an argument, you have to provide an alternative, because that helps people with that sense of loss. You want to give them something that’s more attractive even. And listening is a big part of that. Once you know where it is they’re coming from, what they’re after, supplying an answer that is more attractive to them than what they believed previously can be a useful move.

Adam: As you talk about loss, it gets me thinking about the possibility that maybe I could lead with inviting people to consider the bad things that might happen if they cling to a wrong belief rather than the good things that will happen if they adopt a right one. What do you make of that?

Bo: It brings to mind that Elizabeth Bishop poem, “One Art,” about the art of losing. How do you do that? You do it through repetition. You lose little things, like keys and stuff, and it gets bigger and bigger. One of the things I’ve noticed in debating is you’re going lose a lot. The World Championships has 500 teams and one winner. So you’re going to be in the 499, and I was every single time—except twice.

Adam: Twice. Yeah, not just once. Twice. Let’s be clear. You can win once by luck, not twice.

Bo: That repetition of loss is important because it shows you: What happens after you’ve lost an argument? In some ways, not much.

“I experienced [being a very agreeable person] as a kind of self-betrayal.”

A big element of debate is that it’s a game. It’s play. It’s a place to experiment. One of the things that makes losing a debate easier is you are often assigned a position. Say there’s a topic that we should ban zoos, and they tell you, “Adam, you are on the affirmative side of this topic.” Now, you may in fact be on the affirmative side in your mind, but that bit of role play gives you a kind of plausible deniability to say, “Within this space, we’re just playing a role, we’re playing with ideas, we’re experimenting.” That decoupling of the loss of ideas from the loss of self is a kind of a training, too.

Adam: I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently because, as a fellow highly agreeable person, I avoid arguments still, unless I either feel extremely strongly about my data on a topic or I feel that a relationship is sufficiently secure that I’m not going to offend somebody by disagreeing with them. But I still avoid a lot of arguments. And the disservice that I’ve done myself by doing that is that I don’t practice the skills when the stakes are low, and that makes it much harder to use them when the stakes rise. I think your idea of turning into a game, arguing for things that you don’t necessarily believe strongly or care about deeply, is how you end up building those muscles up.

I think the a-ha moment here, for me anyway, is that one of the best ways to get people to disagree more, and more thoughtfully, is to help them think about the cost of not doing so. I’ve been too focused on the benefits. “Here are all the good things that will happen if you disagree more.” But I still don’t like disagreeing. “Well, what are your fears? What kind of world would it be if great minds always thought alike? They wouldn’t be great minds anymore.”

Bo: Wow. I always think back to my childhood because I lived this life of being very agreeable. And how did it feel to be that agreeable person? I experienced it as a kind of self-betrayal. You have thoughts, but you find yourself holding your tongue. That alienates you from yourself. But it also holds the other person at arm’s length. You put a limit on the kind of relationship you can have with the person across the table from you. And that’s a loss, too. It’s a loss of a more profound, more risky venture, which is intimacy.

Adam: It’s so interesting that you just said “profound,” because that was the word that came into my head when you said agreeableness is an act of self-betrayal. That is profound. I think we often talk about it as people-pleasing and think, Oh, well, you know, I do this because I want to be polite. I’ll protect people’s feelings today and then maybe find a way to help them tomorrow by being a little more honest with them. When you reframe that as an act of self-betrayal, I realize that being excessively agreeable is an integrity violation. I’m not standing by my principles. And that is not something I can tolerate.

Bo: And one of the things that I found in actually making the jump is that you may be rewarded for it. I love the phrase “people-pleasing.” I don’t think people just want to be pleased. That’s actually not a flattering description of them and their motivations either. People want to be challenged. They want to be connected in a deep sense. They want to see you for who you are. The cost of those self-betrayals is a reduced relationship with others. It is a smaller life.

Adam: Oh, I love the idea of now saying, “If I can have better arguments, not just more of them, I can have a richer life, and I can expand my experience.”

Adam: I worry a lot that we are raising kids to be argument illiterate. I don’t think this is entirely new. Many of us grew up in households where we were told that children were meant to be seen but not heard or that it was bad manners to disagree with someone. But it does seem to be getting worse. As polarization rises, as arguments intensify, and as communication is increasingly technology mediated, the skills of having good arguments seem to be in short supply. So what do we need to do in schools? What do we need to do as parents? How do we teach arguing well from an early age?

“People want to be challenged. They want to be connected in a deep sense. They want to see you for who you are.”

Bo: I think the first thing is to view the instinct to argue as something that is already there. I think about the young kids in my life. They’re always playing devil’s advocate or pushing the boundaries just to see how they’ll be received. So I think the first thing is recognizing it’s an instinct to be responsive to rather than to implant.

There’s lots of wonderful work being done thinking about how we implement debate pedagogically. One great advantage of a debate club at schools is it requires no equipment. It’s cheap. And so there have been experiments, like in Broward County in Florida, where every school rolled out this program. Having those clubs at each of these schools will be useful. There’s wonderful work being done at the curricular level of thinking about how we have debates in the classroom so that things are contestable, so that we see the things we’re being taught aren’t the only ways to look at it.

One thing I’m thinking a lot about nowadays is, in addition to a lot of the headwinds that you described about the powerless position of children, one particular problem I’m seeing a lot is kids, from a young age, are being exposed to broadcasting and brand building. And I think this affects us adults too, thinking that whenever we speak in public, we’re almost like mini public figures. Most of us have the joy of not being recognizable so that you can be a fool sometimes. And one of the great things about childhood, I think, should be that it’s a safe space in which to play and to experiment. The debate room is one version of that, but it’s not the only one. Reclaiming some sphere of the private, especially for children, and saying, “You are not locked into one identity. You’re not locked into one position. You’re still figuring it out like the rest of us”—I think that’s one important principle for education.

Adam: I like that a lot. It speaks to something I hear a lot from my students, which is that growing numbers of them are afraid of voicing their views in the classroom. It’s not because they’re afraid of being told they’re wrong. Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid of offending someone. But just as often what I hear, anecdotally, is they’re worried that if they were playing a role or taking a side, it’s going to get taken out of context and then it’s going to ruin their reputation because it’ll get posted on social media or it’ll get spread in a very visible way. And I think that’s a problem. If students can’t speak out loud about ideas that they may not personally believe but think might move an argument forward or diversify a room full of groupthink, that stifles learning.

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