An Idea for Better Debates and Persuasion

There are few things more natural than debate. No previous skill is required and its existence is ubiquitous — anyone with an opinion is free to enter the match between the minds. In some instances, when the words are flying and tempers are high, we should stop and pause. We need to freeze time and take a step back, looking at where we are and where we’re going. Debates should be these opportunities for self-reflection.

Why We Debate

Debate is something humanity cannot do without. It is essential to advancing our knowledge and the discussions on the issues that face us. Above all, they are clear introspections into the minds of others and why they think what they believe. Of course, what we say also reveals why we think the way we do and how we arrived there. Other times, debate can serve as a light-hearted discussion to get the conversation rolling or simply a special way of discussion we reserve for those whom we like to jostle a bit.

Debate is not an extraordinary aspect of our existence, it is simply just there. In the moment we often do not think much of the act of debating itself, which is completely understandable. However, as with any serious reflection on how we conduct our lives, there is definite value to assessing the nature of debating and how we should go about it.

There is no doubt that debate comes in various forms — among them, an intense back-and-forth of anger and self-righteousness littered with insults. Many more instances of debate are less provocative. Although such furious discussions appear to be complete opposites from the light-hearted debates that may spill vibrant energy into the room, they are the exact same thing: an exchange of ideas often with the intention of convincing the other side (or observant listeners) who is “right.” On the surface this does not seem too destructive, but the desire to change people’s minds is a much more complex action that we mistake for the act of debating. When we get this wrong, our actions that follow may very well then be destructive and counter-productive.

A More Fair Assessment

In order to give due consideration to the art of debating, it is imperative that we first separate our intentions from the act of debate. Convincing others to believe something else is a prominent goal that certainly must be disassociated from debating. Only then can we truly consider what methods of persuasion are more effective than the oft-used tool of debate, and other ideas of what debate can be used for in the future.

The separation of the goal of persuasion from debate may initially appear counter-intuitive and quite simply against the definition of debate itself. However, one can be warmly reassured that this is not the case. For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s first definition for the word debate is as follows:

:a contention by words or arguments

Nowhere in this definition is the art of persuasion mentioned, nor is one’s ability to convince another of a conviction is mentioned at all. On a rational level, we may be able to discern debate from persuasion, but this is often not the case in reality. When two people present their opposing viewpoints, as this type of discussion demands, tensions often run high. The discussion suddenly becomes a race to convince the other side of what is true. This in itself is not an issue, but more often than not do debaters’ egos take the reins of the conversation and turn the argument into one of self-preservation rather than a genuine attempt at progress between two different viewpoints. Once debaters go down that hole it is difficult to get out of it.

Indeed, English language dictionaries merely exist to define words from a conventional perspective, not to authoritatively decree how a word should be used. But this article was not written to explore semantics or the origin of words: it is a case for using debate as a way of discussion and learning, rather than a medium entirely focused on persuasion. When we enter debates in the future, we should realize the benefits of using debate as a chance to learn and share our views, rather than coerce the other person to accept our beliefs. This is much more effective from both a rhetorical perspective and a human perspective.

The Value in Discussion Rather than Brute Persuasion

Discussion allows us to open our minds instead of building a wall around them to protect our beliefs and launch attacks on others. This is not to say that persuasion itself should be disregarded; in fact, it is a call to enhance our own methods of persuasion and how we go about it. Persuasion, when done right, is the cornerstone of all the changes we seek: from choosing one restaurant over another for dinner to revolutionary political movements. Yet in order to do that we must separate the purpose of debate from persuasion, as there are more effective ways to persuade others — and more value in learning from debates as discussions rather than a chance to convince others on the spot.

A necessary component of establishing relationships with others and cooperating with people who think differently from us is understanding why they are that way. No complex mental evaluation of another person’s mind is needed: we simply need to listen. It is as simple as that.

Listening is imperative to restoring dignity to debates. It reaffirms the humanity of the other person, something that we expect from others to see in ourselves yet something that we are sometimes hesitant to recognize in those same people. Dehumanization can have powerful effects and is a tool that has been widely used by mass murderers and manipulators alike in order to pursue horrific goals. It is imperative to rise above this simple ignorance as accept that people are humans above all, even if they are terrible humans (because yes, unfortunately, humans are capable of egregious evil as well). Stripping someone of their humanity is an immediate cause for self-defense and for barriers to be raised, which will impede any effort we make to persuade or connect with an individual. People crave being heard — otherwise, there would be no incentive for them to talk with you in the first place. When we are passionate and infuriated with another person, it understandably becomes more difficult to listen. Yet we must do so not only because it will show them that they should listen to us, but also because we should not descend to a level of grotesque dehumanization.

If we do not seek to isolate our partners in a debate from our ideas, then we must listen to them just as much as they must listen to us.

Listening is the core of any discussion. No conversation, relationship, nor interaction can blossom if one person only talks and refuses to listen. Setting aside the needs of our ego to talk above the seemingly inferior voices of others must be done, lest we become consumed by our own voice that drowns out any possibility of maintaining a spirit that is willing to adapt and change in pursuit of what is right.

Growing our Minds

This inevitably leads to learning. Debates are inherently a chance to learn, as long as we open our minds to learning. Our worldview becomes strengthened not because we will always believe more firmly what we did previously, but in that new knowledge and experience grants us the humility to reassess what we perceive to be true and how it fits in with other people’s experiences. Doing this may lead us to discover that reality is often more nuanced than we initially believe — and that is alright.

Sometimes we best learn when we are in the presence of others and informed about their experiences. Experiences cannot be transmitted from a textbook, a report, or an essay — in fact, they can never be truly felt by another person, as each person’s individual experience and life story is unique. However, we can learn to empathize with other people and learn from their experiences. The information we learn can improve our own opinions and beliefs by allowing us to believe while understanding the nuance of the discussion. It may even teach us that our own beliefs are perhaps misconstructed or in need of adjustment. This should be no issue since the pursuit of truth is an admirable goal in any intellectual or personal setting.

Ultimately, this reaffirms our recognition of the other person’s humanity. It is not necessary to listen to another person to recognize their humanity, however, the heat of debate may dangerously cause us to neglect this very essential aspect to interacting with other people. Likewise, others should equally pay attention to what you say and your own individual experiences. All relationships and human-to-human interactions are two-way streets; both people should be heard on the basis that they are individuals with their own experiences.

Effective Persuasion

Nevertheless, persuasion is a critical aspect to our existence and our society. We arrive at better ideas when we debate and share with others why we believe our current knowledge leads us to thinking the way we do. We reveal how they may fit in with our firmly-grounded values.

Yet persuasion is a lifelong process. Indeed, someone may be convinced within a day of an argument, but in other cases it may take that same person a year or even a lifetime to agree with something else. Adjusting our expectations — namely, expecting people to be convinced of our opinion at the end of a debate — must be done. It will save us from stress in the moment and allow us to take a more humanly approach to persuasion.

Even if we believe that we completely in the right, another person may not see it that way. That does not mean at all that they are justified in doing so. But after one continuously presents facts in front of them, or explains in other ways how they simply are incorrect, that person still may not be convinced — this may be the result of a tarnished worldview that affects how they view the world. Once again, this is not a defense of the content of what they are saying. This is intended to provide insight to whoever wishes to convince a stubborn person — in realizing that it is their concrete worldview that dictates their beliefs rather than a willingness to change, one may accept that the debate is fruitless because it is going nowhere.

We must acknowledge that we are not our opinions. When we attach our self worth to our beliefs, we risk defending ourselves to the point where the debate is no longer about seeking truth but protecting our egos. When that point is reached, the debate is no longer a debate. It is a battle: a vicious, degrading battle. Removing our opinions from the essence of how we perceive ourselves is the first step to harnessing an open-minded approach to life. If we choose to be unwilling to change our own opinions, others will not either. Furthermore, true facts always exist independently of ourselves. What is true will be true beyond our own existence — for this reason, it is important to consider less ourselves as the ultimate messengers of truth against a delusional enemy. When this occurs, our egos take control and envision a battle for self-superiority over other inferior minds that cannot seem to fathom our truths.

The willingness to not completely lose ourselves emotionally in a debate or an act of persuasion is a necessary step to truly persuading someone else. The argument need not be unbearably complex in order to convince: it is best to keep calm and offer something palatable to the other person, which may be something both parties already agree upon or see eye-to-eye. This may also be done by appealing to common virtue and reinforcing where progress has been made and where it is headed. Staying close to fact is imperative, but we should restrain ourselves from confusing fact from ideas that are wrapped in uncertainty. Arrogance and self-righteousness are the enemies of persuasion; it is important to balance our convictions of what is right from indulging in an imaginary position of authority that we create for ourselves on a pedestal.

Better Debates for a Better World

Ultimately, one must restrain giving into the urgency of the moment that demands us to be successful in persuading someone else on the spot. It may take several days, months, or years to truly win over the hearts and minds of others. This may appear to be an insurmountable task, but it is not. Every action we take to have these necessary discussions contribute to persuasion over time. One must be consistent with their values and humility when working towards persuading others and not become disheartened when the road ahead seems difficult.

And even if we are unable to convince someone else, which is often the case, there is still one honor we can garner from others: respect. A person who has another’s respect despite an inability to persuade them is one of the most rewarding fruits of the art of persuasion. Respect will carry society forward and ensure that when healthy debate reveals the differences in opinion that face us, we are at least able to coexist peacefully with others. But respect can be easily lost when someone rejects the inherent humanity of another: it is a path that should be avoided at all costs.

Debates are an inherent part of our lives and necessary for reaching the vision we have of what is necessary in the world. It offers us a chance to learn and grow. Persuasion is also rooted in personal growth and open-mindedness that we should all seek in our lives. Both require the wisdom to achieve a delicate balance in how we speak with other people and how we regard our own visions of progress whether large or small. When we take a more mindful and introspective approach to our lives, we will notice the benefits of taking more time to pause and think — an admirable reflection of what we should aspire to be.

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