Debate Tactics That Work: The Torch Podcast

An Interview with Professor Jarrod Atchison, Ph.D.

On this episode of The Torch, we examine the art of debate and debate tactics—skills that help you make better decisions, and think more clearly when communicating with other people.

Here to discuss debate tactics is Jarrod Atchison Ph.D., Professor of Communication and Director of Debate at Wake Forest University.

The following transcript has been edited slightly for readability.

Debate vs. Persuasion

Ed Leon: How is debating any different from good old common persuasion?

Jarrod Atchison:  I think the key to making a debate is to add some formality in terms of the structure:

  • We’re each going to have enough time to speak,
  • We’re going to alternate between the speeches,
  • We’re going to make sure that we have a neutral judge
  • At the conclusion of our interaction the judge will render a decision.

Those types of formality you don’t find on the street.

Ed Leon: No, that’s a great a point. If you need that formality to make it a debate, how do you apply that formality in day-to-day life? Do I walk around and say, “Excuse me, you be the judge.”

Jarrod Atchison: I think it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to convince that person that their political position is wrong, then the judge in that moment is that person you’re attempting to persuade.

You may use some techniques from debate but chances are we’re going to call that an informal argument, we’re not going to call that a debate.

If you want to bring the skills of debate into your organization, you’ll need to find the decision maker. Who’s going to decide how we move forward?

If you wanted to bring the skills of debate into your organization—which is one of the key things we try to teach people in this course—then you are going to need to find the decision maker. Who’s the person that’s going to decide how we should go forward? That person does need to assume the role that they already have in the organization of being the judge, of being the decision maker.

Image of group of business people talking at a table for Debate Tactics article.Argument as Inquiry

Ed Leon: What do you do if you’re not 100% in favor of the viewpoint that you’re trying to support?

Jarrod Atchison: I think the first thing I would say is that debate is a great way to figure out what you believe. It’s argument as inquiry. You may believe something, but the second you’re forced to give the opposition as rigorous a defense as possible, we found—and the literature supports—that that act of taking on the perspective of another position will not only make you more secure in what you do believe, but it will add nuance.

It’s often the case that the reason people think someone else’s position is totally crazy is because they’ve never tried arguing it. Once you figure out what the strength of the other side is, chances are you’ll either change a little bit of what you believe, or you’ll at least know why you believe what you believe.

Debate is a great way to figure out what you believe. It's argument as inquiry. Click To Tweet

Ed Leon: That’s a great term you use, argument as inquiry. Talk about how you use that for business because you’re a consultant to business. Talk about how that can be applied in a work setting.

Jarrod Atchison: The two big barriers I find when I step into an organization is:

  • First, there’s no clear method of decision making. We assume that leaders in an organization will come up with a great idea. Or they’ll be able to rigorously examine an idea which somebody else puts forward but we don’t have a training method for that.

Debate is a method for arriving at a decision. You literally figure out the key question of a controversy, you assign people to multiple sides, you have them present the best arguments and then the decision maker has to assess the values.

  • Second, there’s a problem communicating the decisions. I think that this stems from the fact that in the post-World War II era, we had a command and control system of management where we expected a decision comes from the top, everybody follows it, unquestioned. Then we flipped it all the way to consensus.

The problem with consensus decisions they don’t evaluate values. For example: An organization may value investing in its employees, they may want to do things to make their employees happy. What are you willing to sacrifice for the stakeholders that aren’t your employees in order to make that happen? Are you willing to give up profit? Are you willing to give up market access? Are you willing to sacrifice some potential new developments in the name of that?

Learn More: Elements of a Good Case

Once those values come in competition with each other, the leaders have to be clear in communicating why they decide what they do. Debate is a method for arriving at a decision. You figure out the key question of a controversy, you assign people to multiple sides, you have them present the best arguments, then the decision maker has to assess the values.

Image of Businesspeople arguing in meeting for Debate Tactics article

Debate trains you in how to make assessments and communicate why you made the decision you did. Click To Tweet

Improving the Role of the Decision Maker

Ed Leon: Right, communication is very important. If the decision comes from the gut, does debate allow for that?

Jarrod Atchison:  The question is, if someone pressed you on what your gut felt, could you articulate the value? Do you prefer short-term success or investments in long-term potential? If you were a decision maker and you listened to five of your own explanations behind why you did something, then by the sixth time the people in your organization will make better arguments for you because they now know what you care about.

The better you are at saying what you care about, the better the people around you will be at giving you the arguments that matter.

Ed Leon: That’s a great point. All right, you’re not at a corporate structure, you’re at home around the dinner table, most people make a pros and cons list. What’s wrong with that?

Image of Pros and cons empty list on blackboardJarrod Atchison: The first thing I want to say is that we shouldn’t debate everything. It’s a very dangerous pattern to assume that debate is the right method of decision making for everything.

What a pro/con list does is index arguments. It helps to describe what potential arguments are but at the end of the day it’s the values that underlie those pros and cons that have to be put in contestation.

Ed Leon: Talk about the judging process. How do you apply that?

Jarrod Atchison: Honestly, I believe that one of the biggest and most overlooked benefits of debate is improving the role of the decision maker. If your involved with people that have to make decisions every day, then you should be using debate as much as possible on the big decisions. Don’t debate about where you’re going to go to lunch, debate about big decisions.

Here’s how I think it helps the judges. First, whenever you have a debate, at the end of the debate, the final summary positions are about assessing the strengths and weaknesses of arguments. Judges have to then be able to take those arguments, put them into what we call a reason for decision, an RFD, and we have a whole lecture dedicated to how to write a good RFD.

When the RFD is presented to the organization at large, what it does is it enables everyone to see the values of the decision maker so that then, as you have more debates, those values get emphasized over time so that by the time you’ve used debate as a judge, it makes it clear to everyone what you care about.

Flipping the Warrant

Ed Leon: Let’s talk about a term you use in the course, it’s called “flipping the warrant.” What does that mean?

Image of Stephen_Toulmin
Stephen Toulmin

Jarrod Atchison: It’s a little tough because it’s a 30-minute lecture, but let’s give you the 30-second version. One of the most important models of argumentation came from a person named Stephen Toulmin, he was a formal logician. His theory, every good argument has:

  • a claim, which is the conclusion you want the audience to reach
  • some evidence or grounds
  • then, the warrant which connects two things.

“Flipping the warrant” is an advanced argumentation technique where you agree with the other person’s evidence and then you use that against them to support a totally different conclusion.

If someone comes in the room and says, “Healthcare premiums have risen by 3% this year.” They want you to use that as a conclusion that healthcare is skyrocketing.

What you do is then take a step back and say, “You’re right, 3%, that’s not bad at all. In fact, in a longitudinal comparison between the past 20 years, we should love 3% compared.” You’re conceding their evidence but using it against them to conclude something radically different.

Learn More: Debate Jujitsu: Flipping the Warrant

Ed Leon:  As we record this interview, we’re right in the middle of a hotly contested presidential election, you see this technique in use every night with the pundits. It’s getting to the point of ridiculousness, though.

The ability to flip the warrant or to take a point and flip it and turn it around to your advantage, you can see it happening. Where does the realm of effectiveness come in? Is that totally related to the judge?

Jarrod Atchison: Yes, I think every bit of communication has to be audience-oriented. To be perfectly honest with you, when you hear something said that you think is ridiculous, most of the time it’s because you’re not their audience. Right?

I think what we’re facing is we have media that’s separated by political orientation, but there’s still a convention that says you have to at least have someone from the other side on your show. That’s the person that for that audience sounds ridiculous, but that same person on another network sounds brilliant.

I think that it’s audience-oriented and that’s one of the key distinctions. There is no such thing as a great argument in the abstract. No one in the abstract can say, “My argument is brilliant.” It’s only about persuading a person and understanding what their values are relative to that argument.

Political Theater vs. True Debate

Ed Leon: That is a great point. Speaking of the elections… We’ve seen the town hall-style, we’ve seen the more formal debate style. How would you improve the current process?

Jarrod Atchison: They’re not debates; they’re political theater and they accomplish very specific goals. A town hall setting shows democracy in action, it’s real life voters getting to talk to people who might be the leaders of the free world. If, however, someone told me for the first formal debate you can change it however you want, there are three things I would do:

Number one, I would stop the idea of a surprise question. Instead, I would transition to actual points of resolution that are announced well in advance. Well enough in advance for the public discourse around the resolutions to already kick into gear.

We should implement economic sanctions on blank country, whatever it is. That way when a person stands up in the debate setting, it’s not “can I take the memorized 90 seconds of my two-minute answer and then for the last 30 seconds try to randomly throw in an attack on my opponent,” [instead] they have to be well developed positions.

Image of Confident delegate making speech Second, I would turn it into a debate. A debate requires the burden of rejoinder, which means that I would give at least five or six minutes for each person to state their position. I would add a two- to three-minute cross examination where the other person gets to ask them a question and then I would allow there to be a rebuttal—and these are uninterrupted moments where they get to speak.

The third thing I would do is, quite honestly… I think that part of the reason that this lacks the formality is because there’s not a whole lot of other times we see the two candidates together.

I think that because we lack these other venues besides debate, the debate has to accomplish more than debating the policy positions, it now has to become the political theater of the one line jab or attack. I would try to get other venues for them to appear together.

I’ll admit all of the ideas I’ve said have been proposed by the people, the status quo is not likely to change. The people who do the debates love the way they happen right now, they know how to coach to them right now, they make for great political theater, lots of people watch them when you have two candidates that you expect are going to be mean to each other, not about the policy positions.

Ed Leon: What are some of the worst mistakes that you can make in a real debate in a true debate setting?

Jarrod Atchison: I think in a real debate the first mistake is to ignore the audience. If I am having a great debate, and one of the examples we use in our course is about the current controversies over campus carry, whether or not students should be allowed to bring guns on campus.

My arguments in front of a set of administrators and faculty are going to have be different than my arguments in front of the board of trustees and they’re going to have to be different in front of a group of parents. The reason is because each of those audiences has a different set of values relative to the proposition.

If I gave the same canned speech in each one of those venues I’m going to be destroyed. It should be the case that I would be because I’m not thinking through the perspective of the decision maker. That’s one of the biggest mistakes I think people make.

In a debate the first mistake is to ignore the audience. Click To Tweet

Winning the Cocktail Party

Ed Leon: Yeah, that gets to the mental agility that’s needed to do this effectively. You talk about winning the cocktail party.

Jarrod Atchison:  That’s right.

Ed Leon: Talk about that a little bit.

Jarrod Atchison: That’s one of my favorite lectures, it’s the last lecture in the course. It’s tempting to say that, look, we’ve talked about the formal debate structure, how to bring it into an organization and everything else, but there are some real life moments where informal debating matters.

We start that lecture by using some statistics to demonstrate that the informal modes of argumentation matter a lot for a person’s career, for finding other potential careers, and we all know the horror stories of people who do the wrong thing at the cocktail party.

However, what we try to do in this lecture is help people to understand you need to have a goal before you step into an informal argument around the shrimp bowl.

If your goal is to impress your boss, you’ve got to argue differently, you need to add a level of abstraction because you want this person to respect your intellect but you don’t want to have a public challenge to their position.

However, the last bit of the lecture is what do you with the cocktail party loud mouth? What do you do with the bully that you want to put in their place? I’m not going to spoil it right here but let’s say that it is one of the more fun techniques to teach because we’ve all experienced that.

Learn More: Winning the Cocktail Party

Ed Leon: Is it always about winning?

Jarrod Atchison:  No, of course not. It’s about the process over the product, and you’ll hear me repeat that over and over again throughout the lectures. I think once you have these skills it comes with a responsibility. The responsibility is to improve the discourse in your organization, in your house, in society.

If you only think of it as winning I call that the JV method of debating, junior varsity. You only want to argue wherever you want argue and unfortunately, if any of you have ever interacted with a junior varsity debater, those are the worst. We need the wisdom to know when to debate, we need the wisdom to know when we’re trying to win versus when we’re trying to improve the decision making process and hopefully over 24 lectures we can make that move.

If you only think of debate as winning, that is the junior varsity method of debating. Click To Tweet

Ed Leon: Speaking of that wisdom, your wife is a champion debater as well.

Jarrod Atchison: That’s right. She was a phenomenal debater, top 10 debater in college.

Ed Leon: What the heck is dinner like at your house?

Jarrod Atchison: That’s a great question. When people ask us that, we normally have two cliché answers. The first is that it’s mutually assured destruction; we don’t argue as much as other people. We know how quickly it can escalate. As a result of that it’s a little bit easier. The truth is, and I hope that she would agree with this, once you learn to argue it becomes easier to decrease the amount of ego. It’s not as hard to admit you’re wrong whenever you’ve studied argumentation.

…once you learn to argue it becomes easier to decrease the amount of ego. It’s not as hard to admit you’re wrong once you’ve studied argumentation.

I think that a lot of arguments are not about the question at the hand, they’re relational in nature. We’re having an argument about the dishes but what we’re arguing about is our relationship and whether or not it feels equal for domestic household ideas. With debaters, it’s easier to say, “Here’s the argument, what do you think?” Remove the ego component or be explicit about how we’re not really arguing about the dishes, are we? I think it can improve relationships even at home.

From the Lecture Series: The Art of Debate
Taught by Jarrod Atchison, Ph.D.