Editor’s Note: This post was pulled from the Student Guide to Healthy Dialog and Debate by the Community for Accredited Online Schools, where you can find many more resources on healthy conversations, effective disagreements, and tolerance. It is published here with their permission.
Learning how to navigate disagreements and debates is a critical skill that will serve you well for many years, and yet it can seem like one of the most intimidating since it’s so easy for emotions to get involved. Disagreements and debates, by their very nature, are comprised of individuals sharing views that are at odds with each other and, in the best scenarios, trying to find common ground.
When entering a debate or finding yourself disagreeing with someone else, try to keep these tips in mind.
1. Keep your reactions in check.
According to a study by Quantified Impressions on speeches given by executives, how those individuals gave their speeches and the tone of their voice accounted for 23 percent of listeners’ impressions of their message, as compared to the actual content counting for 11 percent.
“The biggest tip I have is for students to remain calm,” said Tayler Unsell, Director of Debate and Forensics at Park Hill High School in Kansas City, Missouri. “One cannot debate well or communicate well if they are emotional.”
2. Do your research.
Entering an argument without all the facts is one of the surest ways to have a disappointing and unproductive dialogue. In addition to understanding why you believe what you do, it’s also important to understand the counter-arguments of the person with whom you’re debating.
“When confronted with a conflicting argument, we can learn to respectfully disagree and present counterclaims in a kind and peaceful manner,” Unsell said.
This becomes much easier when everyone participating has done their homework.
3. Find common truths.
In the current American climate where it can sometimes feel like facts don’t matter, students must push against this fallacy when attempting to engage in meaningful debates.
“Establish shared facts,” Unsell said. “If we cannot agree on the rules of the game, we may not be able to play it at all.”
4. Practice good listening.
Focusing on your own beliefs and why you think they are right is easy to do when debating another person, but in order to actually have a fruitful debate, there must be a back-and-forth. If you’re only focusing on yourself, this becomes difficult to do in a meaningful way. Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk, Associate Professor of Socio-Political Communication and Rhetoric at Missouri State University, encourages students to listen just as much as they talk.
“Don’t just hear, but actually listen,” she said. “Don’t think about what you want to say while another person is talking.”
5. Use respectful language.
Especially when one debater feels cornered, their instinct may be to attack the person rather than their statements. To have debates that move the conversation forward, this must be avoided at all costs — especially when trying to communicate with someone whose life experience is different from yours.
“There is not room in cross-cultural dialogue for arguments or language that is intentionally offensive,” said Unsell. “We should try to be respectful of everyone involved in the discussion as long as their ideas do not advocate for genocide or other equally awful and evil concepts.”
6. Be open to changing your mind.
College is a place where students are naturally going to be confronted with ideas different from their own. While it’s fine to disagree sometimes, it’s also important to keep an open mind.
“Don’t forget to consider that you can be wrong,” Dudash-Buskirk said.