Bo Seo is a two-time world champion debater and former coach of the Australian National Debating Team and the Harvard College Debating Union. In his book, Good Arguments: What the Art of Debating Can Teach Us About Listening Better and Disagreeing Well, he argues that skills learned in academic combat can lead to better public speaking and more respectful conversations in personal relationships.
Here, he answers some questions about what debate can teach us about good — and bad — arguments in our personal lives.
Bo, in your book you mention a survey by the makers of a dishwashing detergent that found that a lot of household arguments are about the dishes…and we probably all know they’re not. really on the dishes. You say the survey highlights two things about the type of conflicts people have at home. What are they?
First, that some of our toughest and most persistent disagreements are with those we are closest to. And second, that they are led on insignificant matters.
So let’s take number one. Why can’t we resolve lingering disagreements with those closest to us?
In a nutshell, I think it’s negligence. When it comes to people we love, we have this idea that they should have us without us even saying anything. It looks nice, but it causes a lot of problems. We think that because we have agreed to share our life with this person, they must agree with us to some degree. And so a disagreement seems much more threatening.
Are you talking about fixed positions? You become fixed because OK, I chose this person so we have to agree on everything. And that’s how.
Absolutely. That’s a presumption you wouldn’t dare make about a stranger: that he’s going to agree with us at the end of this conversation. And another one is exactly like you said, which is this notion that we’re in this together.
We won’t assume that a very close friend of ours thinks exactly the same way.
It’s true. And all these things make us careless in the arguments we make [with those closest to us]. Make us more likely to get angry when we don’t get things our way. And I think the last little part of that is because we share so much of our lives with our spouses and with our partners, a disagreement over something small, like the dishwasher, can become a disagreement over everything. A disagreement about that thing that happened on a family vacation last time or something your in-laws are doing. All of these things are sort of driven.
So how can the skills learned in debate help us, please?
I think debating helps, first, by reminding us that every disagreement has to act with some degree of agreement. We agree that we are talking about the dishes right now. That’s what we’re talking about. Nothing else. And we can move on. But we’ll talk about the dishes for now.
We will try to settle our disagreements by arguing about it. And that’s different from ad hominem attacks. It is different from simple emoticon. It’s different from those other forms of self-expression. And we’re going to try as best we can to focus on the disagreements that are most likely to lead to some kind of productive conversation between us.
How are you personally in arguments that involve emotion? Is everything you learned as a debater flying out the window?
I mean, of course, I struggle with that. And, you know, one thing about debate is [that] it’s not like it leaves no room for emotion. Passions flow, but you are simply being asked to channel them into a form that will allow you to have a discussion that is more than just an expression of emotion. So I think that’s the first thing, and that’s how the debate helps me a bit.
But I think the second way it helps is in one of the things you learn as a debater; it’s knowing that you’re going to lose… a lot. And knowing that victories are temporary because there will always be another conversation. And above all, knowing that you can be right, but unpersuasive on the day of the particular conversation, and lose.
I think the stakes sometimes feel a little lower because I don’t think it’s going to be a conversation that settles it. It’s going to be kind of a back-and-forth series where you’re going to have wins and losses and hope that in the end you end up on the winning side. Debating gives you a realization that it’s not about do or die. You know, it’s an ongoing conversation.
And what did the debate teach you about empathy?
When I was a child struggling with the differences between me and my peers, I was often told to have empathy or be empathetic. And it’s a very confusing instruction. Because who knows what empathy is? It is sometimes described as a kind of psychic connection that occurs spontaneously. It’s described as a virtue that some people have and some don’t. And one of the things that the debate taught me is that it can also feel like a series of actions. It may look like going into the other perspectives and reasoning about the best arguments for that side. It might be looking at your own case with a critical eye, trying to think through what an opponent might say to oppose it. And that instills a kind of humility, doesn’t it? The thought that you haven’t got it all 100%.
I don’t think it’s the same as empathy. And there is no substitute for listening to the other person and allowing them to express themselves. But this humility creates a kind of openness through which empathy can arise.
Good Arguments – What the art of debating can teach us about listening and disagreeing, published by Simon & Schuster is now available