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Mastering Persuasion: Tips and Tricks from a Debater

The scene is Thanksgiving dinner, and you’re seated at the table with what feels like a small village of relatives, surrounded by faces you vaguely recognize and others you pointedly avoid. Tonight’s conversation has been a perilous minefield, but years of family experience have given you the navigational skills of an expert combat engineer, and so far, the evening has progressed smoothly. 

Suddenly, your uncle is yelling about the destruction of traditional American values and throwing gravy at you from across the table. Aunt Barbara shrieks as the cranberry sauce overturns on her frock. Your cousin Troy—or maybe it was Travis?—tackles your brother-in-law to the floor, swinging his turkey leg like a club, and the mashed potatoes go flying.

As the battle rages, you hunch lower beneath the kitchen table, a single bread roll clutched in your hand. Things had started so well, you think. How did it all go so wrong?

While I haven’t had gravy thrown at me by an irate relative, I have been verbally assaulted in various classrooms across the nation. I’ve also done my own fair share of verbal assaulting, in a sport that you may know as debate.

When most people think of debate, they think of government officials and political candidates, grandiose and eloquent speeches made in the halls of Congress. However, debate isn’t just limited to bureaucratic legislation. We are all unique individuals with unique perspectives, surrounded by many who do not share the same opinions as us, and we are constantly weighing these opinions against our own, internally debating with others.

Unfortunately, the turn of the decade has brought great division and controversy, a wide and uncompromising gap between people of different views. Constructive argument has been reduced to mostly screaming across the aisle; for a notable example, take a look at the first 2020 presidential debate.

With that in mind, here are a few ways to dodge the gravy and have a proper conversation.

AVOID A DEBATE

As a debater, I can confidently say that debate is one of the worst ways to discuss something.

Debate is an art, not a science. This means it is incredibly subjective and easy to manipulate. 

One of the first things you learn as a debater is that it is possible to argue and win on any side, because debate can justify almost anything and everything, especially when the goal is to win. This can often lead to the obfuscating of important details, cherry-picking, misleading phrasing, or other underhanded tactics designed to sell your position. Without proper rules and a mediator, it can very easily spiral out of control.

Debate also makes you unable to look outside your own belief system and listen to others’ perspectives, since the only objective is to forward yours. The goal should be not just to convince, but to convince honorably. Because of this, a discussion should be held instead of an argument, in order to encourage open-mindedness and integrity.

RESPECT YOUR CONVERSATION PARTNER

Your conversation partner is a reasonable person. If they’re not, then why are you even talking to them?

Your racist uncle at Thanksgiving is probably not going to be someone who is open to constructive dialogue, so there’s no reason to try and seek any. Which brings me to the answer to the question from before: what went wrong was that someone with unjustifiable beliefs was given the impression that said beliefs were permissible. 

Dialogue is a two-way street, and both parties must agree to be open-minded. Uncompromising and prejudiced views are the complete opposite of this and do not warrant a discussion. 

Equally as important, if both parties do not treat each other with respect, chances are the discussion will devolve into an unwanted debate, or worse, a verbal dogfight. Remember—not everyone who disagrees with you is pigheaded or stupid. They are just as sensible as you are; they simply have different values and experiences that do not completely mirror yours. 

After all, everyone is unique. Why expect our beliefs to be the exception?

FIND COMMON GROUND

Common ground is the cooling saucer of debate, and the best place to hold a discussion. 

Often the reason why people disagree over an issue is rooted in an “axiom” they have—a specific principle or belief. You may agree on the same facts, but the significance of these facts will vary depending on the perspective of the participants.

Here’s a basic example of this concept in debate:

  • Argument – Dave should bring an umbrella to work.
  • Evidence – The weather forecast says it will rain today.
  • Warrant (or “significance) – An umbrella will keep Dave from getting wet from the rain.

Seems logical enough, right? The weather forecast is objective data that you and Dave can both agree is fact. But what if Dave didn’t care about getting wet from the rain? What if he’s more bothered by the inconvenience of carrying an umbrella around? Therein lies our dilemma. 

The two axioms that exist in this problem are as follows:

  • Axiom #1 (you) – Getting wet from the rain is bad and should be avoided.
  • Axiom #2 (Dave) – Carrying around an umbrella all day is worse than getting wet.

The way to persuade Dave to take an umbrella is not to dispute the evidence or the argument, but to try and find common ground between your two axioms. 

For example, Dave seems to be worried about inconveniences. You could argue that getting wet from the rain is a worse inconvenience, as he will be stuck in his uncomfortable clothes all day at work. Furthermore, Dave’s boss may reprimand him for his unprofessional appearance when he arrives completely soaked, and his boss’s opinion of him will last longer than the rainy weather outside.

At this point, Dave may begin to see your point of view, and you will have successfully convinced him to bring an umbrella to work. Discussing axioms and finding areas of agreement is helpful to understanding and persuading the other side.

KEEP YOUR HEART… 

It’s easy to be bogged down by numbers and statistics when you’re trying to convince someone using facts. Unfortunately, morals are not quantifiable, and by doing so, you risk alienating the other person and even ending up on the wrong side of the discussion. 

Purely logical arguments often do not take ethics into account. An example of this is utilitarianism, a philosophy that asserts that the correct action to take is the one that benefits the most people. On the surface, it seems like a great belief system; however, utilitarianism can be used to justify the oppression of minority groups to benefit the majority, or the killings of a few to save many. 

Economic-heavy arguments are also in danger of this. For example, high economic growth is easily measured through charts and graphs, but poor labor conditions and the suffering of the working class are not. 

Keeping an eye out for these stances can help you connect emotionally with your conversation partner and persuade them to let go of a stony point of view, as well as ensure that your own ground isn’t morally bankrupt. 

As William Bruce Cameron once wrote, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

… BUT REMEMBER YOUR HEAD

Never rely on just emotions to do the convincing. It’s important that your viewpoint is based on reality and factual evidence. Otherwise, you end up misleading the other party or just straight-up lying. 

Notable figures and politicians are often guilty of this. Don’t be like them.

REVEL IN GRAY

Finally, the world is not as black and white as many would lead you to believe. It’s important to understand that many of today’s issues are complex and multi-faceted, and that just because someone else holds a different opinion from you does not mean either of you is wrong. It can be easy to fall into a false dichotomy; very rarely are there only two perspectives to be had on a subject matter.

Productive dialogue will often delve deep into the gray areas of potentially controversial topics. Embrace and consider them at length. Not only will this provide lots of common ground, but it will also expand your and your conversation partner’s understanding of whatever you are discussing.

Sometimes, a discussion will end with everyone agreeing to disagree, and that’s okay. You may even find yourself being persuaded instead of doing the persuading, and that’s okay too! It’s not about being right or winning; these types of conversations are all about reshaping and improving our viewpoints as we learn and gain more insight into the world around us.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is present your own perspective and consider others’. Whether or not someone is persuaded is based on their own existing principles. Maybe you manage to change those. Or maybe you don’t. 

Either way, I hope you come away with something new to think on.

Jenny Nguyen

CU Boulder '25

Jenny is a freshman at the CU College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in MCDB with a computational biology minor. Her interests include astronomy, debate, Pokemon, and a variety of TV shows and movies ranging from the average slice-of-life to a good, bone-chilling horror flick.
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