Debate is Not the Real World

A college friend of mine is having her second baby this week and it brought back some humorous memories of meeting 8 years ago.  We went to rival schools and frequently clashed on the debate team. As fierce competitors we often let things get too intense and on more than one occasion I would shriek and rant and she would end up crying.

So how did we manage to become friends and remain so after such a rocky start?

Quite simply we learned that some things (most things) are more important than winning. For one, your reputation. Being a winner is fun, being a gracious winner is work. Competing against someone is easy, befriending them is harder.

Since graduation I’ve had several opportunities to work in positions that require a lot of interaction with vendors. Whether you’re trying to use a special coupon at the drug store or contesting a charge on your credit card statement, here are some of the things I learned in my debate tenure that I’ve found useful.

Debate tactic: Know your evidence

You can’t walk into a room with any sense of confidence if you don’t know the topic, your position and your evidence. Be prepared.

Real World Translation: Do your homework.

Before you call and make a fool of yourself know your account numbers, know your last payment date, know your usage history. Be prepared to state in one sentence who you need to talk to.

Debate tactic: Listen and respond proactively

When the other team has a chance to ask questions and challenge your evidence or reasoning pay attention. Always repond to the question asked (don’t be a

politican) and use the time to reinforce your position.

Real World Translation: Listen and respond proactively

When the customer service technician asks you for information don’t get frazzled and shout “I don’t KNOW!” If they have to ask you for that number *again* repeat it calmly. By the time you reach the negotiation portion of the conversation you will have distinguished yourself from other callers and earned a little capital.

Debate Tactic: Use your opponent’s concessions against them.

While maintaining decorum, use concessions and omissions to capitalize on a strength and win.

Real World Translation: Use mistakes as opportunities

If your service provider has failed in some way don’t browbeat them, use it to your advantage. When I called about reducing my trash service we realize I’d been charged for the wrong size can. The company did not complete the initial verification and therefore owed me the difference. Instead of getting angry I calmly stated that since the company had made the error they would certainly need to make amends by refunding that money and the clerk agreed.

Debate Tactic: Use emotion without becoming irrational

In 3 years I spoke on a lot of topics; death, starvation, war, genocide, environmental destruction and racism were heavy topics. After a few months you learn how to balance the importance of your topic without shrieking.  In my second year we could often tell if we’d won based on the judge’s reaction to my final speech. On more than one occasion a judge would cry and we knew it was a win.

Real World Translation: Be upset, not angry

You can certainly express your frustration with a situation without projecting anger, hostility or bitterness at a person or company. Most likely the person across the counter or on the other end of the phone did not single handedly create the situation you are in. If they did it’s best to speak to their supervisor or move laterally across the chain of command. Focus on the positive outcome you want and give them a chance to make things right.

Debate Tactic: Win the battle but don’t lose the war

While your win record matters there are other variables like attitude, decorum and personality that play in heavily. When two teams have the same win record a tie is broken by speaker points and how you treated your partner, opponent, coaches and the judge were big factors.

Real World Translation: Don’t be a bitch

I’ll admit to get frustrated a lot of times when it comes to incompetence but I’m careful to reign it in before I make people cry (a big improvement). Consider your words as if you will see this person every other weekend, 9 months out of the year, for 4 years.


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