Bo Seo is a two-time world champion debater and former coach of the Australian Debating Team and the Harvard College Debating Association. In his book, Good Arguments: What the Art of Argument Can Teach Us to Listen Better and Disagree Well, he maintains the skills learned in academic sparring can lead to better public discourse and more respectful conversations in personal relationships.
Here, he answers some questions about what the debate can teach us about good and bad arguments in our personal lives.
Bo, in your book you mention a survey of dishwashing detergent manufacturers that found that many domestic disputes are about claims … and we all know they aren’t really about dishes. You say the poll highlights two things about arguments in people’s homes. What are they?
First, that some of our most difficult and enduring disagreements are with those we are closest to. And secondly, that they engage in trivial matters.
So let’s take number one. Why can’t we resolve persistent differences with those closest to us?
In short, I think it’s reckless. When it comes to the people we love, we have this idea that they should get us without us saying anything. It sounds nice, but it causes a lot of problems. We feel that since we have agreed to share our lives with this person, they must agree with us on some level. And so the disagreement seems that much more threatening.
Are you talking about fixed positions? You become determined because OK, I chose this person, so we have to agree on everything. And so it is.
Definitely. It’s an assumption we wouldn’t dare make of a stranger: that they’ll agree with us by the end of this conversation. And the other one is just like you said, which is the notion that we’re in this together.
We wouldn’t expect our very close friend to think exactly the same way.
This is correct. And all these things make us sloppy in arguments [with those closest to us]. Make us angry faster when we don’t get things our way. And I think the last part of it is because we share so much of our lives with our spouses and partners, a disagreement about something small like the dishwasher can turn into a disagreement about everything. A disagreement about that thing that happened last time you were on a family vacation, or something your in-laws do. All of these things are kind of pulled in.
How can debating skills help us with this, please?
I think the discussion helps to remind, first, that every disagreement should work with some agreement. We agree that we are talking about dishes now. This is what we are talking about. Nothing else. And we can get to other things. But we are talking about dishes now.
We try to resolve our differences by arguing about it. And this is different from ad hominem attacks. It’s just different from emotions. It is different from other forms of self-expression. And we try as best we can to focus on the disagreements that are most likely to lead to a productive conversation between us.
How do you personally feel about arguments involving emotions? Is everything you learned as a debater flying out the window?
I mean of course I wrestle with it. And you know, one of the things about debate is that it leaves no room for emotion. Passions flow, but you are simply asked to channel it into a form that allows 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 the way the discussion helps me a little bit.
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But I think another way it helps is one thing you can learn as a debater; it’s knowing you’re going to lose… a lot. And knowing that victories are temporary because there will always be another conversation. And most importantly, knowing that on the day of a particular interview you may be right, but not convincing, and lose.
I think the stakes are a little lower for me sometimes because I don’t think it’s going to be one conversation that’s going to solve it. It’s kind of a back-and-forth where you have some wins and some losses and hope you end up on the winning side. Reasoning gives you the awareness that it doesn’t do or die. You know, it’s an ongoing conversation.
And what did debating teach you about empathy?
When I was a child struggling with the differences between me and my peers, I was often told that I was an empath or an empath. And this is a very puzzling instruction. Because who knows what empathy is? It is sometimes described as a type of psychic connection that happens spontaneously. It is described as a virtue that some people have and others do not. And one thing the discussion taught me is that it can also look like a sequence of actions. This may look like stepping into other points of view and debating through them what the best arguments are for that side. It can be a critical review of your own case, trying to think of what your opponent might say to counter it. And that instills a kind of humility, right? The idea that you haven’t got it 100% right.
I don’t think it’s the same as empathy. And there is no substitute for listening to another person and letting them express themselves. But this humility creates a kind of opening through which empathy can emerge.
Good Arguments – What the Art of Reasoning Can Teach Us How to Listen Better and Disagree by Simon & Schuster is now out