The first presidential debate is happening tonight and you can watch it here. However, once the candidates are done debating, you might find yourself in a debate of your own. If you want this discussion to be more productive than your last argument on Facebook, here are some strategies to help make sure you don’t walk away stressed out, having wasted your time and energy.
You don’t have to debate. It’s optional. Unless you’re one of the presidential candidates, you don’t have to do this.
Are you still with us? Still got a good reason to have this debate even though you’re not obligated to? Cool. Keep reading.
Define Your Audience
When politicians debate on stage, they’re not trying to convince each other of their arguments. They’re trying to convince you, the viewer. Their arguments are structured around accomplishing that goal. If you’re going to debate someone else, it’s helpful for you to make similar decisions about what you want to accomplish.
If you’re arguing in, say, a Facebook comment thread, then you might not have a very good chance at changing the mind of the person you’re debating. But the other people who may be reading are a different matter. Staying conscious of those people can help you keep your cool even when your opponent just. won’t. listen.
This can also help you avoid getting sucked into lengthy unproductive diatribes. If you just want to make sure everyone knows that something someone said is wrong, you can hop in, drop some facts, and bounce before things get ugly. It’s not your job to convince everyone! But you can undermine your own credibility if you get into an all-out fight trying to convince someone who can’t be convinced. Have a plan before you get involved about what you want to accomplish and who you want to affect before you start reaching for the Caps Lock key.
Debate the Steel Man of Their Argument
You might have heard the phrase “straw man” to describe a bad-faith debate technique where your opponent makes up a version of your argument that you don’t actually believe, and debates that instead. It’s not great practice and you should probably avoid that. But even better than not straw-manning someone’s argument is to intentionally steel man it instead.
“Steel man,” as the name implies, is when you try to find the strongest version of your opponent’s argument to debate against. It’s great if you can get your opponent to agree on a proposition first—for example, “Is your position that raising taxes is always bad?”—but you can also accomplish this by doing your research ahead of time.
As a general (though by no means absolute) rule, if you’re getting your argument from someone who is debunking a claim, it might not be the best form of the argument. For example, “These morons think global warming was made up by China!” is probably not the best version of the argument. However, if you can find the specific claims that your opponent actually believes, then you can be better equipped to respond to them.
Don’t Take the Posturing Bait
Have you ever found yourself in an argument where you start out debating one thing and 20 minutes later you’re on something else entirely? You started by talking about the deficit, but somehow you’ve landed on immigration, and every time you make a point, your opponent changes the subject, or focuses on some tiny portion of your response that was inelegantly phrased, rather than recognizing your argument as a whole. By the end, you’ve laid out all the facts you have and still gotten nowhere.