The Savvy Student’s Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Five
- Where We’ve Been
- But That’s Not Us—Right?
- Checking Our News Sources, and Why it Matters
- A New Definition of Winning
- Not a Battle of Wills
- Resolution on Social Media
- Debate in School and Beyond
- When Something is at Stake
- A Final Word About Savvy Debate
Where We’ve Been
It’s time for a little history lesson. Take a look at the first minute of this video, which certainly takes you on a bit of a time trip—it’s in black and white, and the sound quality isn’t great—but listen to the first minute, and tell me what stands out.
Better yet, I’ll tell you what you heard that amazed you—the opening remarks of both candidates were 8 minutes long. 8 minutes. That’s long enough to make four of these, or to watch this almost three times. Two people texting each other would be halfway through a complete conversation in 8 minutes—but in 1960, the two candidates for president were just getting started.
And then, there’s the studio where the debate is being held. Where’s the roar of approval from the audience when John Kennedy starts speaking, and why aren’t the reporters yelling when they ask the questions? Seriously—people watched this?
Yeah. They did. Well—some people did. Other people listened to it on the radio, because a lot of homes didn’t have a TV in 1960 (I know, I know). And while it’s since been debated, there’s some evidence to suggest that those who listened to the first televised presidential debates by radio thought Richard Nixon won the debate, while those who watched on TV thought John Kennedy won the debate.
That was the beginning of a major change in the way we interacted with ideas in the United States—and not just in debates. Realizing that the visual cues of television changed the way we listened to things, all forms of communication—books, radio shows, TV—took new approaches to sending out their messages, and we went along with the changes. The pace of conversations increased, and somewhere along the way, communicating took a back seat to speaking.
And then this happened. Focusing on personal issues like dating and marriage, the Jerry Springer Show helped make TV interview shows less about ideas and more about relationships. Replacing celebrities and experts with everyday people, there were more than a few times when tempers flared over, turning the once-thoughtful TV interview format into something more like this—and the audience loved it.
But That’s Not Us—Right?
It’s easy enough to think that most people don’t behave like this, and it’s a pretty safe bet you haven’t had anybody throw a chair at you. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t affected by shows like this one, or by the impact they’ve had on the way we discuss ideas. Think about your social media feed. How many times do you have to delete a “friend” who just can’t keep it together when it comes to exchanging ideas? How many regular conversations that used to be a little more polite devolve into ugliness in a matter of seconds?
And have you read the comments section under any online newspaper article? I’ve written a few of these columns as a guest writer. On more than once occasion, the editor has said “And remember—don’t read the comments.”
It turns out that the way we communicate, and especially the way we talk to those we disagree with, is affected pretty deeply by the chair throwers. It’s kind of like the fashion shows in New York. There’s a pretty good chance you won’t ever wear something like this, but the clothes we do purchase usually end up looking pretty similar in many ways, so we need to pay attention.
Checking Our News Sources, and Why it Matters
The first step on the road to the debate of good ideas begins with ourselves. Thanks to the Internet, there’s a wide array of really great resources out there that cover all of the sides to an issue—and if you think there’s only two sides to any given issue, your journey towards better debate should probably start here. While everyone agrees our schools could do a better job, there are dozens of ideas and opinions on how to improve them. Really understanding the need for better schools is more than thinking “Do more of this” or “Do less of that”. An issue with many sides can only be understood by researching all of them.
As great as the Internet is, there are two habits that keep us from being better informed on all sides of a story. First, while we can look at anything and everything on a well-wired phones, we tend to limit our news sources to those that agree with what we already believe. Known as confirmation bias, our desire to be right is usually more important than our interest in considering the other side. That means we might open our news feed with the goal of understanding more of the big picture, but we usually close it more convinced than ever that we were right in the first place.
The best solution to this challenge is simple to say, but harder to do—get more news resources, including friends who see the world differently. You can actually solve both these problems at once, by asking someone who holds a different opinion on an issue what their news sources are. Not only do you now know where to go online for a new perspective; you’ve also started a new relationship with someone who has respect for you, because you have first shown respect for him.
The second habit we have to break is mistaking opinion for fact. We’ve talked about this before, but it’s a big part of making sure your sources are giving you information, and not someone else’s informed opinions. This is especially true in the age of “non-stop news.” Sure, it’s great to have immediate access to important stories that truly shape our world. But these 24 hour news services don’t go blank when there’s nothing really important going on. Instead, they fill the time with stories that really aren’t that important, or opinion that’s built on one or two facts.
The challenge of sorting out what’s really important, and the real facts about an issue, requires good resources and a lot of critical thinking. This resource gives a good starting point in the lifelong habit of knowing the difference between fact and opinion—and if you’re wondering why this might be important when it comes to things like running the country, it’s pretty important, because it turns out the leaders aren’t really in charge of the country. We are.
A New Definition of Winning
The second step we need to take involves a debate stage that’s a little less formal than the one we saw in the Nixon-Kennedy video. It’s one thing to engage an established opponent in formal debate over an important global issue (and there are some great guidelines for that here). But what if it’s a Friday night dinner with your friends, and you somehow find yourself this close to losing it over a discussion of what restaurant has the best French fries? Do the same rules apply?
It might seem like the answer is yes, especially when you think about the flaming arguments people get into on social media. But you’re in a booth in a diner, not at a school debate contest—and you aren’t running for president; you’re talking with your friends. So what’s going on here, and what should you do about it?
The best first step is to do what you can to stay out of situations like this in the first place. This quiz gives you some idea how receptive you are to ideas that are different from yours. That’s especially important when it comes to social situations, where the goal is to enjoy your time with those around you. Some social scenes will get a little more complicated (like office Christmas parties when you’re older, and maybe this), but for now, social time is about hanging, doing, and supporting one another.
If your idea of leisure time is doing what’s comfortable, use your emotional intelligence to support your decisions about trying new things. If it’s been a long day, dinner and a movie with a friend who really gets you is the right call. On the other hand, if your plans have you meeting friends of your friends, and you’re planning on going to a movie you already think sounds a little weird, be ready to spend a lot of time self-monitoring. If that requires a nap after school, great. If that means holding back on your opinion of the movie, give it a try—there’ll be a chance to bring it up again later, when you have a little more energy to give it a more thoughtful discussion.
The overall goal of social discussion is to provide others with your thoughts and opinions in a way they can consider them and enjoy them, all as a part of enjoying hanging out with you. If that’s the goal, then achieving that goal becomes more about being a good friend than winning the debate. It’s certainly possible to do both, but the approach you take in social discussions is a little different than in school.
Not a Battle of Wills
Being receptive to the viewpoints of others may be the best way to run in social situations, but what do you do if things really do get out of control over your French fry discussion, or someone starts talking about an issue where it’s hard to find middle ground? Is there anything you can do to share your opinion without having the evening turn into a battle of the wills?
There are quite a few steps you can take to make sure anything you say is balanced, thoughtful, and respects the person with the other point of view, but before you rush into those, try these skills we’ve talked about:
It’s going to be impossible to put together any kind of strong response if you’re on the verge of going crazy. If this is your mood, it’s time to breathe, focus, and check yourself—all practices we discussed with emotional intelligence and self-care.
Make sure it’s worth it
I have a favorite sports team, too (no, that isn’t me), but I also understand a lot of people aren’t into hockey, and those who are might not be all that accepting of a difference of opinion. Before you turn up the heat on a debate over a best team, best Christmas sweater, or the only right way to eat a hot dog, think about how this is going to contribute to the success of the activity. When it doubt, leave it out.
Check what you heard
Responding to the statement “Gun control isn’t a big deal” is different from responding to “Gun control is a big deal”, especially since you might agree with one of those statements, but not with the other. Even if you’re in a quiet room, and you’ve never had trouble with your hearing this might be a good time to make sure the person said what you thought they said. This is also a great way to buy a little time to pull it together, and to start building your response (remember—it’s a response, not a reaction). A nice approach to this is “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the end of what you said. Gun control–?” and then leave the sentence for them to finish. Any of these will move the conversation forward. Use whatever you’re comfortable with, as long as it doesn’t include any kind of judgement of the speaker. The goal is to clarify, not condemn.
Consider using humor
Jokes are pretty powerful things. They spread like crazy across social media. Many comedians are remembered for a single joke, and a joke dramatically changed the way the Internet is used. So it makes sense that jokes can be used to make a quick change in a discussion from tension to enjoyment, right?
Well, sort of. The right joke to the right person at the right time, told the right way (“Wait. We disagree about something?”) is sometimes a good approach, but it’s less likely to work if you’re dealing with a serious topic—or a serious person. Take a look at these tips for using humor, and use it wisely.
Build your response
The best way to begin a different point of view is to focus on any part of their remark you might agree with. “It’s certainly true that some measures of gun control actually make people less safe”, or “You’re right—it would be impossible to ban all guns in a city or state.” This opens up the possibility that the speaker might find something in your statement they support, and since this is a social occasion, that can often be enough to let things go.
After stating the common ground, offer a statement that is more fact than opinion. The goal here is to build an understanding, not to have the Best. Opinion. On the issue. Offering a fact gives them something to consider and respond to, while giving an opinion is more likely to get a reaction.
Putting the two together, you create a space in the discussion for the speaker, and others, to join. “I certainly agree that it would be impossible to ban all guns in a city or state, but I can’t help but look at what they’ve done with guns in Australia, and wonder if our country might be safer if they tried the same thing.”
Make sure they get it
Some approaches to debate suggest it’s important to make sure the other person understands your side of the story. That would be great, except it isn’t easy to get them to do that, unless they choose to do it the way you’ve already checked your position with them. “Do you get what I’m saying?” can lead to all kinds of other problems besides figuring out how to end world hunger—it can make the other person feel stupid, and once someone is shamed, you’ve lost them.
The best you can do is try and summarize your position, close with “Does that make any sense?”, and see what happens. Getting them to recognize that they’ve heard what you said can be a powerful game changer all in itself.
Seek resolution quickly
Most social debates don’t require any formal resolution, but it’s still a good idea to try and find some common ground and move on. If two or three rounds of discussion make it clear you’re both standing by your view, agree to disagree; if they still insist that they want to try and win you over, suggest you pick up the discussion some other time, or if it’s a party, think about moving to a different part of the room. There’s no trophy waiting for the person with the best opinions, but some tense friendships could be created if you act like there is. Again, keep the big picture in mind, and let that guide you.
Resolution on Social Media
The gentle kind of arguing between friends in a restaurant booth on a Friday night is one kind of debate; the anonymous give-and-take that dominates social media is another. No major research has been done yet to figure out why even some of the nicest people turn into trolls when they hit the Internet, but the leading suspicion is that the Internet doesn’t offer a lot of accountability. It’s illegal to make certain threats with speech of any kind, including the Internet, but if you want to tell someone what you really think of them and hide behind an online alias, well, you can.
The very best rule for resolving an Internet disagreement is summed up in two words: move on. Even though it’s called “social” media, the person posting the remark may not even want any responses. They may have had a bad day; they may have just wanted to get a piece of information out there, or they may not have read this book, and they’re using the Internet as a diary. That last idea is especially bad, for reasons we already discussed—but pointing this out to them isn’t going to really help.
If you really believe you have no choice than to defend your position, there are some approaches that seem—that’s seem—to increase your chances of winning the argument, or at least having your argument heard.
It’s important to remember that this study focused on an Internet website people participated in because they were interested in hearing opposing viewpoints. That is rarely the case with political, religious, or other controversial posts on most social media, and even the data offers this advice about trying to “win” a Twitter argument: don’t try.
Just like other social situations (and even some professional and academic ones) there are times when it’s just best to be an observer of discord on social media. It’s also important to remember that the goal of social media is to create an atmosphere of sharing everyone is comfortable with. If you have a few friends who don’t mind heated debate, consider creating a special Friends group with just them. Otherwise, all of your social media posts don’t all have to be kittens and unicorns, but they should consider all points of view—and if someone takes offense, apologize, and move on.
Debate in School and Beyond
Now that you understand the ins and outs of holding your own point of view in social situations, the first thing to understand about debating at school or in the workplace is that half of those debates are also social, so the same rules apply. A discussion at your locker about the merits of The New Deal may center on the reading you had to do for History class, but it’s still just a conversation among friends. Sure, that discussion might sharpen your argument if you have to present your position in class, but you’re not getting graded on it, so be mindful that this discussion has a social part to it.
Formal presentations of differing points of view for class assignments or presentations give you the extra opportunity of doing much more in-depth research. Unlike a social debate, where you have to use the facts on hand, formal debates have a timeline that allows you to develop solid research on your topic, and create a strong, fact-based approach to presenting your point of view.
It’s important to remember that most formal arguments will include more than just the facts—and sometimes that’s good. Formal debates give you the opportunity to include examples of your points that bring your argument to life, and it usually includes an opportunity to point out the weaknesses of the other side’s argument. And if you’re wondering the best way to make sure the other side doesn’t point out the weaknesses of your argument? Point them out yourself, and respond to them before they have a chance.
If something higher is at stake, like a grade, a promotion, or an assignment of duties, you’re going to want to add a few more skills to your debate repertoire. The process begins the same way—make sure you’re focused and aware of your environment, so you can focus on the task at hand. After that’s done, see if you need to check and make sure you understand the subject of disagreement. That might not always be possible, especially if this involves an assignment where you’re being graded for certain behaviors, so keep that in mind.
At this point, how you shape your presentation depends on the goal. If the goal is to offer a position or idea in a way that it’s seen to be better than someone else’s, this list of steps can come in very handy. It’s worth noting that the first step is to make sure your point of view is communicated as clearly as possible, a reminder that, even in school or at work, the best way to win a debate is to make sure it’s necessary in the first place.
The remaining points are summed up nicely in a phrase most savvy students would be wise to remember in just about any situation they find themselves in: don’t take it personally. Seeing an idea as “yours” may lead to an increased desire to research it, develop it, explain it, and develop it as fully as possible, but when the time comes to defend it, or to consider changes that really might make it stronger, ownership is going to keep you from really hearing what others have to say—and we all know the price that’s paid for bad listening.
There are all kinds of reasons to do the exact opposite when you’re arguing a point, especially since we’ve talked about how bad people are at listening. That makes it easy to think that the best way to win the argument is to make sure they’re really paying attention to you. The problem is, most of those strategies, no matter how well intended, end up sounding like this, no matter who you’re talking to. You’re better off engaging in the process of listening and clarifying discussed in social debate.
When Something is at Stake
The biggest difference between social debate and academic (or professional debate) is that something is at risk—so how do we take that into consideration? Using these five steps for solving a problem can come in handy when the problem is a disagreement, and it requires some kind of resolution—which way will we present our group project, what should we do for the club fund raiser, who’s going to complete the hardest part of the homecoming float.
Using your powers of creativity, and combining them with the listening skills we’ve discussed, it’s easy to develop a list of possible solutions to many situations. As this article points out, the next key step, if at all possible, is to go away and think about them. Not only does this relieve any tension that’s in the room; it also creates the opportunity for more ideas to be generated that are even better than the ones you’ve produced. Leonard Bernstein’s version of doing something great is certainly true, but even his advice suggests you have to have some time.
Once the resolution is achieved, it helps if both sides either describe the resolution in their own words, or they follow up the discussion with something in writing (email, letter, formal contract) that seems right for the occasion. Once that’s done, it’s time to acknowledge one another, and move on.
A Final Word About Savvy Debate
From classroom assignments to differences of opinions to proper Internet discussion, one key point keeps coming up over and over again—don’t take the argument personally. One of the most famous public figures in recent times, was involved in very serious debates of pretty important issues, the kind of discussions that could wear people out in a hurry—but it never seemed to bother him.
His advice on this matter can help us understand how he was so vigorous in his discussions, and how we can be vigorous in ours. It’s especially helpful when we remember that one of his best friends in his social life was someone he disagreed with at work almost all the time. (If you haven’t clicked a single link in this entire book, you’ll want to click this one).
Not taking things personally is a pretty difficult thing for anyone to do, but it’s particularly hard for students. Going from the comforts of middle school to a big high school (and then an even bigger college) requires students to understand more and more about themselves and the ever-growing world around them. How can that be done without taking things personally?
As a person, you’ll always grow and change, you’ll always be meeting new people, and you’ll always be discovering new parts of you. That can be scary if you want it to be, or you can use the ideas we’ve talked about here, and learn how to live in the moment, all while keeping an eye out for how you might grow.
That challenge—that give and take of being happy with who you are, but being open to becoming even more of who you are—is the challenge we all face, the ongoing debate we have with ourselves and the world.
You’ll win it, if you remember two words. Be savvy.