From my experience as a debater over the past few years, I’ve noticed some harmful tendencies in which we as debaters bring in-round strategies into real life. Although these inclinations are more common in some people than others, they still affect us all to a certain extent. That being said, I hope to illuminate some of these toxic tendencies to ultimately cultivate awareness so we can avoid them in the future.
Firstly, we tend to see winning as the ultimate goal. In debate rounds, having the most “offense” in the round is of utmost importance, and we go so far as to turn other people’s cases to garner offense on their side. However, this mentality is dangerous when applied to relationships. If we spend the entire time focusing on our feelings and why we’re right and belittle/ignore what others are saying, the conflict will never resolve well. Intentionally or unintentionally, when there is an issue in a relationship, we often worry about “losing” the arguments so much that we risk losing the other person instead. Instead, let’s focus on beating the issue at hand—whether that be miscommunication, distrust, or anything else.
Secondly, we avoid concessions like the plague. In round, conceding feels like the end of the world—admitting we’re wrong hurts our ethos and can even cost us the round. Out of round, this mentality can cause us to become overly defensive whenever we’re told that we’re wrong, causing us to shut down and refuse to acknowledge fault. However, being able to admit that we’re wrong is crucial in solving any conflict—vulnerability is a catalyst for solution. Additionally, avoiding concession creates a close-mindedness in which we know that we’re wrong, but we’ll manipulate what we say to get out of it. Maybe we have a bad piece of evidence, but we pretend it’s true since they didn’t call for it. Or we might make up a new warrant to support our failing point. Whichever the case, this mentality is incredibly destructive for relationships, as we start to manipulate what we say in order to avoid being wrong, which makes arriving at a solution impossible.
Thirdly, we listen solely to respond. Especially seen in crossfire, we listen carefully to our opponent’s answers to find any weaknesses to attack or use against them. Listening to respond is necessary in round, especially for the rebuttal speech, as we often listen to cases for the sole purpose of trying to rip them apart. In reality, however, this selective and manipulative listening only blocks empathy and deteriorates relationships. When others talk about their struggles to us, sometimes they just want someone to listen and try to understand what they’re going through. However, we may only listen for things that apply to us, attempting to help them feel better by relating or giving advice, but this often comes off as selfish and may only make them feel worse and close off. Furthermore, during conflicts, we may listen just to find weaknesses and turn them against the other person, which may make the other person less willing to communicate with us in fears that we will turn their words against them.
Fourthly, we may treat feelings like impacts. In debate, impact weighing is stressed over and over again, which is strategic in round. However, if we aren’t careful, we may unintentionally treat someone’s struggles the same way as we do with in-round impacts, weighing them and comparing them to other situations—except this time, we risk invalidating their experiences and minimizing their struggles. For example, we may say someone’s concern “isn’t a big deal” and compare it to something we deem much worse. Or maybe someone tells us something we’ve done was hurtful, but we “weigh” by bringing up a completely different time they did something to us and argue that it was worse. This “weighing” only serves to invalidate other people’s feelings and make them feel more alone—they seek empathy, not comparison. Outside of comparison, we tend to also “mitigate” feelings. We may often point out that others are “overreacting” or “too sensitive” because we believe that their struggle is small. But in reality, we can never understand how someone else feels or how much something means to someone else, which is completely different from the impersonal, detached ways we are able to treat impacts in round. So, let’s focus more on identifying with their pain and showing compassion instead of making others feel smaller.
Lastly, we tend to have a “debate persona.” This persona is who we embody during rounds: we tend to speak more loudly, more aggressively, more passionately, and sometimes with a harsher tone than usual. Our persona isn’t limited to our voices; our facial expressions and gestures may also convey this intensity. Although this persona may be appropriate during rounds, it has little propriety in real life conversations; during conversations, even if we attempt to convey our thoughts with compassion, others may disengage and shut down when we unintentionally switch into our “debate persona.” Our volume and intensity can make us come across as unapproachable and intimidating. Furthermore, the discomfort from our debate persona not only affects our non-debate friends, but can also cause our fellow debaters to shy away from us—it’s intimidating for anyone to communicate with someone who seems to be yelling at you. This debate persona, when taken out of round, doesn’t create a healthy atmosphere for everyday conversation, let alone conflict resolution.
At the end of the day, we’re all human and it can be difficult to code switch out of our “debate mode.” But once we become aware of these tendencies, we can pause and think of how to better respond or adjust our behaviors when we catch ourselves making some of these mistakes, or apologize if the mistake has already been made.
Ultimately, when we are aware of when we’re being more competitive than compassionate, we’re one step closer to destroying these toxic mentalities instead of our meaningful relationships.