Good Arguments (2022) is one part memoir, one part guide to the art of speaking. It introduces us to the thrilling and eccentric subculture of competitive debate and distills its secrets into timeless principles for effective communication. If we can only learn to disagree better, it argues, we can improve our relationships and revitalize our democracies.
Introduction: Get over your fear of conflict and learn how to disagree productively
Table of Contents
The spirit of free and open debate in Western democracies today is under threat. It’s not that we lack things to disagree about. It’s just that we seem to be forgetting how to disagree well.
Perhaps the reason for this is that the values that make good-faith debate possible – like mutual trust and respect – are at an all-time low. They’ve been steadily eroded by a toxic mix of polarized politics, conflicting ideologies, and misinformation.
And, as a result, the quality of public discourse has taken a nosedive. Whether it’s an argument with a stranger on Twitter or a heated discussion with a relative at dinner, the exchange is often so bitter and hostile that it resembles more of a shouting contest than an actual conversation. On top of that, many people avoid participating altogether out of fear of getting caught in the crossfire.
But avoiding conflict out of fear isn’t going to heal social division. What we need to learn is how to approach our disagreements in a more constructive way. According to author and debate champion Bo Seo, the key lies in competitive debate.
He argues that if we only approach our disagreements with the same skill and respect that competitive debaters do, disagreement can actually be a force for social connection rather than a wedge driving us apart.
This summary to Bo Seo’s Good Arguments translates the wisdom of competitive debate so you can learn to disagree more productively. You’ll discover some of the core principles of debate – as well as which exercises professional debaters use to improve the way they think and speak.
Bo Seo’s Journey
Before we begin, we have to introduce the star of the show.
Bo Seo was born in South Korea. But when Seo was just eight years old, his parents made the risky decision to uproot their lives; in search of greener pastures, they moved the family to Australia.
At this point Seo spoke no English – and, as one might expect, he struggled to find his place in his new home. At school, unable to communicate with his peers, or even understand his homework, Seo receded into himself and eventually gave up speaking altogether. He learned that to get by in this world, it was easier just to keep quiet and do as he was told.
For several lonely years, Seo was your typical wallflower. He was never loud; he never asserted himself. He just kept his head down and studied, slowly getting a grip on the nasal Aussie English. But when he was in fifth grade, something happened that would change his life forever: his teacher invited him to take part in a debate competition.
Competitive debate is like a formal game in which two rival teams participate in a verbal battle in order to persuade judges to join their side on some issue. It’s a sport that thrives in schools and universities around the globe, and a surprising number of presidents, CEOs, and civil rights leaders have competed.
The rules are pretty simple. The opposing teams are assigned a motion – the topic of the debate – 15 minutes to one hour beforehand so they have time to prepare. After that, the debate begins. Each team takes turns speaking in front of the judges for about five minutes. Once the debate is over, the team that’s spoken most convincingly is declared the winner.
This is the world Seo had stumbled into. In his first-ever debate, he was asked to defend the motion, “All zoos should be banned.” On that stage, between the fearful walk up to the podium and the thrill of unbroken applause at the end, something happened to Seo – he found his voice.
Over the course of the next decade, Seo entered one competition after another, gradually honing his skill and rising in the rankings. He didn’t just excel at debating either. It turns out that the skills he was learning in debate – logical thinking, composition, public speaking – all helped him to excel in his social and academic life as well.
Eventually, his passion for debate carried him to places he never dreamed possible. First, he won the World High School Championship, and then he went on to study at Harvard, where he led the team to yet another victory at the World University Championship.
Needless to say, competitive debate transformed Seo’s life for the better. Not only did it expose Seo to a mind-boggling range of ideas in everything from science and history to politics and philosophy; more importantly, it gave him a reason to care about learning.
For Seo, debate was a powerful tool in his continued education – and it can be for you too. So, let’s shift gear and turn to the principles of good debate.
How to find the disagreement
The first thing any budding debater has to learn is how to spot the disagreement in an argument. After all, how are you supposed to know what to say if you don’t even know what the subject of the argument is?
Yet you’d be surprised by how many people run into arguments headfirst without thinking about this question. It’s no wonder so many conflicts are unproductive.
Try it yourself. Think back to the last argument you had. It doesn’t matter who it was with – just try to recall what was said and what sparked it. Then answer this question: What was the disagreement? There’s an important distinction here. You’re not asking what the argument was about. What did you actually disagree on?
If you can’t put your finger on the disagreement, it’s possible there may not have been one to begin with. Like bad dreams, petty arguments are forgotten just as quickly as they come.
So that’s the first thing a debater does. Armed with a pen and paper, debaters write down the disagreement. And they don’t bother arguing unless there’s really something to argue about!
Now, broadly speaking, there are three types of things that people disagree about – facts, judgments, and prescriptions. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Facts are claims about the way things are. For example, it’s a fact that Jakarta is a megacity. And it’s also a fact that the boiling point of water is 100°C, or 212°F. On the face of it, facts may seem impeachable. But given that humans are always working with limited knowledge and evidence, there’s typically room to argue that your opponent has got their facts wrong.
Judgments are a little different from facts in that they involve subjective opinion. Statements like “Berlin is dangerous” and “lying is wrong” are examples of judgments. Disputing judgments usually involves disputing the facts or assumptions on which they’re based.
Finally, there are prescriptions. These are judgments about how we ought to act. Think about those “should” statements – like “you should go to the gym” or “the government shouldn’t limit free speech.” Disagreements about prescriptions usually center on the likely consequences of the action.
So, those are the three types of disagreements. Unfortunately, as you’ve probably noticed, life is rarely neat and tidy. In real-world arguments, we usually disagree about all of these things at the same time. And, to make matters worse, we’re often forced to untangle the different threads of a disagreement mid-argument.
To make our job a little easier, we can repurpose a technique from competitive debate called topic analysis. Debaters use this technique to draw out the different layers of disagreement in a topic. For example, the topic could be “parents should not send their children to private school.”
First, you would write the topic down, and then you’d draw a circle around all the contentious words in the sentence – everything you could have a disagreement about.
At first glance, the disagreement here may seem straightforward. This is clearly a prescriptive disagreement about whether one should or should not send their children to private school. So the word you would circle is “send.”
But take a closer look, and it turns out there are other parts of the sentence you can disagree about too. If you’d like, pause and have a think.
You could, for example, circle the words “private school” because you might have factual disagreements about the quality of private schools – or even what counts as a private school. You might circle the word “should” because you disagree about the value of private schools or the obligations of parents toward them. You might even circle “children” because you can disagree about what children’s needs and wishes are.
So what appeared at first to be a purely prescriptive statement about what parents should do turned out to contain a bundle of assumptions about facts and judgments as well. The failure to recognize the plural nature of arguments often causes people to talk past each other as they argue over different things.
You can utilize topic analysis in your personal and professional disputes. It’ll help you identify the most important disagreements in any argument, thereby making it more focused and manageable.
How to make an argument
Once you’ve identified the disagreement, the next step is to argue your case.
In the world of competitive debate, argument reigns supreme. You simply can’t win without it. This makes competitive debate rather exceptional in our culture. In most other areas of life, arguments tend to decline in value. Ours is a culture of images, not arguments.
Maybe you’re not convinced. Let’s take the world of commerce, for example. Pictures of abs and cleavage can persuade us of a lot – anything from buying sodas to signing up for a gym membership. And even in politics, the traditional home of debate, politicians try their best to avoid making arguments; they prefer the power of the photo op.
Now consider this. In the workplace, we’re expected to follow instructions and not argue or question them. It’s no wonder many people have never learned – or have forgotten – how to construct a proper argument.
Let’s start with what an argument isn’t. An argument is not a slogan or a pep talk, nor is it a list of facts or an assertion of your feelings. It’s not a description or an explanation. And it’s definitely not raising your voice louder. So, what is it then?
An argument is a conclusion that you’ve arrived at logically from a set of premises, supported by evidence.
OK, to unpack this jargon a little, there are basically two things that every argument has to prove: First, that the claims it makes are true. And second, that they support the conclusion. Let’s look at an example.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a vegetarian who wants to convince a meat-eater to give up eating meat. “You should give up meat” is essentially the conclusion you’re trying to sell.
So, to construct an argument, write the conclusion, add the word “because” next to it, and then fill in the blank. What you write after this “because” is the main claim of the argument that you’ll have to prove.
For instance, you might write, “We should give up meat because modern industrial farming causes great suffering to animals.”
Next, you’ll need to establish the truth of your main claim by supplying evidence, such as further facts and information.
You might point to the conditions in which animals on factory farms live; you could say they live in extreme confinement and unhygienic squalor. Or you might point to their behavior, such as signs of abnormal aggression and distress. Evidence takes many forms, so there are a lot of possibilities here.
Once you’ve sufficiently justified the truth of your main claim, is your job done? Not quite. You still need to explain why the main claim supports your conclusion that people should stop eating meat.
This last part of an argument is the one that’s most often forgotten. In the rush to pile on reasons and evidence for the main claim, people often forget to explain why it all matters. A meat-eater might accept everything you’ve said about the conditions of animals on factory farms, and yet still shrug their shoulders. And they have a point – so far it isn’t clear why anyone should stop eating meat, as opposed to, say, eating meat less often or being a bit more selective about the meat we buy.
So you need to make the connection explicit. For example, you could argue that not eating meat is the strongest action you can do as a consumer to pressure the meat industry to change its ways. And then you can support this claim with further evidence.
And that’s an argument! It’s not as simple as it first sounded, is it? It requires careful structuring and logical progression. And it helps to have a good memory for facts and details. Try writing arguments down. The more you practice putting arguments together on paper, the easier it’ll be to make them when you’re speaking.
How to refute a point
Now, unless you’re having an argument with yourself – which is fine – you’re not going to be the only person making arguments in a debate. Your opponent might also be making some good points. That means the next skill you need to get good at is rebuttal.
As we’ve just discovered, every argument has to prove two things: that the claims it makes are true, and that they support the conclusion. To refute an argument, then, you simply need to do the opposite. You need to either show that the claims your opponent is making are not true – or, that even if they are true, they don’t support their conclusion.
Let’s look at another example. This one’s a little less serious. Say your partner is trying to convince you to buy a new car because “the old hatchback you’re driving just isn’t fashionable anymore!” You, on the other hand, are quite fond of your old clunker, and you don’t feel like forking over the money for a new one. You need to rebut her point – so, what do you say?
First, you could target the truth of her claim, in which case you have several options. You could either argue straight up that her claim is factually incorrect: “No, people are buying more hatchbacks today than ever before, and I can prove it!”
Alternatively, you could argue that her view lacks evidence. You could say, “You haven’t given me any reason to believe that fashions are changing.” Or, if she does have evidence, you could argue that it’s inconclusive: “It’s true that fewer people in our neighborhood drive hatchbacks, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect a national trend.”
Your other option is to accept that your partner’s claim is true – but to argue that it doesn’t support the conclusion that you should buy a new car. Here you have two more options. You can either argue that it’s not important at all: “Yes, I know it’s not fashionable, but I don’t care what other people think.” Or you could argue that the argument is outweighed by other factors: “Yes, I would prefer to drive a fashionable car, but I also have to think about the money.”
Hopefully, this exercise has given you a sense of just how many directions you can go in for pushing back against another person’s arguments. Of course, not all arguments are going to be so easy to refute.
You can avoid a lot of hemming and hawing if you show up to an argument prepared. The real world doesn’t always afford us time to prepare. But if you do know you have an argument coming up, try a debate prep technique called Side Switch.
Side Switch involves stepping into your opponent’s shoes to try and guess what they’re going to say. For five minutes, really try to set your own convictions aside and consider the debate from their perspective. Then brainstorm as many arguments as you can in favor of their view. When that’s done, all that’s left is to come up with a rebuttal for each one of these arguments. That way, you’ll know exactly what to say if they raise this point in real life.
The purpose of Side Switch is to help us preempt our opponent’s lines of attack. But the effect of this imaginative exercise is often that we see our opponent’s side more clearly. Our own convictions become unsettled, and we usually end up approaching the argument with more seriousness, openness, and respect.
How to sound persuasive
So far, we’ve covered the content of what you should say in an argument. But what you say isn’t everything. You also need to think about how you say it. That’s where rhetoric comes in.
Rhetoric is the study of how to speak persuasively. It’s a broad subject that includes everything from the words and structure of your speech to the tone of your voice to the body language you use to express yourself. All of these affect how people perceive you.
Just think, who are you more likely to believe: someone who speaks confidently and fluidly, or someone who appears nervous and breaks into umming every few seconds?
Admittedly, rhetoric has a bad reputation these days. It’s often synonymous with the kind of hollow and misleading speech that politicians use to obscure the truth and manipulate the public. And there’s definitely something to this criticism.
But there’s also another side to rhetoric that’s decidedly more positive. When used in the right way, rhetoric can be truth’s greatest ally, helping to spread ideas further and inspiring people to act on what they hear.
The fact is, people have a very high “butt-off-the-couch” threshold. In other words, it takes a ridiculous amount of energy to move people to act in this world. You can’t just rely on facts alone to move people. Only people can do that. So we shouldn’t give up on rhetoric just yet.
Thankfully, Bo Seo has come up with a few handy rules of thumb for more persuasive speaking. Let’s take a look at them.
The first rule is pretty straightforward: clarity is key. You won’t convince anyone if they don’t know what you’re talking about. So avoid using abstract words, and ditch the confusing metaphors. What’s more, be specific; use concrete examples to explain your points.
The second rule? Cut the excess. Delete anything from your speech that doesn’t contribute to the arguments you’re making. That means stick to the point. Don’t ramble. Avoid unnecessary repetition and excessive qualification. Don’t bother with long-winded introductions. Just get to the point before you lose the listener’s attention.
And here’s the third rule: make it personal. If you can strike an emotional chord with your audience, they’ll be more engaged and more sympathetic to your cause. So speak to the listener’s needs and experiences directly. Sprinkle in stories from your own life. And relate your arguments back to what they mean for real people.
Finally, you also need to pay attention to the manner of your speech. You’ll appear far more persuasive if you can speak fluidly without stops and starts.
Speaking fluidly is perhaps the most difficult thing to master, but you can get there through practice. Competitive debaters do speaking drills to improve their flow and weed out distracting quirks in their speech.
Consider this drill, for example. Give a one-minute speech to a friend. Every time you trip up or say “um,” your friend throws a paper ball at you. Repeat the speech until you can get through it without being hit.
And here’s another one. Try making an argument while inserting the word for a random fruit between every word. Like this: Tax banana havens banana should banana be banana banned banana!
Doing speaking drills over and over again can be tedious. But it comes with the promise of a great reward – an elegant form of speech that’s sure to make people stop and listen.
You’ve just been introduced to the principles of debate – what to say and how to say it. You can begin putting them into practice by trying out the exercises outlined in this summary. Of course, the easiest way to harness the power of debate is just to, well, debate!
If the idea of staging a formal debate with teams and judges seems a bit awkward to squeeze into your daily routine, don’t worry about it. You can reap all the benefits of formal debate just by debating with your friends and colleagues in a more natural way. The important thing to remember before you start is that all parties must be willing to have an argument, treat each other with respect, and try their best not to take anything personally.
When it comes to society at large, many leaders are beginning to appreciate the power of debate to enhance learning and solve problems. Movements are already underway all over the world to incorporate debate into school curriculums and workplace procedures. Warren Buffett, for instance, recently floated the idea of hiring two advisors before making any big acquisition – one to argue in favor of the move, the other against.
These are exciting developments. Still, debate has the potential to be so much more than a decision-making tool. Debate holds the key to solving some of today’s most pressing problems. If democratic governments committed to educating their citizens in debate and established forums for doing it, such as citizen assemblies, debate could be a powerful force in repairing social divisions and invigorating democratic participation.
As citizens, we have a responsibility to learn how to debate well – to deliberate with our neighbors on matters that affect everyone, to settle our disputes with reasoned argument rather than violence, to listen to one another’s concerns and make compromises. Debate is the very soul of civic participation; to give up on it would be to give up on the social project altogether.
Speech, Communication Skills, Biography, Memoir, Professionals and Academics, Psychology, Leadership, Language, Sociology, Business, Adult, Science, Autobiography, Social Skills
Bo Seo is a two-time world champion debater and a former coach of the Australian national debating team and the Harvard College Debating Union. One of the most recognized figures in the global debate community, he has won both the World Schools Debating Championship and the World Universities Debating Championship. Bo has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, and many other publications. He has worked as a national reporter for the Australian Financial Review and has been a regular panelist on the prime time Australian debate program, The Drum. Bo graduated from Harvard University and received a master’s degree in public policy from Tsinghua University. He is currently a Juris Doctor candidate at Harvard Law School.
Table of Contents
1. Topic: How to find the debate
2. Argument: How to make a point
3. Rebuttal: How to push back
4. Rhetoric: How to move people
5. Quiet: How to know when to disagree
6. Self-Defense: How to defeat a bully
7. Education: How to raise citizens
8. Relationships: How to fight and stay together
9. Technology: How to debate in the future
Stay tuned for book review…