I am not saving you should debate everything, but when you are debating, you might as well win. Great debaters use certain tactics as weapons to tear apart weak arguments and to distract you from weaknesses in their own arguments. Mind you, these tactics may have nothing to do with the truth and who is actually right, but they often determine the winner of an argument.
I’m going to start by covering the key tactics you need to master and will use a simple example to break it down. Which toothpaste is best? Let’s assume you are advocating toothpaste brand Awesome, and your opponent is for toothpaste brand Perfect.
1. Catch non-arguments and stomp on them. People often reference authorities that agree with their position as evidence that they are right. Arguments from authority should be called out as exactly what they are — just one person’s opinion that may be wrong, too. Experts can also be wrong. Or, their opinions could be taken out of context. For example, a person may argue that smoking filtered cigarettes is safe because 9 out of 10 doctors believe that smoking a filtered cigarette is safer than smoking a non-filtered cigarette. This doesn’t mean that smoking a filtered cigarette is actually safe. People will also refer to leaders, especially in politics, who have a certain opinion as evidence that their point must be right. In response, simply state that a “belief” even from an expert isn’t evidence, it’s only another opinion. And then demand they produce actual evidence to support their position. This will continue to place your opponent in a defensive posture.
The first argument they may make is that 9 out of 10 dentists use Brand Perfect. Of course, this is argument from authority and the fact that dentists prefer one type of toothpaste over the other doesn’t make it the best, especially because we have not defined the qualities that we’re looking to obtain in a toothpaste. The authorities in this regard may believe the “best” is the cheapest, or the one that sells the most, or that they have been paid to endorse, is just a belief.
2. Never get emotional. If your opponent is name-calling or getting upset and raising their voice, you are winning. DO NOT respond in kind. Stay levelheaded, stick to the facts and remember that “being offended” is not proof and will not support an argument. And speak in a softer voice. Then, simply ask them if they have any facts or evidence to support their position. You can certainly tell them you’re sorry they’re upset, but then you must force the issue and determine if they have any actual proof that validates their point. Often times they don’t, and you just scored your first victory. The next thing your opponent may do is start to name call. For example, calling out Awesome toothpaste as having a bad slogan or terrible name. Of course, hating a slogan is an emotional plea to get you to associate the qualities of the actual toothpaste with a name.
3. Push for specifics. Broad sweeping statements are often used to push a belief. To win a debate, never argue against generalized statements. It’s like trying to nail Jell-O on the wall. Your opponent will simply adjust and move their generalized statement in such a way that you could never hold them accountable for what their belief is. Instead, force them to provide very specific statements that you can then demand evidence to support.
4. Know your stuff. Without actual evidence to support your position you don’t have a leg to stand on.
5. Don’t argue about things that don’t support your main argument. If it doesn’t matter, just agree with them and move on. For example, your debating opponent may also begin to make fun of you for having bad breath and not a great judge of toothpaste. Well, once again, this has nothing to do with the veracity of their argument. They’re simply trying to get you off your game and not talk about the topic at hand — which toothpaste is best. A simple statement that Bravo toothpaste is the best is far too general. Is it the best because it has the best colors or that this slogan sells the most? Or is it the best for your teeth and mouth? That’s why you must request specifically what makes it the best, so you can begin to define what’s right. And of course, you may want to simply acknowledge that you have bad breath; it has nothing to do with the argument about the toothpaste. You may even want to agree that Bravo is the best-selling. And of course, the best-selling doesn’t make it the best toothpaste. You’ve got to get specific on exactly what the qualities are that will make something the best. Have evidence to support that position and then drive those points.
6. Introduce your point as a given. Yep, this is a trick. But it sure does work. In our toothpaste example, stating that Brand A has more fluoride than brand B is simply trying to escape from having to prove whether or not Brand A actually has more fluoride. They may not catch it, and the rest of the argument about who has the most fluoride will be yours.
7. Use humor. If you can get them laughing, they won’t focus on your points. You may even be able to sneak a few things by them.
8. If you can agree with them on a few points, it can make your opponents start to agree with you on the bigger points you need to win.
Another way people leverage authority is to indicate that some leader agreed with them. As such, this proves they are right. Simply stating that another person agrees with them is not evidence; it’s just multiple wrong opinions.