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How to become good at debating

By Sheanna Patelmaster

29 October 2013 - 09:57

Sheanna Patelmaster, 17, is a student at Withington Girls' School in Manchester and was part of the winning team at the UK vs India Debating Matters Competition International Final last week. She explains why learning to win arguments is a useful life skill.

If you’re trying to become good at debating, I’d say there is definitely no one way of doing it, but the way I go about it is to just keep practising. For me there isn’t any substitute to practice, as it’s the way I learn to prepare properly, and cope with the nerves that come just before a debate.

There are four things that I have learnt over the last two years, that I think are the most important points:

1. Stay objective

You have to put aside your personal views when you debate and compartmentalise them, because this is what allows you to remain rational. This is especially important if a topic is particularly meaningful to you, or if you strongly disagree with what you are arguing. There is a lot to be said for being passionate about a topic, but it’s just that there is a fine line to tread between enthusiasm and aggression, and between passion and emotion.

2. Be flexible

If you don’t get allocated with the side of the argument that you agree with personally, it can be hard at first, because you won't have that initial passion in favour of your argument. To get over this, you just have to work a bit harder to overcome your personal views. Another plus is that it can be really useful to start with a different opinion, when you’re thinking of points your opponents might make during a debate, and how to counter them.

3. Look for the grey areas

All of the debates I have taken part in so far have involved very large grey areas, rather than being simply black and white. This is actually really helpful, and not just because it makes the debate more interesting. It also  means that no matter what side you’re arguing, you will find something that you agree with or can relate to, and inevitably this will make your argument more convincing.

4. Think about compromise

Finally, I think that any debate is a missed opportunity if you don’t come out of it with new ideas that are feasible compromises. The format of debating is often that you are encouraged to take a polarised position on one side of an argument. This is a good thing, because even though during the debate you shouldn't compromise your position, you will usually think of good compromises to the argument while you're taking part.

I think that these new ideas can be genuinely helpful, partly because neither side has gone into the discussion initially wanting to find a compromise. Although in the context of a debate it's fine to hold extreme positions without looking for a compromise, in real life this is generally frowned upon. Examining an argument from all angles usually helps you to find some common middle ground and work out the most sensible compromise.

This event was part of our South Asia Season. Click through to find out about further public events in London.

 

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