By Hitham Elhimmali

02 March 2017 - 16:24

A close up of chess pieces on a board
'Ask your opponent specific questions, guided towards a point of weakness in their argument.' Image ©

stevepb, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.

We asked Hitham Elhimmali, a young doctor in Tripoli, Libya, who is a debating champion and trainer in the British Council's Young Arab Voices programme.

Make a logical case

Winning an argument depends on three things: logic, charisma, and team work (in a debate, when you're part of a team).

Logic is one of the fundamental pillars of constructing an argument. If your argument is not logical, you won't convince your audience. What's more, your opponent may spot your flawed logic and target it as a weakness.

Be aware of your body language

It also helps to be charming. Charismatic speakers tend to catch and hold people's attention. If you can get people to listen to you, you have already done almost half the job of winning them over to your side.

You can appear to be more confident by practising your body language and gestures. Some people are blessed to be born with natural confidence, but that doesn't mean that you can't learn to be more charismatic.

Keep your emotions in check and stay calm. Fidgeting or responding in an agitated way to an opponent's claims may be interpreted as weakness. Worse, you might come across as disrespectful. Remember that people will judge you based on how you come across, as well as your argument.

Instead, ask your opponent specific questions about a point of weakness in their argument. This can expose a lack of evidence for their argument, false information, or made-up claims.

A few don'ts

Never make it personal. Don't attack the person you're debating with. Focus on their argument or the case they have presented. Your attitude defines who you are: never call your opponent names, or say he or she is a liar, even if they did lie.

Prepare before you speak

For a public debate, where the topic is announced in advance, you need at least two days to prepare. That's the minimum amount of time you need to hunt for detailed information about the subject and check all the facts. You have to put in this effort if you want to build a solid case, reinforced by evidence-based arguments.

If you're in a team, hold a brainstorming session in which you discuss the logic, structure and evidence for your argument, consider counter-arguments that your opponents might make, and think about your individual role in the debate.

Study your opponent

You should spend about a third of your preparation time on studying your opponent. It’s like taking defensive measures before a battle. Instead of studying unfamiliar terrain, you examine the opposing view of your case; and instead of studying the enemy's weapons, you analyse your opponent's tactics - for example, watching videos of previous debates done by your opponent's team. 

You can Google your opponent, but I find it more helpful to watch a video of them debating, arguing, or being interviewed. That gives me a sense of who I am facing: how they talk, and what tactics they use when they argue. I pay attention to how they respond to questions, how they make rebuttals, and what role they play in a larger group of people.

In a debate tournament, you only get a limited time to prepare, usually 15 to 20 minutes. The best way to use that time is to quickly test ideas with the other people on your team, so you can construct the best possible argument.

Try to put yourself in your opponent's shoes

Put yourself in the other person’s perspective and study their point of view. This helps you spot and understand any weaknesses in your own argument.

You might even agree with a fundamental idea underlying your opponent's argument, but disagree with your opponent's strategy to make their case. 

Be careful when arguing at home

Arguing during a debate is totally different from arguing with your friends and family. In the throes of a formal debate, the competitive spirit focuses you on totally undermining your opponent’s ideas. It would be impossible to use the same tough tactics when arguing with close friends or relatives, as it might make them uncomfortable.

Debating skills are useful when you want to convince people of an idea, advocate for a cause, or advance in your career. But it would not be practical for every daily conversation to become a debate that you don't want to lose.

Personally, I keep my debate persona at bay when I am at home. Life is all about making compromises to get along with people, so I compromise with my family and friends.

Not all arguments are productive

Sometimes, having an intellectual argument can be fruitful and stimulating: it helps you understand both sides of a situation.

But arguing with people who have an extreme or narrow-minded point of view can be dangerous, especially where I live in Libya. So, depending on the person and their ability to listen to and respect another person's point of view, I make a decision: either we have a healthy discussion, or I withdraw from an argument that would be a waste of time and might create more harm than benefit.

Set ground rules with your opponent

In a team debate, you don't have to bring your opponent to accept the same debating rules, as the rules are enforced by a committee.

For daily arguments, it is more difficult. You could agree on some ground rules, like a verbal contract of some sort, that both parties will listen to each other, respect one another, will have a similar amount of time to present their case, and will have the right to respond to each other's argument.

Hitham is the founder and president of the Libyan Organisation of Debates. 

Find out more about our Young Arab Voices programme in Libya.

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