The cornerstone of communication. The one ubiquitous activity of which mastery is essential for everyone. The life-skill that is paramount to “Win Friends and Influence People.” What is it? Listening. Just like listening is crucial in life and day-to-day communication, listening is crucial in debate.

Listening is crucial

Listening allows you to do all of the following:

  • Respond directly to your opponents
  • Make for a fun and engaging debate round
  • Make for an educational debate round, since both sides are more likely to be addressing each other
  • Become a more effective communicator, one who masters rhetoric and a balance between ethos, logos, and pathos

The lack of listening is a big problem when debaters don’t listen and just recite what’s on their papers. Like two ships passing each other in the night, both sides make their arguments thinking they are addressing their opponents when they really aren’t. The result? A very confusing and frustrating debate, with judges voting for whoever they thought was more clear and simple.

  1. Listening helps you to understand your opponents better.

1) Listening helps you to understand the ethos behind your opponents. Listening allows you to hone in on the areas where your opponents appear credible. You gain valuable strategic intelligence: you know exactly their strengths (what subject matter not to attack and focus on) and their weaknesses (the subject matter you want to attack and focus on).

2) Listening helps you to understand the logos behind your opponents. This is fairly obvious. When you listen, you pay more attention to content. Thus, you become aware of the logos (reason and evidence) that supports your opponents.

3) Listening helps you to understand the pathos behind your opponents. While listening, you are able to pick up on your opponents’ rhetoric. How are they persuading? What are they saying is convincing? Are they presenting in any way that is moving – so moving that you must respond to counteract their pathos?

  1. The impact: Understanding is critical towards defeating (your opponent)

Sun Tzu once said, “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.” Knowing your opponent’s case is a prerequisite for defeating your opponent’s case. As Peter Voell wrote in a previous Ethos article, “Know your enemies better than they know themselves…..THAT is how you win rounds.”

1) Match opponents’ logos. Nothing is worse than the feeling than when you are in argument thinking you are disagreeing with what your opponents are saying but then you suddenly realize your opponent was saying something completely different. Don’t allow yourself to get into embarrassing situations like that. Be a better listener. Moreover, understanding furnishes you with a better ability at trapping your opponents into the statement’s they made since you can identify your opponent’s statements better.  I don’t mean this in a negative, nit-picky kind of context, but the fact of the matter is that you’ll only detect incriminating self-contradictions or poorly worded arguments with negative connotations if you listen.

2) Match opponents’ pathos. Only through listening can you adapt your own persuasive capacities to match and exceed theirs. Only through listening can you identify the most compelling word picture they provided and debunk it. And only through listening can you inoculate the audience from pathos.

3) Match opponents’ ethos

Understanding through listening adds to your ethos in all of the following ways:

  • Higher likelihood you are on the same page as the judge because you can hear how the judge heard the argument right here right now – which is the difference from essay and debate.
  • Better organization
  • Respond directly to your opponents
  • Sprinkle in their EXACT words in your refutation. 1) adds to your credibility because it shows you care enough to honor your opponent’s argument and were actually listening and 2) helps the judge to identify where on the flow you exactly are 3) better vocabulary, which adds to your ethos

How to listen better

There are five stages to listening: Receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding. So when listening, ask yourself these questions:

Am I receiving (i.e. hearing) everything that is being said?

Am I understanding everything that is being said?

Am I remembering everything that is being said?

Am I evaluating everything that is being said?

Am I responding to everything (important) that is being said?

Specifically, however, there are several practical steps to listen better in debate rounds.

  • Flow opponent’s arguments first, then flow your responses later. Many debaters try to simultaneously flow their opponent’s arguments and their own arguments. This inevitably leads to missed arguments. While I certainly recommend making sure your own speech is written, make sure you write what your opponents are saying so you are saying your arguments are applicable in response.
  • Flow warrants, not just claims. Don’t just listen and flow the tags of your opponents’ contentions, justifications, harms, advantages, arguments, points, claims, etc. In addition, listen and flow for the warrants (i.e. reasons) for why those claims are true. You’d be surprised at how many avenues this opens in that it makes the flaws in the claims much more apparent (such as logical fallacies).
  • Examine evidence. Listen carefully for evidence presented by your opponents. Don’t automatically assume the evidence supports your opponent’s claim.
  • For TP: Whisper in prep time, not during speeches. (N/A in LD, Moot Court, or Parliamentary, as the former consists of 1 v 1 debates, and the latter 2 contain no prep time)

If you are interested in finding more ways to become a better listener, this website has many very helpful tips.


Joshua Anumolu is in his fourth year of speech and debate. Last year, he was blessed to place 6th at the NCFCA National Championship in Team Policy debate. For him, competitive debate is about learning how to communicate truth effectively. Every round he lost, was a round he learned from to become a better communicator. He believes true mastery of rhetoric is accomplished when one finds their own balance between ethos, pathos, and logos. He loves to use debate as a platform to inform the audience of issues he cares about.