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In times like this – I am quick to remind my coaches and students – that debate is really just the practice of real world communication in a competitive format. We only utilize tactics and persuasion in debate, because those same tactics generally mirror their reality-based counterparts. However when you leave debate – you have to transfer those skills to everyday conversations, presentations, threads, and online posts. 

The sad part is, we are all, generally (and despite our own perception of the matter) bad at communication. 

So while sometimes the world feels unsafe to communicate with due to the raging fires and problems we face – I would urge you NOT to back down from conversations or “stay off facebook” simply because you want to avoid the conversation. 

Something about everyone posting, creating a cacophony of ill-informed and passionate opinions fueled by pain really makes me take a step back and feel like it’s better to just avoid the whole conversation sometimes. 

Avoidance is a form of coping, which internalizes your feelings of unsafety, rather than dealing with them. What’s the difference? Well when you suppress, avoid, and internalize, then at some unknown point in the future, you will feel these same feelings, and they will be worse. If you deal with them, and move forward, you will overcome and conquer your feelings. 

The therapeutic community calls this, being “regulated” as opposed to “unregulated.”

A regulated state means that you can live amidst your fears, without letting them control you, or cause you to act out by lashing out, or retreating and hiding (and blaming others). 

So here is the quick and dirty version of what you can DO, during a time like this. These principles apply to every conversation. I have personally used them in family fights, job interviews, large advocacy presentations, and debate competitions. I published a longer version here, though it is a bit outdated at the moment. 

  1. Never accuse.

Accusations make a good conversation bad, and a bad one, unsalvageable. If your goal is to simply have a regulated and civil clash of ideas, accusations are the wrong approach. Feel like the other person is advocating horrible ideas? Start with, “I think you are advocating for….” or “I feel like you are saying xyz is ok.” That way your conversational partner has the ability to see that you interpreted what they said wrongly or rightly. If you just lash out and attack them by saying “YOU ARE A (insert: idiot, not listening, being hateful, etc.) then literally they have no choice but to be defensive and attack you back. This derails everything. 

  1. Find common ground.

Focusing on conversational negatives and differences drives a wedge into already tense situations. Sometimes stopping and saying, “Hey…I couldn’t agree more, and I am glad you said that” is a lifeline that a tense conversation needs. Sometimes the best possible thing to help a disagreement progress in understanding and eventually resolution is agreement. This is what the esteemed debate coach (of many successful collegiate national and international teams), Steven Johnson labels a “paradox of debate”

  1. Always assume the first thing that comes to your mind is the wrong thing to say (Credit: George Thompson, Verbal Judo, 1993). 

Good communication and good disagreement is not heated, fast, or quick witted. It is analytical, slow, apologetic, and empathetic. Take a second, think about if what you are about to say is helpful to the conversation. Sometimes someone says something, and we get hurt, so we lash back out. That helps nothing. It may feel good, but congratulations, you are now a bad communicator. 

  1. Repeat back to them, what they said.

This tactic is really easy. It’s called “attentive listening.” It ensures that you heard your interlocutor correctly, and it allows for them to feel heard and understood which in turn makes them feel valued, which lets them engage in the conversation in a regulated manner! Literally a win all the way around. If you heard them incorrectly, it allows them to stop you and say, “no that is not what I said.” This stops bad communication in its tracks. 

This list is never complete, and always could use work. Like I said – don’t let the unsafety of the world around you prevent you from engaging with it, and finding truth. If you hide from the problem, you’ll never find your way to the truth. 

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