I’m in my fourth year of Team Policy debate and on my third partner. My first partner was a nerdy senior boy who I knew somewhat well by that point. I was thirteen. When I went to his house to work, he would make me watch Llamas with Hats videos, and it’s truly a miracle we ever broke. We fought so consistently and publicly that one night at club, while we were yelling at each other in front of everyone, my coach made the comment that we looked like “an old married couple.” (My coach also says his greatest memory of me is when this partner asked me an innocent question, and I turned to him with this disgusted look on my face and said, “No, stupid.”) My second partner was my big brother. We partnered in his senior year, too. We didn’t fight. Worse, we didn’t really communicate at all. We just assumed that the other was doing work most of the time. I got the stomach flu a few days before NITOC that year and had every faith my big brother was going to be the savior of the day and do a ton of work by himself while I was bed-ridden…and my electrolyte-unbalanced self was devastated to stumble out of bed the day before nationals to find us case-less.
I made it to nationals both of those years. Barely. We got losing records at both NITOCs (I actually did worse with my brother than with my first partner). We barely broke, and when we did, we would lose our outrounds right away. No one saw my partners and me as threats—and for very good reasons. It took me until the fall before my sophomore year (when I was looking for a new partner) to figure it out: I had zero partnership dynamic with those two. And frankly, I didn’t try to be nice. Maintaining a good partnership is an integral element in your debate career. Let’s explore a few ways you can ensure you have this rewarding piece taken care of.
1. Clear Communication
This part is absolutely essential. This was my biggest failing with my brother. We never communicated with each other; we made assumptions and got frustrated when our expectations weren’t met. You have to be open and honest with your partner. You have to decide together on deadlines you want to complete briefs and cases by. You have to cordially agree on a case to run. On a more serious level, you have to be willing to tell your partner when they’re doing something that’s really bothering you and/or is dragging your team down. But you have to learn to do so in a kind, gentle manner. Don’t be like me and call your partner stupid in round (yes, I did that to my first partner. According to him, loud enough for the judge and other debaters to hear). Instead, communicate your concerns at the right time, in the right place, with the right audience, in the right way. Be respectful. Attacking your partner or blindsiding him/her with confrontation will damage you more far more than it will help you.
2. Compliment Him/Her
You may feel weird about it, but do it! This is a huge part of keeping a good relationship with your partner. You have to make them feel like they’re wanted and important. Remind them that you need them. Don’t just make stuff up; even the worst debaters have good qualities. Actively search for things to compliment your partner on: do they give really good 1ARs? Are they improving in a specific area? Is his tie always sharp? Does her hair always look nice? (Hint: complimenting your female partner’s appearance right before the round will turn her into an elated debating machine that will go out to crush all arguments with her pretty hair and hot high heels). I still remember telling my first partner during prep time once that I thought his tie looked really nice. He got this adorable little smile on his face and gave the best 1NC in the history of 1NCs.
3. Develop a Co-Worker/Friendship Relationship
Think about the debate teams you know. How many of the best friends/cute little girls who only know each other/we-have-major-crushes-on-each-other-so-let’s-partner teams do really well? Not very many. Most of them are too wrapped up in their friendships/relationships to set those feelings aside at really important times. Then again, how many of those strict co-worker, relationship-less, bland, quiet partnerships work out well? Not very many. This is because they debaters don’t know each other well enough to know how to communicate well. The key is to balance these two aspects. Once you’ve learned to be a good friend on a business-professional level, you’ll have this down-pat. Don’t let your feelings affect your partnership too much, but don’t let your emotional separation drive you too far apart.
I’m in my second year with my third partner, Jacob. We’ve done fairly well over the past couple years. The compliment we receive the most often is “you guys are a good team.” Not “you guys are good debaters.” We rarely hear that. Team. On the outside, yes; we complement each other very well, we clearly have fun debating together, and we have perfectly compatible skin tones so we always match. But we didn’t get there overnight. A lot of people struggle with their partners because they weren’t that great of friends before partnership; sometimes they just got stuck with each other because there was no one else. And, since we’re homeschoolers, it is very difficult to start from there. Fortunately, my history can prove your fears unwarranted. Jacob and I did not know each other well before we partnered. In fact, I thought he was a pompous, jerky lady’s man (don’t worry, I was very wrong). Our first meeting was…pretty awkward. But we started as kind-of friends and by this point, have worked our way toward close friends with a huge element of respect for each other and professionalism within our relationship. I know I can tell him anything he needs to improve on, and he could do the same without either of us being upset with the other. We know each other’s body language. We know what the other will say before they say it. We trust each other completely. We even accidentally match outside of tournaments all the time. And I attribute so much of our success to our strong, dynamic partnership.
Even if you’ve been unwittingly thrown into a partnership with a guy who makes you watch Llamas with Hats (who, by the way, is a great guy who I love and have a much better friendship with now), you can work to make it better by complimenting one another and developing a better relationship. Even if you partnered with your big brother who’s allergic to working on debate (who I do adore and is one of my best friends; we just made a terrible debate team), you can communicate well and achieve success. Your good relationship with your partner will not just have substantial effects on your debate career, either; it will provide you with an awesome friend who knows you well and loves you at your worst. It’s an all-around win. Just know that you might inadvertently match at an embarrassing frequency.