In James 1:19, James makes it known that every person should be “quick to hear, slow to speak” and in Proverbs 18:2, Solomon goes as far as to say, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”
The message that we can learn from the Bible is that it is FAR better to listen to and understand a situation before barging in guns blazing and expressing only your opinion, without any regard to how anyone else sees the situation.
This message can be applied to the debate world with amazing effectiveness. You probably already know that before you can begin to make a refutation, you must understand what your opponent’s argument is. In fact, former Ethos blogger Joshua Anamolu has previously described why you should never strawman your opponent’s argument but rather steelman it. If you haven’t read his article, I would go ahead and give it a look real quick because he offers some amazing insight on this topic.
In this article, I would like to take a different approach and look at understanding and “listening” to the judge. Understanding your opponent is absolutely critical to having a good and ethical debate round (and should be done in every round you debate), but it’s always important to remember that you’re not trying to convince your opponent to change their position. Instead, you must convince your judge. And in order for you to convince your judge, you must be on the same page as your judge. And in order for you to be on the same page as your judge, you must “listen” to your judge.
Thus, here are three effective techniques that will help you to better listen to and adapt to your judge.
Technique #1: Just Ask Them!
One of the best ways to better understand and listen to your judge is to just…. * drum roll * ask them!
Keep in mind that in some leagues such as NCFCA, you’re no longer allowed to ask about specific judging philosophy but only generally. However, in all other leagues (such as Stoa etc), you’re allowed to ask the judge whatever questions you’d like and you should absolutely take advantage of this by asking questions about theory when you can (but only on experienced judges).
Try to craft a question that allows you to ask as much information as possible from a judge without exhausting the judge. The last thing you want to do is make your judge feel like he or she is being interrogated. Instead, use your questions to make yourself come across to the judge as someone who really cares about what the judge has to say and who the judge is as a person.
Technique #2: Figure It Out Externally
This technique doesn’t apply to community judges, but it applies greatly to coaches, alumni, and parents who judge. Coaches and alumni are usually very liberal with explaining their views on debate and how they judge rounds. In fact, they’ve probably expressed their views in some sort of club, camp, or online forum in some way, shape, or form. Chances are that you know someone who has heard the coach or alumni judge’s views and you can just ask them about it.
Most parents, unless they’re very passionate about debate, aren’t as liberal with this information, but competitors in their club almost certainly will know how they think about debate and what are the best ways to go about convincing them on a subject.
It is true, however, that this technique heavily relies on you having good networking and good connections with competitors in your own area as well as nationally. It’s always a good idea to reach out to other debaters and connect at tournaments you go to as well as online forums, groups, or clubs. Not only will you probably make some amazing friends, but you’ll also create an awesome resource for your and your new friends that will allow you guys not only to share information about judge philosophies but also case information and brief trades.
Technique #3: Self Investigative Work
Our last technique is probably one of my favorites but also one of the most challenging. In the above techniques, you’re being given a lot of raw information on your judge. You’re being told what kind of arguments the judge likes and what kind of theory and philosophies they go by.
All this information is not at all going to be helpful to you unless you can take all the information and compile it into a comprehensive plan on the fly.
Additionally, there are more logical inductions that you should make in order to maximize your information and boost your strategic planning. Let’s say that your judge tells you that they’re an engineer for instance. From their career information, you can deduce the way your judge has been trained to think all of his or her life. Engineers are taught to identify problems, identify a solution, and then implement the solution. Try, try, try again is also a common mindset among some engineers as well.
That information could be absolutely vital to you if your case relies on a specific course of action or a narrative that heavily leans on finding and implementing the best solution.
Overall, you should always try to be as persuasive with your judge as possible and that requires you to listen and understand what and who your judge is as a person. This will allow for a better and more fun conversation for the judge and lead to better persuasiveness.
Justin is a three-year alumnus of NCFCA and an honors student at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. Currently a senior, he hopes to receive his degree in computer science with a concentration in cyber security and minors in criminal justice and math. In his senior year of high school debate, Justin went from never competing in a single outround to averaging semis or quarters at every national open, including 4th place at the 2021 NCFCA nationals, as well as averaging finals at regional tournaments. His philosophy is that debate is a game. Providing one is ethical, the most persuasive argument flies. At the end of the day, Justin argues you should honor God & have fun! Debate is not all about winning, it’s about how you win and the skills you foster in the process.
You can learn more about Justin by reading his bio, and you can book coaching with him over here. You can also catch more content from Justin by checking out his personal website and blog as well as subscribing to his YouTube channel.