The Downside of Debate

I was on the debate team in school. The experience taught me there are two sides to every issue. 

From that experience, I developed an appreciation for dialectical conversation or the search for truth from opposing views. Today I rarely take a stand on anything until I’ve heard both sides.

Objective facts, logically presented, win debates. It’s a less effective approach for changing someone’s mind. Most people see what they believe. Truth is provisional. Facts tend to be conditioned on one’s version of the truth. Political views demonstrate the point! 

My fondness for debate has backfired on more than one occasion. Sometimes I “carry the day” in discussions, despite being dead wrong. 

An example I’ve never forgotten happened years ago at work. One of our brilliant young buyers wanted to take a sizeable forward position in the commodity market. Such a move carried significant financial consequences, so I subjected her rationale to a rigorous cross-examination. When it failed to hold up, I denied the request. It turned out she was right, and I was wrong.

I reflect on that whenever faced with an opposing view. There’s a difference between winning debates and being right. 

There are other downsides to a debate mentality. My love of open-spirited discussions is accompanied by a disdain for rigid thinking and dogmatic viewpoints. This is especially problematic when the discussion topic concerns religion or politics. Few areas invite greater intellectual inflexibility.  

I find religion and politics fascinating, so I rarely follow the age-old advice to avoid discussing them in “polite” company.  This has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion.

One episode I particularly regret occurred in a conversation with my father shortly before he unexpectedly passed away. 

As background, my dialectic skills are undoubtedly a genetic gift because my father was a formidable debate opponent. Sadly, as he progressed into his mid-80s, his ability to “carry the day” in our discussions became less frequent. The unfortunate part about age is wisdom doesn’t always trump a faster CPU.

This particular discussion concerned religion, a subject upon which my usually open-minded father possessed rigid views. In our conversation, Dad attempted to make a logical case for a matter of faith, probably because of his concern that my beliefs were not similarly dogmatic. My allergic reaction flared, and I quickly put his line of reasoning into “checkmate.” When Dad realized this, he became quiet. We never spoke of religion again. 

I “won” the debate, and completely missed my father’s caring intent.

Endeavoring to win an argument on personal matters rarely ends well. 

It’s taken me a long time to realize the downsides of debate. Why argue when people rarely change their views anyway? It’s better to listen to the other person with an open heart and open mind.  

Seeking to understand another person is always more effective than trying to change their mind.


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3 Replies to “The Downside of Debate”

  1. Your comments really resonated with me because I too love a good debate, love learning more, and like to see both sides and the many shades of gray. Even 15 years ago I could talk about politics with friends of all different viewpoints and we all learned from each other in a respectful way. I agree with your conclusion that sometimes listening with an open heart and mind is best, and, I am concerned about how uncommon this can sometimes be these days.


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