Life Lessons from Debate

This past weekend, I got to be a judge at a debate tournament here in China. Don’t worry – I’m not going to launch into the ins and outs of debate in China and how it differs so much from the US – I figure if you want those kinds of details, you’ll message me directly and I can prattle on in private about it.

Gah, I really am such a nerd…

No, this blog I thought to make a bit different.

See, I took speech and debate once upon a time when I was in high school, and frankly, it meant a great deal to me at the time. I learned from valuable lessons that I carry with me to this day. It was likely the one class in high school that I gained the most value with, overall.  Yes, I learned all the basics, too, but I don’t use pre-calc for anything, and it was decided long ago that I should probably not work with chemicals on a regular basis.  I write, sure, but none of my English classes focussed really on the WRITING part per se – what I do is practice, practice, practice.

But debate…

It was valuable enough to me that I had my son take a year of it when he got into high school.  Yeah, he hated it, but even one year will teach the basics, and while he may not do anything with it NOW, later, it will be invaluable.

The things I took away from debate…

  • Fake it ’til you make it – This is mostly in regards to ‘confidence’ for me. I was absolutely terrified of public speaking when I first started.  My freshman year, I was awful.  But I stook up there, put on a smile, and gave my arguments, even if I was so sure I was going to fail.  And I did this over and over and over again.  Eventually, I got better.  I would even say ‘decent’! But neither the opponents nor the judge should ever see that timidity, or you’d lose out the gate – it was like blood in the water.  Rather prepared me for being an adult… Even if I’m not sure of what I am doing now, I can fake the confidence to get through with no one the wiser. Being confident, even if you are faking it, leaves people more inclined to believe whatever it is you are saying. If you are nervous, even when you are trying to help someone or tell them the truth, they still aren’t going to believe you, my friends.
  • Just smile/Keep calm – No matter how bad it gets, you put on a smile and get through to the other side.  Take it a step at a time, and proceed.  This ties in a great deal with the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ part – I get that.  But still, a bit different.  You don’t need to be HAPPY about whatever is happening, but remain calm, polite, and you’ll get through the other side without escalating the issue.  Also, smiling while on the phone?  It changes the way you sound to the other side and warms them to you.  Even initial interactions, offer a smile and start off on the right foot.  Not just because I’m a woman, mind – guys should be doing this, too.  You’d be surprised how it helps.  My debate coach’s favorite saying was “Stab your opponent in the back and twist it with a smile.”  It’s a ‘give them enough rope to hang themselves with’ sort of situation…
  • Projection, diction, and enunciation – Don’t get me wrong – my mother was very precise with how she raised us, to enunciate our words carefully. (this has been a bain learning Asian languages where they tend to slur words together and you do NOT enunciate each syllable, no matter how the words are spelled) But with speech and debate, you couldn’t speak softly. You needed to be heard, sometimes over people or across the room. And they needed to be able to hear what you were saying, too! Yeesh…. some people… It’s about COMMUNICATION, peeps.  And being clear when you speak, being UNDERSTANDABLE, goes a long way.
  • Stand up for yourself – More people need to learn how to stand up for themselves.  With Debate, I had to actively fight for whatever my ‘belief’ was for that round, four rounds per tournament, a good 8 tournaments a year.  This may not sound like a lot to you, but think of how much practice goes into it as well, how much preparation.  Then think of when someone is actively verbally attacking your thoughts and beliefs and you have to stand up for your side. I got pretty darn good at standing up for myself because of it, and NOT getting ruffled in the process. Afterall, you can’t lose your shit in the middle of a debate round – bad form. Oh, the number of times I’ve had to stand up for myself in the workplace (usually against customers but sometimes bosses) and politely stand up for myself. And win.  Harder than you’d think.
  • Logical arguments – This one is a gimme.  You need to have a logical progression of thoughts. A + B +C = D. So many times, you will deal with people, even as an adult, who just keep shouting D! D!! But never show you how to get there.  ‘No, you’re wrong! D!!’  Being able to put your thoughts together in a systematic, logical progression helps more than I can even begin to say.  It helped me in college with papers, explaining the POINT of things, helped me in presentations, and helped me in countless positions I’ve held in my adult career when explaining things to customers and/or boss-types.  As a project manager, I did this countless times with a project, and guess what?  With the logical progression, the people I was working with UNDERSTOOD and it made life easier for all of us.
  • Public speaking – One of the biggest fears the vast majority of the populace has is getting up in public and talking in front of crowds.  Frankly, for me?  I love it.  Absolutely adore it.  So much so that, over the years, I’ve done panels at conventions as well as guest lecturing at universities.  Hell, I’m even in CHINA because of it!!  As I said before, I didn’t start off that way – I had to practice and force myself through the situations, but it’s now something that I actively enjoy. Yeah, that makes me one of the weird ones, I get it, but let’s face it – I was one of the ‘weird ones’ anyway.
  • The art of small talk – How silly is THAT??  But guess what, at those tournaments, if you weren’t in a round actively debating, that meant you were sitting around doing nothing.  And guess what, there was often a lot of nothing.  Sure, you can sit quietly, but what does that get you?  More boredom!  Especially when you’re surrounded by people who actively share at least some base interests as you.  Debate helped me get pretty good at striking up conversations with random strangers.  (Much to my son’s dismay nowadays…)
  • The art of the handshake – How silly is this??  But guess what, that first impression you have with potential employers?  It boils down to how you shake someone’s hand.  My debate coach made sure we were all good at this, and we got additional practice at each tournament.  That firm handshake, meeting their eyes, smiling politely.  More people need to know how to shake someone’s hand!! I can’t tell you, as a hiring manager, how many people I dismissed out of mind because they couldn’t shake my hand properly.
  • Intimidation / Let them underestimate you – So it’s the nonverbal stuff that tends to get you, and I learned to play with this because of debate.  There would be times that we’d have opponents trotting in so sure they were ruling the world. I’d sit back quietly, just watching, and they’d make an initial, snap judgment because of it.  I learned the value of letting them underestimate my ability, then killing it when we got into the debate itself.  They’d be taken totally off-guard, and then scramble to catch up.  There were, admittedly, times that I was more intimidating, too, though, at the time, I was less comfortable with this. My sis was my debate partner, and we dressed alike and played up on the fact we were sisters. Don’t think that’s intimidating?  It is when you have two people in-synch, and in the rounds, every minute, every second counts. You waste that time when you have to explain things out loud. It would throw our opponents off, and sometimes they would not recover during the debate, helping to give us the win. As I got older, it helped me read the situations I was in – when to let a person underestimate me and when to use my background and knowledge as an intimidation factor.  It’s a fine art, and there’s a delicate balance to it.
  • SIlence is compliance – In debate, it was a bit of an ass-thing to do. If your opponent didn’t argue a point, it clearly meant they agreed with you, thus you won the point.  “Silence is compliance” was bandied about in a debate more than just about any other phrase, at least with any regularity.  In real life, you can take the same idea, but do it with a grain of salt. Someone doesn’t agree with you?  Proceed! But, uh, please be careful of those non-verbal cues as well, my darlings.  I suppose this goes along with confidence – if you act like someone is going to go along with it (because they haven’t argued), they eventually do. Just don’t do it too much, hm?
  • Devil is the in the details – Be careful of what you say, how you say it, but verbally and in written communication. ESPECIALLY with the written word, in fact.  There can be one phrase, one word which tips things in the favor of your opponent. And nobody wants that… be careful and LISTEN to what is said as well. You may find your winning argument there.
  • Silly breaks – Hard to believe I needed help with this, huh?  But I learned that, no matter how busy or stressful things got – and I assure you, things got stressful at tourneys growing up – the best way to relax, at least for me, was to do something ridiculously silly. Have a bit of fun to take the edge off.  Go running down the hall without your shoes and see how far you can slide in your stockings.  Keep small toys or knickknacks on hand, little bundles of happiness. Tell lame jokes. Laughter, my friends, is the best medicine. Enjoy life.

So, yeah… here are some of my life lessons from debate. These are things I’ve carried with me over the years, and helped me grow as an individual, both professionally and personally.

Don’t worry – I’ll get more to the China stuff next week. Just with the tournament this past weekend, I was reflecting on how much debate meant to me growing up, and everything I took from it.

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