Harish Natarajan loves arguing. It has helped him win debates against his parents at dinner table conversations when he was young. It has helped him scale heights in debating circles — he holds the world record for most debate victories. He has participated in more than 2,000 debates and is among the world’s best. And in 2019, it helped the 31-year-old triumph over IBM’s artificial intelligence debating system, affectionately dubbed ‘Miss Debater’.
Her official name is Project Debater, and she’s developed by IBM to do for debate what Watson did for chess. Her knowledge corpus consists of 400 million articles, largely from credible newspapers and magazines. For any debate topic, she can instantaneously search her knowledge graph for relevant data points, mold them into a logical case, and deliver it clearly in a female voice.
The debate’s topic given to the two was about pre-school subsidies, and Harish went about treating the clash like he would with any human. “The first 30 seconds, of course, were strange — I realized I was up against this giant ballot box. But after that, as the AI was making arguments, I kept noting what my responses ought to be. At times, it was putting forth points that I couldn’t really deny. But I was always thinking: How do I use its words against it?”
The reasons Harish was able to outsmart the machine in the 25-minute rapid-fire exchange was the emphasis some the following concepts during his arguments.
1. Emphasize common ground
Harish started by emphasize common ground or areas of agreement. When he took the stage for his rebuttal, he immediately drew attention to his and Miss Debater’s areas of agreement. “So, I think we disagree on far less than it may seem.”
We won’t have much luck changing other people’s minds if we refuse to change ours. We can demonstrate openness by acknowledging where we agree with our critics and even what we’ve learned from them. Then, when we ask what view they might be willing to revise, we’re not hypocrites.
“Arguments are often far more combative and adversarial than they need to be. You should be willing to listen to what someone else is saying and give them a lot of credit for it”. Said Harish . “It makes you sound like a reasonable person who is taking everything into account.”
How to improve at finding common ground? Most people immediately start with a straw man, poking holes in the weakest version of the other side’s case. Harish does the reverse: he considers the strongest version of their case, which is known as the steel man. A politician might occasionally adopt that tactic to pander or persuade, but like a good scientist, Harish does it to learn. Instead of trying to dismantle the argument that preschool is good for kids, Harish accepted that the point was valid, which allowed him to relate to his opponent’s perspective – and to the audience’s (majority of audiences support that preschool is good for kids) Then it was perfectly fair and balanced for him to express his concerns about whether a subsidy would give the most underprivileged kids access to preschool.
2. Avoid Dilution Effect
The computer piled on study after study to support a long list of reasons in favor of preschool subsidies. Like a skilled negotiator, Harish focused on just two reasons against them. He knew that making too many points could come at the cost of developing, elaborating, and reinforcing his best ones. If you have too many arguments, you will dilute the power of each and every one. They are going to be less well developed and explained. We called this the Dilution Effect.
The more reasons we put on the table, the easier it is for people to discard the shakiest one. Once they reject one of our justifications, they can easily dismiss our entire case. That happened regularly to the average debaters or negotiators: they brought too many different weapons to battle. They lost ground not because of the strength of their most compelling point, but because of the weakness of their least compelling one.
Is avoiding the dilution effect always the best way to approach a debate? It depends on three key factors:
(1) How much people care about the issue.
(2) How open they are to our particular argument.
(3) How strong-willed they are in general.
If they’re not invested in the issue or they’re receptive to our perspective, more reasons can help: people tend to see quantity as a sign of quality. The more the topic matters to them, the more the quality of reason matters. It’s when audiences are skeptical of our view, have a stake in the issue, and tend to be stubborn that piling on justifications is most likely to backfire.
If they’re resistant to rethinking, more reasons simply give them more ammunition to shoot our views down. Because the audience is already skeptical. When you give them different kinds of reasons to justify your claim, you triggered their awareness that someone is trying to persuade them, to influence them – and they put their guide up and shield themselves against it.
3. Ask questions to make audience contemplate
Psychologists have long found that the person most likely to persuade you to change your mind is you. You get to pick the reasons you find most compelling, and you come away with a real sense of ownership over them.
That’s where Harish’s final edge came in. In every round he posed more questions to contemplate. The computer spoke in declarative sentences, asking just a single question in the opening statement – and directing it a Harish, rather than at the audience. On the other hand, Harish asked six different questions for the audience to ponder.
By asking questions rather than thinking for the audience, we invite them to join us as a partner and think for themselves.
Taken together, when we point out that there are areas where we agree and acknowledge that they have some valid points, we model confident humility and encourage them to follow suit. When we support our argument with a small number of cohesive, compelling reasons, we encourage them to start doubting their own opinion. And when we ask genuine questions, we leave them intrigued to learn more.
We don’t have to convince them that we’re right – we just need to open their minds to the possibility that they might be wrong. Their natural curiosity might do the rest.
4. Treat it as a dance
A good debate is not a war. it’s not even a tug-of-war. It’s more like a dance that hasn’t been choreographed, negotiated with a partner who has a different set of steps in mind. If you try too hard to lead, your partner will resist. If you can adapt your moves to hers, and get her to do the same, you’re more likely to end up in rhythm.
What to do when people are so attached to their beliefs that the mere suggestion of getting in sync feels like an ambush?
When someone becomes hostile, if you respond by viewing the argument as a war, you can either attack or retreat. If instead you treat it as a dance, you have another option – you can sidestep.
The more anger and hostility the other person express, the more curiosity and interest you show. When someone is losing control, your tranquility is a sign of strength. It takes the wind out of their emotional sails.
In a heated argument, you can always stop and ask, “What evidence would change your mind?” If the answer is nothing, then there’s no point in continuing the debate. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it think.
If we approach an argument as a war, there will be winners and losers. If we see it more as a dance, we can begin to choreograph a way forward. By considering the stronger version of an opponent’s perspective and limiting our responses to our few best steps, we have a better chance of finding a rhythm.
5. Persuasion is priming
In a formal debate your goal is to change the mind of your audience with persuasion. And persuasion means convincing an audience that the way they currently see the world isn’t quite right and replacing their worldview with something better.
Our minds need to be primed before they can be persuaded. The key to prompting someone’s worldview shift is to take the journey one step at a time, priming their minds in several different way before getting to the main augment.
Priming is a journey the speaker and the audience take together with the speaker as a guide. The speaker needs to ensure that the audience is follow his or her direction every step of the journey. It is not a rigorous argument; it is simply a way of nudging someone in your direction. Once people have been primed, it’s much easier to make your main argument. And how do you do that? Reason!
If you can walk someone through a reasoned argument convincingly, the idea you have planted in their mind will lodge there and never let go. But for the process to work, it must be broken down into small steps, each of which must be totally convincing. The starting point of each step is something the audience can clearly see to be true, or it’s something that was shown to be true earlier in the talk. So the core mechanism here is if-then: if X is true, dear friend, then, clearly, T follows.
For example, after pointing out that we encourage companies to take risks but frown on nonprofits for doing so, you may make this statement, “Well, you and I know when you prohibit failure, you kill innovation. If you kill innovation in fundraising, you can’t raise more revenue. If you can’t raise more revenue, you can’t grow. And if you can’t grow, you can’t possibly solve large social problems. If we want our nonprofits to solve large social problems, we must not prohibit them from failure.”
A more attractive way to build a case and build your argument is called Detective Story. Like a detective eliminating suspects, your start with the big mystery, then travel the world of ideas in search of possible solutions to it, ruling them out one by one, until there’s only one visible solution that survive.
What makes this persuasive is that we feel as if we have gone on the same learning journey as the speaker. Instead of being told facts, we’ve been invited on join the process of discovery. Our minds are naturally more engaged. As we eliminate rival theories one by one, we gradually become convinced. We persuade ourselves.
The power of this structure is that it taps deep into our love of stories. The whole talk feels like a story – better yet, a mystery story. Curiosity builds to more curiosity through to a satisfying conclusion.
6. Motivational Interviewing
When people ignore advice or suggestion, it isn’t always because they disagree with it. Sometimes they’re resisting the sense of pressure and the feeling that someone else is controlling their decision. For instance, people who drink too much are usually aware of it. If you try to persuade them that they do drink too much or need to make a change, you evoke resistance and they are less likely to change.
To respect people’s freedom of choice and lower their resistance for change, instead of giving commands or offering recommendations, we are better off helping them find their own motivation to change by applying a practice called motivational interviewing.
The process of motivational interviewing involves three key techniques: (1) Asking open-ended questions. (2) Affirming the person’s desire and ability to change. (3) Engaging in reflective listening. (4) Summarizing. A motivational interview might go like this:
Ask Open-ended questions: I understand you have some concerns about your drinking.
Can you tell me about them?
Versus: Are you concerned about your drinking?
Make Affirmations: I appreciate that it took a lot of courage for you to discuss your drinking with us today. You appear to have a lot of resourcefulness to have coped with these difficulties for the past few years.
Use Reflective Listening (rephrasing a statement to capture the implicit meaning and feeling of a patient’s statement): You enjoy the effects of alcohol in terms of how it helps you unwind after a stressful day at work and helps you interact with friends without being too self-conscious. But you are beginning to worry about the impact drinking is having on
Use Summarizing: If it is okay with you, just let me check that I understand everything that we’ve been discussing so far. You have been worrying about how much you’ve been drinking in recent months because you recognize that you have experienced some serious health issues. But the few times you’ve tried to stop drinking have not been easy, and you are worried that you can’t stop. How am I doing?
The objective of motivational interview is not to be a leader or a follower, but a guider. Part of the beauty of MI is the it generates more openness in both directions. Listening can encourage others to reconsider their stance toward us, but it also gives us information that can lead us to questions our own views about them.
7. Power Of Active Listening
When we try to convince people to change or think again, our first instinct is usually to start talking even if we have the best intention. Yet the most effective way to help help others open their minds is often to listen.
Listening well is more than a matter of talking less. it’s a set of skills in asking and responding. It starts with showing more interest in other people’s interests rather than trying to judge their status or prove our own. We can all get better at asking truly curious questions that don’t have the hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting, and helping to facilitate the clear expression of anther person’s thought.
Many experiments and studies have shown that interacting with an empathetic, nonjudgmental, attentive listening made people less anxious and defensive. They felt less pressure to avoid contradictions in their thinking, which encouraged them to explore their opinions more deeply, recognize more nuances in them, and share them more openly.
Many communicators try to make themselves look smart. Great listeners are more interested in making their audience feel smart. They help people approach their own view with more humility, doubt, and curiosity. When people have a chance to express themselves out loud, they often discover new thoughts or insight.
The power of listening doesn’t lie just in giving people the space to reflect on their views. It’s a display of respect and an expression of care. Listening is a way of offering others our scarcest, most precious gift: our attention. Once we have demonstrated that we care about them and their goals, they are more willing to listen to us.