Formal debating is about winning the argument. Real-life debate is about winning the audience.
You can learn useful strategy from formal debating that you can apply every day at work. People rarely realise they’re debating all the time. Their opponent is a colleague who wants Marketing to spend more promoting his products rather than yours. Or the client who is determined to get the unachievable deal that eats all your margin. The audience is your boss, colleagues or people of influence in the room.
Using strategic agreement
What debating approach will help you adapt and win over your audience? One route is to employ “strategic agreement”. This means meeting your opponent part of the way. You appear pro-active and eminently reasonable to all the third parties in the room. You offer your opponents (colleagues or clients) a dignified and face-saving way of getting some of what they want. How do you do this?
Pre-empt the impasse
Imagine the scene: Heads of department are planning the budget for the next two quarters. You are pushing for the expansion of your product exports. To do this you demonstrate the demand for your product range and services in specific overseas markets where demand is increasing rapidly. Your debating opponent is in UK sales. She’s trying to undermine you by pointing out the problems in your markets.
Unexpectedly you say she’s absolutely right about the risks in the international markets and of course, as an organisation “we don’t want all our eggs in one basket. We need to diversify and balance exports and domestic sales.”
In simple terms you are encouraging reciprocal concession. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, gives a simple example. Walking down the street he was approach by a Boy Scout who tries to sell him $5 tickets to an evening event. Cialdini declines. He’s just not interested. Immediately the boy asks him to buy a $1 chocolate bar. Although he doesn’t like chocolate Cialdini finds himself buying the cheaper item. This is followed by a meeting with his team to discuss how he ended up with the unwanted chocolate!
Strategic agreement in action
Suppose you are outlining a proposal in a departmental meeting. One colleague voices an objection and is highly sceptical. You say “I’m flexible. Let’s see how we can amend it.” You’re immediately encouraging him to find a shared solution. During the discussion you steer the conversation towards modifying the plan in such a way that the original objection gets side-lined or forgotten. In other words you assume you have a working plan which is simply being adjusted.
When you finish, your opponent (one colleague) may remember his objection to your original proposal. But your audience (boss, other colleagues) will not. Your audience will go away thinking about your proposal and how impressive you are!
By Paul Carroll, member of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations.