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How It Works: Be a Great Debater

Mastering the art of debate is a timeless skill, and with the final presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump looming on Wednesday Oct. 19, there’s sure to be plenty of armchair debating around campus, in front of television screens and across social media. How does a person ensure they’re heard, understood and taken seriously, even in the face of heated opposition?

As president of the Foreign Affairs Club at St. Thomas, which devotes many of its meetings to animated, sometimes heated, discussions on political topics, senior Jose Munne Caceres has learned a thing or two about debating. He also is an international studies major who broke into the world of debate when he was in middle school. Here are seven of his top tips for keeping your end up in a war of discourse.

Be prepared. This goes without saying, but Munne Caceres elaborated helpfully: “Research not only your side of the argument but also the opposing side. One of the most impressive points about a great debater is that they always know what their opponent is going to say before they say it.” Also, it helps to know your sources, especially if you’re using statistics to bolster your position, he said. If you’re challenged by the other side, citing your source on the spot just might serve as your coup de grace.

Silence isn’t always golden, at least in a debate. “Long pauses are awkward,” Munne Caceres said. Sometimes you just don’t know how to respond. Don’t panic. You can buy yourself a few seconds by taking a deep breath and a drink of water. Asking to have question repeated or clarified is another effective strategy for regaining your bearings.

Have an inflated ego (be honest)? Let out a few psi. “It’s important to realize that the other debater is arguing against your position, not you,” Munne Caceres advised. “Don’t take anything personally. If you want to hold your own in a debate, it’s important to stay calm and collected. Take a deep breath before you respond.”

It’s OK to make mistakes. “I always say, ‘Honesty is the best policy.’ So if you make a mistake, just say, ‘Let me rephrase that.’ Everyone messes up whether it’s because they’re nervous or for another reason.”

It’s OK to agree, but in a debate, do so cautiously and sparingly. The first televised presidential debate was a disaster for Richard Nixon for a number of reasons, Munne Caceres noted. One of them was that Nixon appeared too agreeable with his opponent, the younger, more powdered John F. Kennedy. Agreeing may seem like an asset in most situations, but people tend to see agreeing as a weakness in a debate.

Presidential hopefuls often overlook this one: Don’t interrupt. Give your rival interlocutor the benefit of the doubt for knowing as much and feeling as passionately as you do on the issue. In an informal setting, Munne Caceres thinks its passable to interject sparingly, but only if you are experienced. Inexperienced debaters may fare best by writing down their disagreement and voicing it only after the other speaker finishes. “It’s fun to have a lively discussion,” he said. “But every debate develops its own pace, and once you’re comfortable you can interject … a little. Most of the time it’s just disrespectful.”

Listen. This is the quality Munne Caceres said most newbies overlook. “Definitely come prepared with your points, but don’t count on delivering your argument like a memorized speech. The opposing side might throw a curveball at you, and if you listen, assuming you’ve done your research, you’ll be able to adapt,” he said.

How can you gauge if a debate went well? Here, Munne Caceres takes a magnanimous approach: “A good debate, I think, is when both sides walk away thinking, ‘We had a great discussion.’ When both teams made good points. Sometimes the more challenging debates end up being the better ones.”

Will this good fortune befall Clinton and Trump later this month? We’ll have to stay tuned.