A Debate Champion on How to Have More Productive Disagreements at Work19 min read
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
People disagree about a lot of things at work, from small issues like how a task should be done, to big ones like which strategic goals to prioritize. Ideally, these conflicts are settled with thoughtful debate and collaborative decision making, but that’s not usually how it works. More typically, you see leaders or the loudest voices win out, leaving others resentful. And sometimes people don’t even try to hash out differences of opinion. They prefer to avoid a fight.
Our guest today wants us to learn how to disagree with colleagues in healthier and more effective ways to create the best outcomes for our teams, customers, and shareholders. He’s going to teach us the rules of good debate, which he knows a lot about. Bo Seo is a two-time world champion debater, former coach of the Harvard College Debating Union, and the author of the book Good Arguments, How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard. Bo, welcome.
BO SEO: Good day, Alison. Thanks so much for having me.
ALISON BEARD: So, the obvious first question is how did you become a world champion debater?
BO SEO: So, the story starts when I moved from South Korea to Australia at the age of eight, and I didn’t speak English at the time. And I quickly learned that one of the hardest things about moving across language lines is adjusting to live conversation, but especially to disagreements. Because when you’re having an argument, the speed becomes unpredictable and jagged, and people interrupt, and their faces don’t really match the words that are coming out of their mouths.
So, I made a decision internally to be the most agreeable kid you’ve ever met. But that changed when I joined the debate team. And the reason why I did that is because the first thing I ever learned about debate was that when someone is speaking, nobody else does. And to someone who was used to being talked over and interrupted and spun out of conversations, that was the most tempting offer that I could have counted.
And so, I ended up joining this team, stuck with it, and I competed all throughout school, both for the Australian national team in high school and for the Harvard Debate Union. I competed at the highest levels. Won the world championships both in high school and in college. And then I coached both of those two teams that I competed with.
ALISON BEARD: So, to me, being a champion debater means that you won a lot of arguments, and a lot of people I think would like to learn how to do that. But it seems like that’s not really your goal. You’re not trying to teach us how to win, necessarily.
BO SEO: I think that’s right. The competitive element of it and the contest element of it is nothing, I think, to shy away from. Because one of the things that gives meaning to our lives is contest and aspiration and wanting to improve.
ALISON BEARD: And fighting for what you believe in.
BO SEO: Precisely. But it would be limiting to think about it as a win or a loss. Because what you are gaining along the way is even if you lose the particular round, you know that you’ve been heard, that you’ve been able to advocate for what you believe in, as you say, Alison, with as much vigor and zest as you’re able to muster. And you learn a whole lot along the way and form a relationship often with the person on the other side. So, in the grand arithmetic of it, I think it’s a big W, but it’s also good to have the wins along the way as well.
ALISON BEARD: So, let’s focus in on the business context and why debate is important for us to be successful at work. Why do you think that managers should encourage conflict before reaching consensus?
BO SEO: It’s not the case that my book or what I’m arguing for is bringing debate and disagreement to the workplace. It’s already there. Just the nature of white collar work basically is we just sit in meetings and we disagree about things all day. And whether people feel in that process that their ideas have been heard, and whether you are able to ensure that it’s not damaging to the relationship between colleagues, and whether you are able to have a situation where ideas are tested in full and the best ones rise to the top, whether we can make those disagreements productive or not is, I think, the choice in front of us.
And from a manager’s perspective, you want to make sure you have employees who feel valued. You want to have biases in decision-making checked. And you want at the end of a spirited disagreement for people to feel like they’re still on the same team, they’re able to come back the next day and do it again, and to leave the discussion feeling energized rather than dispirited, even if it’s the case that some people got their way and other people didn’t.
ALISON BEARD: And what do you see as some of the biggest hurdles to healthy debate in the corporate and startup worlds? Is it just not wanting to offend the people that you work with?
BO SEO: I think the first, Alison, is a broader problem that I think we’re dealing with in our politics and in our society, which is a lot of the skills of good argument, I think, have atrophied. And some of that is the media by which we do that, such as social media, give a really distorted view of what arguments are.
Part of it is changes in our education system where rhetoric and oratory and disagreement used to be such a central thing in the way in which we thought about how we educate citizens, and I think it’s been pushed to the side. And the consequence of that is, I think often at work we think if we mean this in a really earnest way, or if we can get the passion across, that will somehow be enough. Whereas I think one of the basic lessons of debate is there is kind of a skill to argument. There’s a labor to it. There’s a work to it. And that work of persuasion requires a kind of a skill set that I think we’ve allowed to slide.
And then on your point, I think in a world where there is this lack of a common set of skills, there’s also declining confidence in what disagreements can do. And so, when someone is challenging one’s ideas or coming to disagree, it can seem like a personal attack, or it can seem offensive, or it can seem like you’re being undermined. Whereas instilling a workplace culture where good disagreements are valued, and just wrangling or brawling is discouraged, and where you’re drawing clear lines about the kinds of conversations you do and you don’t want to have, I think that makes it a lot easier for people to participate.
ALISON BEARD: So, I do want to get into those skills that we all need to develop. But first, just taking a step back, how do you know when a conflict is or is not worth having?
BO SEO: It’s a really important question. Because when you’ve been taught to how to make a good argument and how to respond to it, you’re in a big rush to put it into practice. Right? And debaters can be a bit annoying for this reason.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I don’t know if you have a partner or children, but I definitely would think that I wouldn’t want to live with a world champion debater.
BO SEO: Partners is one thing. Ex-partners might be more revealing on that question. And so, I mean, that’s exactly the thing, actually, Alison. This is why this lesson probably can’t come a day too soon, which is you have to be judicious about when you deploy those skills. And I give a bunch of different tools to think about it in the book. But for me, the one that’s most practical or the one that I reach for every day is just a mental checklist before going into an argument to ask whether it meets the RISA checklist, R-I-S-A.
And that’s whether the disagreement is actually real as opposed to a perceived slight or something like that. Whether it’s important enough to you to engage in the disagreement. Whether it’s specific enough. So, an argument about an entire business strategy might be less specific, less useful than starting with one aspect of it or what you consider to be the core of it. And then finally, whether the two sides engaged in the discussion are aligned in their objectives.
So, when an argument, for example, just becomes sort of an ego contest for wanting to wanting to big oneself up in the office or play office politics by other means, that can be counterproductive. So, for me, the RISA checklist is not a way to run away from arguments, per se, but to focus one’s energy on the most productive disagreements.
ALISON BEARD: So, even when people decide that they want to engage, I think a lot of us just go in ready to share our opinion passionately, perhaps with some evidence, but without really thinking through how to make a logical argument that people will buy into. And then also failing to think about how people will respond, and then how you’ll respond to that. So, talk to me a little bit about preparation. What are some good ways to get ready before you’re about to debate an issue?
BO SEO: So, the basic building block of a debate is an argument. And an argument is not just any combination of words that vaguely furthers your case or communicates how you feel about something. It’s actually a very tightly wound little machine that has a main claim that is justified with reasons and that’s illustrated often with examples.
And the sooner you can go from the inchoate general brainstorming of these are all my thoughts and intuitions on this to organizing it in a form that allows other people to engage with it, and really to see the logic behind it, and to be persuaded by it, I think that is a really important element of the preparation that debaters are always doing.
The other thing that I would just add to that, Alison, is what you were gesturing at in the question, which is in the last little bit of prep, and sometimes it can be as short as five minutes, debaters remember to… after having spent all this time really fully convinced of the rightness of their case, they know to step outside it and to either brainstorm the other perspective, or to look at your own speech with a kind of a double vision as though you were seeing it from the perspective of an opponent.
And then you start to see the flaws, the jumps, the parts where people might get off the bus. And so, whatever change you can hope to accomplish in that room exists in the encounter between you and people who disagree with you and the people listening. And folding that into the preparation process, I think, is often forgotten, and debate gives a systematic way to do that.
ALISON BEARD: I do want to give people some concrete examples of how this might work in practice. Let’s say I want to make the case that all of our listeners should switch their advertising dollars from print and digital ads to podcasts. How would I go about making that claim, offering evidence, persuading them that that’s something they should do?
BO SEO: That’s brilliant. Let’s do it. So, that’s where you want to get to. Right? So, you want to get to a place where people are switching whatever money they spend on media from print to podcasts. Right? So, why should they do that?
ALISON BEARD: So, I think that it’s more dynamic medium that people feel closer to. I think that it could offer better targeting of the types of customers that you want. And I think if you offer vanity URLs, you might be able to track it a little bit better than your print advertising.
BO SEO: Brilliant. So, I hear two different ideas that both of which could be arguments that you offer for the position. One is this thing about it being more dynamic, and the other thing being it being more targeted. Right? So, then you might just take one of those claims that you made as your argument. So, you might say, so we should switch the expenditure into podcasts because it offers better targeting. So, now that’s what you want your argument to do for you.
The next step that I would take then is to recognize that an argument has to do two basic things. The first is to show that the claim that you’re making is true, and the second is that the claim you’re making is important. And without hitting both of those targets, the argument is not really going to go anywhere. After you’ve recognized that, you might then start doing research or start marshalling the evidence in your favor to show, well, here’s all the evidence, and here are all the reasons why podcasts offer better targeting.
And once you’ve done that, you’re going to shift to the important side and say, “And the fact that it offers better targeting is a good enough reason for you to change your behavior in this way, because targeting is more important than the other things that you might care about.” Right? So, maybe targeting is more important than just mass exposure. And for that, you have to give reasons again and try and come up with the best evidence.
ALISON BEARD: That’s helpful. And you had another exercise that you used to get better at this, the what, why, when, who cares, which seemed like such a simple shorthand for someone who’s not a trained debater. So, talk us through how that worked for you and how it helped you get better at making these claims and then outlining the truth and importance of them.
BO SEO: So, debate is one of these funny things where you have these really quite elaborate ways of unpacking what an argument is and what rebuttal is and so on. But in the actual round where you’re being hit with arguments left, right, and center, you need really quick, short hands and shortcuts as well.
And the way I came to this was when I was in high school, I was selected for the state debating team, and I was just losing all the time. And I thought, I can just put in the effort of coming up with lots of arguments every day and practicing and trying to distill them into an essence of what an argument is.
And through that process of repetition, I stumbled on this shorthand for coming up with arguments, which is that an argument has to answer the four W’s, which is what is the claim, then to explain why is that true, when has that happened before, so an example or a case study, and why does it matter? Why does that argument mean that we should, in fact, change our behavior in the way in which you describe?
And there used to be a time when as part of your schooling, there was this ancient Greek term, progymnasmata, which is a set of rhetorical exercises that people would just do. They were really drills. And so, building up your muscles. And this might be a nod in that vein of an exercise that we can put into practice every day, and just even in the middle of making an argument for us to check whether we have all our bases covered.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, that makes sense. So, as a debater, you were often assigned a position that you might not have actually believed in.
BO SEO: Yeah.
ALISON BEARD: So, is that a useful exercise for all of us? I guess it goes back to what you were saying about sort of think about what the opposition will say.
BO SEO: Yeah, I like that. I think we shouldn’t shy away from the element of debate, which is like a game. And there’s a bit of artifice involved, and there’s a bit of role play involved. And Warren Buffet actually has this idea about, or he once floated that boards considering potential acquisitions should assign one set of advisors to argue for and the other set of advisors to argue against. Right? And it’s an exercise that frees people up to make arguments in a certain way. Because it’s not like, I think, oh, Bo really hates this acquisition. It’s just this is what I was assigned, and I’m going to make the best possible argument that I can.
Now that kind of role play isn’t appropriate in all situations. Sometimes you do want people to explain sincerely what their considered judgment is. But in the brainstorming process where a lot of people feel a bit afraid to speak up, either because they think their colleagues are going to judge them for what they’re saying or because they’re actually not sure about what they think and they’re ambivalent about this situation. I think introducing those elements of artifice and play can be really useful. I think we do this to some extent by saying things like to play devil’s advocate for a second.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So, we’ve talked a lot about making our case, but you advocate for listening, too. That this is an integral piece of being a successful debater. So, how do we get better at listening to that other side when we’re arguing forcefully, logically for our point of view, to actually hearing what the people who oppose us are saying and considering their point of view valid?
BO SEO: Yeah. I think this is a common misconception about debate is that they’re always talking over other people and just shouting their perspective. And sometimes we do that, but we try not to. And even in any debate round, you actually spend most of it listening, because there are other speakers. And I have this pet theory that a lot of debaters are actually marginal, like kind of in their personality, they are often outsiders. And I think the reason for that is because those people who are used to being on the margins, who are used to being not heard in the most natural way, they know how to listen. Debate gives people a bunch of different tools to do that. I think the most important of those is that listening is a really active process and not a passive one.
So, when a debater is listening to another speaker, they always have paper and pen in front of them. And they’re not transcribing what the person is saying, but they’re writing out the logic of the argument in the way in which we step through before. And by doing that, and almost by thinking what is this person trying to do, what are the ways in which this argument could even be stronger, where are the gaps that could be filled?
And by recognizing that in order for any of the points you make to be persuasive, it has to engage in a really deep and serious way with not only what the opposition has just said, but what their purpose is in trying to say that, what a stronger version of their argument might be, you’re much more likely to succeed. But I think the big picture is, it’s a shift in the way in which we think about listening away from just passive receipt to a kind of a process of collaboration and reconstruction and something a little bit more active.
ALISON BEARD: But isn’t part of the point of listening as a debater to mount an effective rebuttal? So, you’re, in essence, listening very closely in order to pick apart. And in a workplace setting, we obviously would need to figure out a way to do that that doesn’t feel demeaning to the person that you’re arguing against, that actually feels constructive. So, how do you navigate that?
BO SEO: I think it’s a really, really important point. So, I don’t think the tools that I’m describing are the only ones that you’d need in a workplace. For example, there comes a time when you have to stop debating and you have to start compromising, for example, or you have to start negotiating.
ALISON BEARD: You told a story in the book about a debate in which you expertly picked apart a competitor’s argument. But then when you finished, your coach basically said, “I don’t think you won.” I can’t remember if you actually did or not. But it was because you didn’t then turn it again towards, okay, but what should we do? So, I think that is an important thing to remember, too, is that your job is not to refute something or tell a colleague that their idea won’t work. It’s to push toward what will.
BO SEO: I think that’s right. And there comes a moment when you’re critiquing someone and you think you’re really making some effective criticism, when they turn around in essence and say, “So, do you have a better idea?” Because otherwise you might have shown that their proposal is imperfect. But if it’s still the best thing on the table, it’s the best thing on the table, isn’t it? So, there is a kind of an inbuilt aspect of accountability because you are also arguing for something, too. And you might be arguing for just doing nothing or just continuing the status quo, but that also requires defense as any proposal for change does.
So, when you’re criticizing something, and this is another thing that I learned in those early debates where, again, you’re just really eager to try and tear down arguments and so on. The other person who’s engaged in this sport with you, the arguments often get better because people are forced to evolve. And in response, you have to evolve your rebuttal, too, like a dance or something. That kind of force can be enormously creative.
And I think it can be especially important in organizations where you’re always seeking to better those ideas. And that’s true of the workplace, but it’s also a description of how democracies work when they’re at their best. Right? That through the process of people opposing one another, trying to better one another, to out compete one another in their attempts to persuade people, we’re able to harness that energy towards the good.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, we are not going to get into politics on this podcast, so let’s go back to businesses and how organizations can make more room for this kind of healthy, good debate and train their people to do it well. You advocate for certainly our school systems doing it, our public institutions doing it, but how specifically should corporations make sure that this is happening more often?
BO SEO: I think the first thing to do is it almost has to be a pincer, I think, where on one level we need to give the workers and the employees and the managers the skill set. And workplaces are actually pretty good at this. Right? They’re pretty good at socializing people to be able to communicate a certain way in a way that’s civil or in a way that’s polite and professional to clients.
The second is at an organizational level, managers and leaders can think about how we integrate aspects of debate into the way in which we discuss ideas. And so, for example, there’s a lot of recent literature about how we should have different kinds of meetings. You might have meetings where the whole point is to assign people positions and to argue about them, and to go through this quite formal process where you take turns. Right? It’s not just everyone can talk whatever they want or raise their hand, but there’s a kind of a structure to the meeting where it goes from one perspective to the other. Or it could be something a little bit more dynamic or something a little bit more informal where you ask someone pitching, for example, to come up with the three best arguments for their proposal, and then you have someone to respond to it who can pressure test those ideas.
But I want to say that once we have a workforce in the same way that we have a citizenry, or as you say, we have school students who are trained in this tradition, the ways in which we can institutionalize that start to open up, and the chance of those efforts succeeding also go up.
ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, Bo, thank you so much for being with us today. I loved the book. And I think all the arguments you’re making about the importance of debate and how to do it well are very compelling.
BO SEO: Thanks so much for the thoughtful questions. Alison. I really enjoyed the conversation.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Bo Seo, two-time world champion debater and author of the book Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard.
If you got something out of today’s episode, we have more podcasts to help you manage yourself, your team, and your organization. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant, and Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.