Getting the Upper Hand - Debate
It has probably happened to you before: Someone with opposing views has, through the sheer force of personality, overwhelmed you in a discussion or argument. Or, despite your best efforts, you couldn't make headway against an opponent armed with a flurry of convincing data and evidence in support of his position.
In debates like these, you need to get the upper hand or, at the very least, bring some equilibrium into the discussion. Only by building momentum for your arguments can you hope to convince others of the validity of your ideas. Through a few strategically chosen words or gestures, successful speakers make this happen. With a little practice, so can you.
Next time your ideas are being steamrolled by an overpowering opponent, use one or two of these techniques to gently turn the tide of discussion.
The Coordinated Gesture. When you make a key point of your own, use coordinated gestures: Move your arms together in a systematic arc, for example, or draw imaginary lines in front of you with your fingers. These measured gestures reinforce the seriousness and gravity of the points you're making.
The Distraction Gambit. Yes, it's rude and should be used only rarely. But certain gestures subtly force listeners to shift their attention from the speaker to you. These include intense gazes, tapping of pencils, drumming of the fingers, scratching the neck. Such gestures make listeners wonder what you're thinking.
The Fidgety Movement. Noticeable bodily movement in your seat focuses attention away from the speaker and onto you. Examples of fidgety, but strategic, movements: intense note taking or sudden shifts of your entire body. Without realizing it, listeners become curious about your thoughts.
The Inquisitive Gaze. An impassive, slightly puzzled look and a slight tilt of the head conveys volumes. "That doesn't sound quite right," your body is shouting.
The Explanation Inquiry. Hold up your hand and force a pause in the discussion. Prod the speaker to elaborate on her views. Ask for explanations or elaborations. By revealing a lack of understanding of the speaker's ideas, you subtly force other listeners to question those ideas as well.
The Physical Barrier. By consciously placing a perceived physical barrier - a table, desk or other obstruction - between you and the speaker, you set yourself apart in the minds of listeners. Under some circumstances, it can even foster a sense of equality between you and the speaker.
The Mighty Costume. When two speakers are intently discussing an issue in front of other listeners, the speaker who is dressed more formally will often command more attention and respect. So plan your wardrobe in advance.
The Data Inquiry. In most instances, asking for data is a reasonable and prudent request - and is perceived as such. More important, this request can force the attention of listeners on the need for substantiation of the speaker's views. You can start it off with a simple question: "Can you give us more data on the issue?" Or: "Have you conducted a literature search on this?" Or: "Do you have any statistics and case studies demonstrating the accuracy of this point of view?"
The Call for Recitation. Here you'll ask the speaker to read a portion of his remarks back to the group. While this action focuses the group's attention on the remarks, it also gives you the opportunity to gently point out inconsistencies between his first and second presentation - and to test his recollection of what he's already said.
The Side Conversation. Yes, it's another breach of etiquette, but you can quickly attack a debatable point by launching a whispered conversation with somebody near you. If more emphasis is needed, add a few gestures to the conversation.
The Strategic Testimonial. Bring the words or views of an expert into your argument, and you've produced an indirect endorsement of your views for your listeners. "Before we make a decision on this matter, we should consider the ideas of Mr. Smith," you might suggest. This statement forces your listeners to at least ponder Mr. Smith's views - and perhaps to research them as well. Mr. Smith, by the way, doesn't need to be present.
The Strategic Tilt. By leaning forward when the speaker is making a controversial point, you're signifying rapt attention and concern. This subtle movement of your body will be noticed by other members of a small group.
The Third-Party Devil's Advocate. Using this technique, you'll force the speaker to acknowledge what others might say about her views. "What do you think Jane would think about this idea if she were here?" you might ask. The speaker may then acknowledge the sentiments of prospective opponents in front of the audience, and perhaps, the validity of those sentiments.
The Throne. Just as a barrier can foster a perception of equality, a speaker sitting on a platform can command stature. A standing speaker can command more stature than a sitting speaker. By positioning your body, you effectively position your ideas.
The Weakness Probe. Rather than suggest the weaknesses of an opponent's views yourself, ask the speaker what she sees as the weakest link in her argument. Even the most supportive of audiences will listen intently to the response.
At first blush, these attention-getting techniques might appear purely manipulative. Yet they are not. Skilled speakers and debaters use them to gently force attention on the critical points they wish to make. You can do the same. The result: a more thorough airing of the issues that confront you, and a resolution of the problems your listeners are concerned about.
Richard Ansman is a Toastmaster in southern California.