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The Art of Debate: Knowing When to Walk Away

Updated on January 13, 2013

Recognizing when Enough is Enough

As someone recently pointed out to me, debate is more of an art form than a science. It is almost impossible to predict what will come out of nowhere, what your opponent will say, or what the reaction to the points you bring up will be. Debates over sensitive topics often become heated quickly. Unfortunately, the common consensus for impromptu or informal debates dictates that the person who walks away from the conversation first is viewed as the "loser". This couldn't be further from the truth.

It's difficult to know when the conversation has reached a conclusion. It's common to want the "last word". When your opponent resorts to ad hominem attacks instead of actually responding to your logical or reasoned answers, it's hard to take the high road. Tempers often flare and frustration abounds on both sides, especially if other people are involved in the debating process as well. Often the most reasoned of debaters are almost forced to lower their standards and respond in-kind, which cheapens the debate process and limits the effectiveness of the conversation as a whole.

Winners and Losers:
The unfortunate reality is that unless you're in a formal debate with a set structure and a moderator with a voting mechanism in place, there is rarely, if ever, going to be a clearly defined "winner" or "loser". Even the most experienced debaters encounter a debate phenomenon that is common across the board. Both parties deliver their best arguments and counter-arguments, ask questions and deliver their closing arguments. Then both parties walk away believing that they have "won" the discussion - even though both people realistically can't both be right.

When debating informally, the lines of distinction are even more blurry. The fact of the matter is, no matter how rational, logical or consistent you and your arguments were, the other person simply isn't likely to concede that you won, regardless of what was said. Each person feels that they won, and other people involved or watching will typically favor the person they already sided with in the beginning. Clear champions are rare.

Set the Bar Higher:
Instead of entering a discussion or debate with the intention of completely trouncing your (often unwitting) opponent, decide that your goal is to deliver the best possible arguments to defend your position, and keep a high standard for your responses and your emotions. Decide to not get caught up in trading insults, and refuse to sink to the level of your opponent - no matter how they treat you. Don't let your emotions come in to play. When debating, it's necessary to develop a thicker skin in the face of the common tactics employed by trolls or others just out to "get your goat".

If you start to feel your resolve cracking around the edges, it's time to stop. If that means your opponent claims victory, so be it. Chances are high that they're going to claim victory anyway - no matter what you do or say to the contrary.

Reevaluate the Point:
Informal debates are rarely defined and are often impromptu and disorganized. Seeing the big picture goes a long way when determining what your best course of action should be. How your opponent sees you or your arguments ultimately is of little importance. How you view yourself, however, is the more important factor that needs to be considered.

If you're going into a discussion with the intent of a clear, decisive victory, you're likely to be continually disappointed. I've never personally had a debate with someone who concedes that my arguments were more valid and rational and declared me the "winner". I don't go into debates with the purpose of deconverting my opponents, or to completely demoralize their often-irrational beliefs. I go into debates to get an alternative position out in the open, and to plant the seeds of alternative views in another person's mind. What they do with those seeds is ultimately up to them. Meanwhile, I can leave as necessary and feel good about how I've behaved, and what I've said. I take pride in how calm and rational I can be in the face of emotional outbursts. Sometimes my frustration gets the better of me, and I'm hardly perfect, but those experiences are simply steps along the path to growth and are valuable learning tools so I know what to not do next time.

Walking Away:
Since I debate for fun as well as part of my job, my general rule of thumb is to walk away when it's no longer fun or interesting - or when it's clear that the person I'm talking to is unwilling to recognize any of their own fallacies, and is not willing to debate or discuss the issue honestly. If I'm not getting anything out of the discussion and it turns into two people just trading verbal barbs, it's time to go. I can refocus my attention on more important matters.

It never hurts to be honest and tell your opponent that you have better things to do than contribute further in this discussion. If you're reached a dead end, it's okay to say so. That's the time to walk away with your head held high and pride in your accomplishments - even if you're the only one who sees them.


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    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 

      5 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      Hey jonnycomelately, long time no see.

      Your breakdown of the difference between discussion and argument is priceless.

      Actually, I'm not sure about the two plus two. I didn't finish math in school because my math teacher was arrested as a ringleader in the notorious al-Gebra movement. His office was littered with weapons of math instruction. Authorities closed down the whole school while they investigated—to protect the students, they said.

    • jonnycomelately profile image


      5 years ago from Tasmania

      Oh, come on Rhonda, we all know that 2 + 2 = 5, don't we???

      Excellent Hub, JMcFarland. How much most of us can relate to what you have said, with such clarity.

      If you have seen my exploits upon other minds in the religion and gender debates, my fault is often uppermost in the argument.

      One comparison I have made, between "discussion" and "argument," is that the former involves minds which are open to new information, willing to listen, consider and reconsider if necessary.

      The argument is usually between minds which are already convinced they are right and want the other minds listening to fall into line and agree. The agreement will feed the ego; ego will become hungry again and renew the argument at a later date, ad infinitum

      Open to discussion, of course !!

    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 

      5 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow


      Not quite;)

    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 

      5 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      "The analysis of other's ideas and the synthesis of our own." Just think how much truth we could learn if we analyzed our own ideas. And just think, 300 years from now people will read what we are writing here and call us fellow philosophers. ;)

      Yes, it's a game. And a beautiful game it is, too. By saying two plus two equals three is just my opinion/belief, I put it on the same level with two plus two equals four. So you don't win the debate. In fact, by insisting that two plus two equals four, you violate my constitutional right to believe it equals three, so you lose the debate. Beautiful. ingenious.

    • paperlake profile image


      5 years ago from atop a unicorn, vanquishing evildoers

      Your point about there being no true "winner" in the method of debating, and each person only recognizing the value of their own points, reminds me of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's theory of "language games". The idea is that words only begin to have meaning in a certain context - a game - with its own specific and distinct set of rules. In my eyes, a "debate" is really just two different language games intersecting and competing, and since they both have their own contrasting themes and rules to follow, true communication is rarely - if ever - possible between them. The 18th century philosopher J.G. Hamann happened to contribute this idea to the history of philosophy way before Wittgenstein did, but was consigned to virtual anonymity as a result of his thoughts being so radically opposed to the status-quo of the day. Here's a relevant quote of his in a letter to fellow philosopher and friend, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi: "Since everyone works at the analysis of other people's ideas, and the synthesis of his own, no constancy is possible from both sides, but a perpetual turning and an unavoidable change..." I definitely agree.

      Good Hub!

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      You're right. It's usually a last-ditch effort to try to save face. Unfortunately, more and more people are getting to that level earlier and earlier. I almost feel sorry for them. But not quite.

    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 

      5 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      You're right, it is difficult to listen with an open mind when someone is telling you their book says two plus two is three and anyone who doesn't believe that is going to hell.

      If I've said what I intended to say and have determined that my opponent is not likely to come up with anything new, it's time to leave. Like you said, it's not about winning but about making your point.

      Besides, if the other person resorts to character assassination and shrill accusations, nine times out of ten, they have run out of intelligent things to say. I have nothing to gain by winning a nastiness contest.

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thank you very much, Beata

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 

      5 years ago from Western Australia

      Congratulation to your nomination, the open mind is the key:)

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Listening with a genuine open mind is often the hardest part. It was the hardest part for me. I'm extremely competitive even with my wife and my friends and the thought of having to walk away when I believe I have the upper hand is EXTREMELY difficult. Overall, however, it is much more beneficial to my own mental well-being if I'm willing to step away rather than get into a punching match.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I'm clenching my teeth at the thought of having to concede, but... I'm learning... I'm learning.

      Just as there's an art to pointing out the fallacies in your opponent's argument, greater is the challenge to listen to what's actually being said. And I wonder if that even matters, or to what extent it does, because the only concern in a debate context is WINNING!

      Great hub!

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thanks for the comment and insight! Walking away isn't a cop-out, although it's often perceived as one. I'd much rather take the upper road and leave a conversation before it becomes little more than mudslinging.

      Negotiation, I believe, is a discussion with a focus on overall objective. You're actively trying to achieve a goal, and you're willing to give or take ground as necessary based on your opposition's needs. Debate on the other hand is based on logic, reason and doesn't necessarily have to have an ultimate "goal". Sure, you want to "win", but you also want to maintain an open mind. If you go into a debate scenario with the opinion that you're right, they're wrong and you're going to trounce them, it won't happen. If you want to be intellectually honest, you have to keep an open mind and really listen to the points that the other person is trying to make - and adapt your style and response based on their presentation.

      My work is a little hard to explain, but I do get to debate quite a bit. I do a lot of reconciliation work and research - and that often brings me to the point where I'll butt heads with someone on the other side. If I can explain my position logically and present the facts, I can usually come out on top.

      Additionally, I still participate in other debates as time allows - usually religious or historical ones.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Hi JMcFarland!

      I really enjoyed reading your hub and I agree with much of your view here. I am grateful there is another individual in this world mature enough to walk away. Perhaps you can offer this same perspective to those who carry weapons, both physical and mental! There is also often a sense of confusion among mankind between debate and negotiation. Your thoughts?

      I don't know much about formally debating though I enjoyed the collegiate debates I watched on TV as a child.

      What I do know is; people who enter a debate of any subject with a well disciplined ego and a true desire for learning and knowledge received rather than opinion given are the true winners!

      I applaud you ability to walk away. Very wise!

      I look forward to reading more of your work.



      Just curious, what types of positions employ debate?

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thank you very much! I appreciate your feedback.

    • watergeek profile image


      5 years ago from Pasadena CA

      Hmmm. Your points are valid, especially the one about walking away from a debate that's turning into an argument. I do believe that both parties can win, depending on the topic. Many debates, especially informal ones, are really about personal preferences anyway. It's when they turn into denouncements or proseletyzing that problems occur, especially with relatives. (I know. You should see my family.) This is well written, JMcFarland, giving good food for thought.


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