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We have weekly meetings of around 10 people. One of those 10 people has won various debate tournaments and qualified for national debate competitions in his past. As a result, whenever we are deciding on a matter, he can easily convince the rest of the room.

However, I've noticed that the reasons his arguments are compelling are not always the actual content but rather other "debate tactics" that he gained from experience, such as

  • Very confident tone and clear articulation
  • Ability to instantly generate rebuttals
  • Rebuts by finding minor flaws in minor points of an argument and then acting like that disproves the heart of the argument. His confidence helps in making it seem like he disproved the entire argument.
  • Using leading questions, such as "Isn't it true that action X will provide benefits such as A, B, C"?
  • Admitting that it seems that the other person made a compelling argument, but then proceeding to methodically and systematically tear apart their argument; by making it systematic, even if all their points at each step in disassembling don't make sense, their systematic approach strengthens the perception people have of their argument.
  • Utilizing a sophisticated vocabulary

And many other tactics that are based upon persuading others not through the content of the argument but rather through other factors such as word choice, delivery, meticulous attacks on particular parts of arguments, etc.

I could try to call him out but I don't doubt that he'll have a response that will just make me appear wrong. I've talked to the people who don't speak much during meetings (and thus haven't engaged with him) and they almost always seem to agree with him.

I can't beat him in debating because of those tactics that he uses, but there are still business matters that need to be deliberated upon.

How can we discuss business matters without his debate tactics obscuring the actual content of the matters discussed?

I understand that in all meetings around the world someone will have an upper hand because of their speech and delivery, but here it is just extremely prominent due to his debate history. I fear that it may lead to us not making the best decisions possible by best evaluating all options.

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    Are you willing to be adversarial? Are you able to make light-hearted jokes in the meeting? Is there a meeting point person you can discuss these concerns with? – dandavis May 5 '18 at 9:39
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    "Maybe you are right. But shouldn't we discuss all relevant alternatives before deciding to come to the best conclusion?" – Captain Emacs May 5 '18 at 11:31
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    one of the things i learnt in debating is that preparation counts. You can have all the oratory skills in the world, but if you don't know anything about the topic, you're going to lose. Always. This guy is coming to meetings, he's prepared an idea, he's not wasting everyone's time. That's why he is getting his vision sold. – bharal May 5 '18 at 15:43
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    It looks like his debating skills are being utilised to make the right business decision, so what is the actual problem here? – Masked Man May 5 '18 at 18:31
  • @MaskedMan I think the fact that the silent participants always agree with what he has to say can mean 1 of 2 things: He is always right, or his presentation makes it seem as if he is always right. Occam's Razor says the latter. And it's no mystery that better presenters can influence others merely based on how they talk, present themselves, and gesticulate rather than their actual arguments (as in the Kennedy Nixon debate) – Brian Willards May 6 '18 at 2:21
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You're missing the fact that John is believable not because of his oratory skills, but because he hasn't been wrong yet. Also, that meetings aren't the place for obsessing over minutiae.

On John

Winning an argument isn't the same as the argument being the best course. You say

but there are still business matters that need to be deliberated upon.

Well, why do you say that? If these overlooked matters were important, he would have been very wrong before. If he's been catastrophically wrong then he's not going to be believable, or will be easily beatable - I love your idea John, but the last time we overlooked X,Y,Z in TheBigCase it led to Problem. It seems John is either very lucky, or comes prepared to meetings.

On Meetings

Just because there are business matters doesn't mean they always need to be discussed. People don't like spending time in a meeting, and it is a waste of time to look at all the details as a group.

The Heart of your Problem

It seems your intent is to discuss minutiae more deeply in meetings. You are misreading the use of the meetings. It isn't to go through minutiae, that's the prep work you need to have done before it. That's what "John" already did, which is why he can dismiss you so easily.

The purpose of the meeting is to sell the idea to everyone there.

You need to do the work before the meeting so that you have analysed all the details yourself, and so you can present the idea in the least time. You need to be able to have answers to questions on the tip of your tongue, and have reasons - not questions - as to why other ideas won't work.

But If You Are Stubborn And Lazy

You can structure the meetings so nobody has the "the floor", but rather everyone votes on important topics. HBR probably has articles on how to do this. It will prove unpopular and be a waste of everyone's time though.

  • But if I do have reasons as to why his ideas won't work, won't he just be able to rebut them and persuade the rest of the people there using his debate skills aforementioned? It is not always that the more logical and rational person wins, especially when the other is a much better presenter. – Brian Willards May 6 '18 at 2:26
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The obvious answer is to get better at debating - and yes, this can be done honestly.

You have already made a good first step in analyzing the favorite tactics of your opponent, so let's come up with some counters:

Very confident tone and clear articulation

Speak confidently when you are sure of your facts (and take the time to make sure before the meeting). If you catch him at a falsehood you can demonstrate to be false, proceed to do so.

Speak clearly at all times, there is no downside.

Ability to instantly generate rebuttals

Practice makes perfect, but knowing your facts well also helps.

Rebuts by finding minor flaws in minor points of an argument and then acting like that disproves the heart of the argument. His confidence helps in making it seem like he disproved the entire argument.

If these points are minor, why did you raise them?

It might be clear to you, the subject matter expert, that those parts are minor, but your audience likely hasn't such a deep understanding of the subject matter (if they did, you wouldn't need to convince them, because everybody would already agree with you ...)

The best way to communicate to your audience that these points are minor is by not making them part of your argument. If you must raise them, use them in a separate argument - and express that clearly, for instance by saying something like ("I have 3 arguments against that. The first argument is .... The second argument is ... and the third argument is ...).

Using leading questions, such as "Isn't it true that action X will provide benefits such as A, B, C"?

Include relevant information even if it wasn't asked for. For instance, you could say:

"So do actions Y and Z"

or

"it is also very expensive"

Admitting that it seems that the other person made a compelling argument, but then proceeding to methodically and systematically tear apart their argument; by making it systematic, even if all their points at each step in disassembling don't make sense, their systematic approach strengthens the perception people have of their argument.

I don't quite get what you mean by "making it systematic", but it sounds like your opponent is paraphrasing your argument and exposes weaknesses as he goes, and impresses everyone with the clear grasp of logic in the process.

By paraphrasing,

  • your opponent gets time to think about your argument in detail
  • can call attention to flaws in your argument, or
  • misrepresent your argument ("strawman fallacy")

Clearly, something is wrong if your opponent explains your argument to the audience: that should be your job! The audience is unlikely to allow this if you have explained your argument well.

If your argument is flawed, you should not have been making it (or you must be able to explain that the argument remains intact, but that's difficult after just having lost credibility ...).

If your opponent misrepresents your argument, call him out on it using phrases like "I didn't say that" or "That's not what I said" - and be prepared to elaborate.

Utilizing a sophisticated vocabulary

Sophistication by itself is overrated. For instance, would you call the language of the current US president sophisticated?

What matters is effectiveness, and that is mostly a matter of clarity. Are you expressing yourself in ways your audience can understand, or peppering your arguments with jargon they don't know? Are your arguments rooted in the goals of your audience?

In summary, it is possible to argue effectively and fairly, and you can learn to do so. Yes, you'll probably never be as good at rhetoric as a national debater, but you don't have to: Debate is about communicating knowledge, so knowing more can compensate for some knowledge lost in communication.

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