Words with Power – Counter-Arguments and Competition

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Guidelines for Debate as a PME Tool

‘But the human tongue is a beast that few can master. It strains constantly to break out of its cage, and if it is not tamed, it will run wild and cause you grief’ 

Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

It is undeniable that words possess influential power. Winston Churchill’s rousing comments to the House of Commons in 1940 served to galvanise a nation’s resolve, just as Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 oration inspired hope in the civil rights movement. Yet as Robert Greene notes in the quote above, inadequate control of language can have detrimental effects. Within the military context, the adage that ‘words have meaning’ is often touted in reference to the appropriate use of tactical task verbs. However, this phrase is always applicable; given that much of our Professional Military Education (PME) revolves around discussion, there should be a focus on developing our ability to construct robust discussions that force an engagement with facts over opinions and an acknowledgement and consideration for alternative views through critical assessment. As we look for alternative ways to conduct PME, the use of debate — to enhance research skills and critical creative thinking, while developing the ability to formulate structured argument based on facts — should not be ignored. The following article discusses the benefits of debate and provides a guideline for employing it as a PME tool.

Why Debate?

Human interaction is largely characterized by debate in myriad forms. We put forward our point of view in the hopes that we can persuade people to agree or to otherwise gain some benefit. Much of this informal debate relies on our subjective experience, inevitably affected by cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Organisations such as intelligence2 use formal debate to demonstrate the necessity of fact-based arguments in discussing contentious issues that are often mired by opinion-driven comments. In doing so, they seek to prompt individuals and communities to more deeply interact with their existing knowledge and assumptions while assessing the validity of other arguments. The Department of Communication at the University of Washington puts forward that, ‘Debate is the activity that brings the art of reading, thinking and speaking together in one place.’ There are innumerable assertions regarding the benefits of debate, but this nexus of reading, thinking, and speaking is critically important for military members. Writing for the Guardian in 2016, Alex Clark highlights the involvement of several skills within the art of debating. Clark’s article asserts that, ‘the art of debate involves mastering skills of obvious intrinsic value: the confidence to speak in public, and make sense; the construction of a logical argument; the ability to read an audience’s reactions; and, perhaps most importantly, the willingness to hear others’ arguments, and to respond to them.’

Skills development through debate

Clark’s comments highlight four crucial skills which contribute to individual and group level professional military development. The ability to construct a logical argument, the confidence to appropriately voice such an argument in public, the ability to understand and refute opposing views, and the ability to identify environmental reactions and respond in turn are all vital skills fostered through debate.

The ability to construct a logical argument enhances communication through the development of pithy statements that are coherent and well-supported. As military planning relies on a course of action to be feasible, acceptable, suitable, distinguishable, and complete, an argument must be factual, unbiased, relevant, and defined. Arguments based in fact will withstand greater criticism than those founded in opinion, and thus establish a greater support base. In the event that facts are not be available, however, assumptions must be made. Consideration of these information gaps in debating is critical and every effort must be made to confirm assumptions. Recognising and overcoming cognitive biases[1] is critical to creating a logical argument; an argument that avoids cognitive bias will withstand greater inquisition. It is well-recognised that our personal cognitive biases can negatively impact our ability to define a problem; the process of structured debate forces those involved to clearly define the issue at hand. Moreover, the use of a moderator and critique from the opposition ensure that discussion remains on track. Through practicing the construction of logical arguments, debate enables the development of critical thinking and communication skills.

A logical argument can be lost by an inability to verbally communicate in a confident and coherent manner. Formal debate, involving members of all ranks, enables individuals to develop the ability to confidently and appropriately advance his or her opinion for the benefit of the collective. The time restrictions inherent in the formal debate format ensure that individuals remain concise and direct. The simultaneous presentation to an opposing team and an audience helps to develop the ability to engage with multiple actors at any one time.

Debate not only enhances our pursuit of factual grounding and confidence to voice arguments but furthers an ability to absorb opposing views and more critically question their foundations. The ability to identify cognitive bias in opposing arguments will enhance critical evaluation and refutation. Evaluating and supporting alternative opinions greatly enables an understanding of likely threat actions that has benefits in the ability to conduct effective threat analysis thus influencing decision making. Through debate, one practices threat analysis by considering opposing points of view, what the opposing team is likely to argue, and how they are likely to counter-argue. The practice of critical analysis cultivates the capacity to provide constructive, fact-supported feedback rather than shallow opinions. Furthermore, debate forces individuals to listen to other’s arguments and the development of this skill is instrumental to supporting effective interaction.

Debate offers an opportunity for speakers to immediately observe environmental changes in both their opposition and the audience. Recognizing variations in body language in the audience and changes in the talking points of the opposition are two key indicators that can be exploited to enhance one’s success. Practicing the recognition of environmental changes and quick response is an essential skill that greatly enhances the likelihood of success during and beyond debate.

The aforementioned skills contribute to more effective communication through inculcating a pursuit of fact-based argument that acknowledges information gaps and biases, a confidence to appropriately and coherently present that argument, an ability to absorb opposing views and critically assess them, and a recognition of environmental reactions. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.’

Debate as a PME tool

As an instructor for the US Army’s Air Defence Artillery Captains Career Course, I have had have the opportunity to implement debate as a PME tool. Repeated conduct has demonstrated that there is no single method of conduct that is superior; however, the aforementioned benefits of debating remain constant. In order to maximize the benefits discussed previously there are five essential employment considerations for debate as a PME tool.

Identify teams: Identifying who will conduct the activity is the first consideration. This can be done based on random choice, unit or sub-unit, small team, or corps/branch. Teams should be no larger than 4 individuals and ideally a mixture of ranks. Teams should be as diverse as possible to ensure deeper analysis and avoid a representation of any majority group that could possibly sway the outcome. Once the teams have been identified, planning should move to the next component

Establish a motion and allocate preparation time: Once teams have been identified, the next consideration should be to establish the motion for debate and allocate preparation time. Possible ways of deciding the motion are to: have the instructor/PME facilitator decide upon a motion independently; have individuals contribute an option each and choose through group consensus; develop an enduring (and continuously added to) collection from which an audience member randomly draws. Similarly, preparation time can vary widely, but should be no longer than a week and no shorter than 45 minutes. The quality of the debate will inevitably vary depending on the preparation time provided, but the skills being practiced will not change. Regardless of the time available or the method used, consideration should be given to what you are going to discuss, who will argue for and against, and how much time you will provide your teams to prepare.

Presentation of arguments and opposition: Presentation of arguments and critique occur in parallel to permit the alternation of opposing teams.  Presenting a team’s argument is the first stage of conducting the debate and can vary based on the facilitator’s discretion. It will be influenced by the construct of the teams in that it may demand all team members speak or only representatives. It will also restrict the time allocated for individuals to speak and in doing so force succinct arguments that are direct and relevant. There are various ways in which the facilitator can enable opposing teams to critique each other. A period of time, in which only counter-argument is permissible, can be added at the front of their normal allocation or the moderator can pause the clock when the opposing team requests to counter. In similar fashion to the previous components, the execution can vary based on the choice of the PME facilitator, however, there should always be an opportunity for teams to counter-argue.

Moderation and audience involvement: Debate, as with any discussion, has the potential to be derailed by irrelevant tangents and personal attacks. To avoid this, it is essential that there is some form of control over the conduct of the debate. Moderation can involve consolidating presented ideas, controlling who is able to speak, and integrating the audience. The involvement of the audience is important in a PME context because it ensures buy-in and expands the benefits of the debate to those not directly involved. Audience participation can come in several ways and include a question and answer session prior to the concluding statements of each side or the use of the audience to determine the ultimate victor. The former can be through predetermined questions provided to the moderator or a live Q&A. The latter can be done by a consensus shift which requires a vote prior and a vote following the debate with the victor decided by the largest shift in the audience; it is important to note that if this is chosen, diversity among the teams is essential to avoid individuals merely aligning with ‘their’ team. This lends itself to the final element required for PME debate.

Element of competition: In order to gain the maximum benefit from debate there has to be a competitive element. Having a winner and loser does not mean that what is being argued is right or wrong but merely that one team was able to present a stronger argument. As already indicated, the competition can be decided through consensus shift. It can also be decided by a panel of judges, diverse across rank and background, who are provided with set criteria for assessing the two teams; such criteria can be self-generated or found online. This provides greater constructive feedback to those debating. To enhance this element, debating competitions can be established that commence as intra-unit debates feeding into inter-unit debates. The element of competition ensures greater involvement and that reward is given where it is due.


The ability to effectively debate is an instrumental tool for all military members. Developing this skill at all ranks instils an appreciation of the need for facts-based arguments that challenge existing biases and avoid logical fallacies. It serves to provide a platform for further developing the ability to express thoughts and ideas that are not dismissive of alternative views, but rather challenge the validity behind them. In doing so, discussion becomes more robust and there is increased confidence in the ability to effectively contribute through eloquent expression of an argument. Debating is an incredibly effective PME tool that, employing the components provided, maximises involvement and develops research, critical creative thinking, and public speaking skills that are essential to all military members.

About the author

Captain James Easton is an Air Defence Officer currently posted to the US Fires Center of Excellence.


[1] Cognitive biases make our judgments irrational. We have evolved to use shortcuts in our thinking, which are often useful, but a cognitive bias means there’s a kind of misfiring going on causing us to lose objectivity. A comprehensive list of cognitive biases can be found at https://www.yourbias.is