What are debate’s 4 basic rules, and how to think better

What Are Debate's 4 Basic Rules Debate
What Are Debate's 4 Basic Rules

Most of us are not comfortable with debate. However, in business and also the SNS world it is unavoidable. So, how can we do well in debate, avoid looking like an idiot and improve our thinking?

What debate is and isn’t

First let`s look at what debate is and is not.

What debate is NOT
  • an exchange of opinions
  • a flamewar
  • showing off technique

It isn’t an exchange of reasonless opinions

One this it is not simply an exchange of opinions. A says that the Games of Thrones was great. B says not it is not. Then they go back and further saying certain things within the TV program was good or not.

This is not a debate because the options are not backed with reasons or any kind of logic. You often find this sort of thing about any TV program, movie, fiction book, etc. X was a bad show because the characters were bad, the plot was bad, and felt that it dragged on and on.

That is just an opinion of the lowest kind. A statement of emotion without any kind of justification. The listening is left wondering why? Why did the person feel the characters, plot and pacing were bad? We do not know.

It isn’t a flame war with personal attacks

Going back and forth stating opinions is not a debate, but neither is a flame war. Flame wars are typically exchanges of opinions that then escalate into a series of vicious ad hominen attacks. In this case the person doesn’t know how to logically defend their position so they just attack the other person character.

They may call the person evil, uncaring, stupid, ignorant, out of touch, or one the -ists, -phobes, etc. Often these accusations are without any kind of objective evidence. The speaker just feels that is the case, so it is.

Participating in a flame war is a waste of time. You’re most likely not going to convince anybody. In fact it is quite possible the other side will just dig into their position even more and observers will think the whole thing is silly.

It just better to walk away of these things and go on to something more productive with your time.

Showing off isn’t debate either

Then there is a group that is more concerned with scoring points, than understanding the heart of the matter. Some are partisans who have chosen sides and use rhetoric to pummel the other side.

If there is some kind of small logical opening they take it. While pointing out logical flaws is not necessarily a bad thing. Skewing your opponent one some minute detail, using sophistry, etc. doesn’t really contribute to a healthy debate. The point should be a better understanding of the issue not, who won or lost.

Part of this comes from competitive debate, where there are clear winners and losers. Both side debate about a topic and the judges decides. So, for some people they get the impression that is what debate is all about.

However, in a real situation “winning” a debate doesn’t necessarily mean you get your way. Ask any couple. You will find out how effective “winning” a debate can really be.

So what is debate anyway?

If I were to define a healthy debate, I would use the one that was suggested by Hideaki Mogi. He defined it in “The Debate: Thinking and Expressing in the Age of Self-Responsibility” as:

“To break up an issue into two sides. While putting aside any subjective feelings about the matter, objectively analyze and argue the issue from two sides. Dig into the heart of the issue and bring evidence to ultimately make a good decision about the issue.”

While there may be more than two sides to any issue, debate simplifies things into dividing things into two sides. Then you analyze the situation from both sides and create the best argument you can for both.

Even in competitive debate, you often do not know which side you will debate on beforehand. So, it helps to prepare for both sides. This then gives your a broader perspective than it would if you only consider one side.

In fact, after looking at it from both sides and sometimes after the debate itself, you may discover a third way that is better either sides. Or you might decide that one side or the other is better. But after considering the opposition, you were able to plug the holes in your original argument. Thus, making it better than before.

Thus you can see debate as a great way to improve your own thinking on a particular issue. You may come to a deeper understanding of the topic, so you can take better actions with regard to it.

It can also be used to help come to difficult decisions. You can weigh the pro and cons and see which makes logical sense. Ultimately, you decide. But, it can be a useful approach to dealing with changing careers, moving, starting a business, etc.

The four fundamental rules

There are four fundamental rules of any style of debate. These are:

  1. Separate the person from the debate
  2. Separate opinion from facts
  3. Work towards constructive debate
  4. An assertion without evidence is invalid

Rule 1: Separate the person from the debate

One important key in any debate is separating the message from the messenger. The important thing is that consider the argument on its merits, and not if the person saying it is a nice person or not.

The reason this is important is that we want to make the best decision possible about the topic. If you casually dismiss someone because you do not like their political affiliation, sports team, or what have your you may be missing something vitally important.

This also goes in reverse. We should not give someone a pass because their are on the same “team.” Who knows, that person could easily be mistaken, biased, or just plain incompetent in a certain area.

For example, you are debating if you should invest in a Vanguard index fund. Who would you trust, your rich uncle with crazy political ideas or a good but poor friend who thinks any kind of investing is too risky? Before going with either I would listen to the reasons first before making any commitments either way.

More bad thinking from not separating the person from the debate

There is a whole series of ad hominem attacks and logical fallacies that fall into the category of things to avoid. If you find yourself on the bad end of one of these, make sure you point it out. The other person may no even be aware that he or she is doing it.

  1. Basic abuse: A is a moron, therefore X is wrong.
  2. Guilt by association: A is a friend of B who is a criminal, therefore X is wrong. -Or- A met B at a party and B is a criminal, so X is wrong.
  3. Guilt by position: A is a lawyer, and we all know that lawyers lie so X is wrong. -Or- A is a researcher that gets money from Big Pharma, so all his research claims must be wrong.
  4. Argument by hypocrisy: A is a hypocrite, therefore X is wrong.
  5. Poisoning the Well: A did drugs in the past. That is a horrible thing and we all know that what A says is also wrong.

There are of course variation on this basic theme. Beside saying someone argument is bad because they have a flimsy association with some group, you could also discredit their argument because some member of the family is rotten.

But whatever you do, these arguments are just distractions. They do not attack the logical argument the person is making. You could almost think that if someone uses these kinds of attacks they are conceding the argument. This is because they have nothing better to offer.

But what about authorities?

Then there is the basic argument from authority. I have talked about this when it comes to dealing with experts. The simple explanation is just because someone is an “expert” does mean that their argument is automatically sound. You just don’t know.

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The better thing is to look at the authorities data, argument, etc. and judge for yourself the best you can. The counter argument is that there is no way a lay-person can could possible know enough to make a decision one way or the other.

But the counter-argument to that is that any person should a) build a good B.S. detector and b)think clearly enough to notice any bad thinking. Experts and authorities are human after all.

Rule 2: Separate Opinion from Fact

In a construct debate, it is important to separate opinions from facts. Opinions are “a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.” Facts are: “a truth known by actual experience or observation.”

For example, “Today, the temperature is 20 degrees Celsius” is a fact. You can measure it and determine if that is actually true or not. “I like chocolate ice cream” is an opinion. It is a personal attitude towards that flavor of ice cream. This is pretty clear cut.

However, sometimes it can be hard to separate one from another. For example, do we say that “Games of Thrones is a TV series that ended horribly.” is that a fact or opinion? Valuing something is good or bad seems to be an opinion.

But if you beleive there can be objective standards to valuing any TV show based on basic commonly understood pricincibles you could push that sentence more towards the factual spectrum.

This just goes to show that the dividing line between facts and opinion is not always clear. But, in debate, you want to try to support your claims with facts, instead of more opinions. That tends to make your arguments more objective and more persuasive.

Rule 3: Work towards a constructive debate

This rule assumes that not only will you not use ad hominem attacks, but that you will not try rhetorical tricks, sophistry, etc. just to score points and “win the debate.” Even when dealing with charged topics such as is Star Wars better than Star Trek, it is best to concede that each side could have a reasonable argument before bringing out the long knives.

There are all kinds of tricks that a person can pull. One is the classic straw man argument. This is where you hallucinate a weaker argument done by your opponent and then attack that.

So while while A could say that Rey in the new trilogy is Mary Sue, because of X and Y in the movie. Then the opponent, B, comes ups and says that A is saying that no strong women should be in a movies, and how horrible is that. That would be example of bring up a straw man argument in movies.

What should happen is to look at whether the Mary Sue charge is real and if that is a big deal in the first place. Even if it is real, would it really get in the way of enjoying the story? should we even care if writers put such a character there in the first place? These are the question that a more intelligent debate could spawn.

Rule 4: An assertion without evidence is invalid

In any true debate, statements are backed up with facts, data, etc. What you see more commonly in Twitter or on television are people just spouting opinions back and forth without any justification. For example.


I did not care for the last season of Game of Thrones.


Really? I still liked it.


Are you insane! The last episodes were terrible.


I still found it compelling. John Snow is still cool.

This can go on and on. People going back and forth about what they liked and disliked. They talk about what they thought was good or bad. However, far too many people do not say why they think the way they do.

Looking at the above conversation. Tom says that the last episodes were “terrible,” but we don’t know why? On the other hand Jane doesn’t give her reasons for why last season is compelling other than one of the characters was cool. We don’t know what that means or why that would make the season compelling.

If we were to have a reasonable debate the quality of the show, each side would need bring solid reasons and evidence to back up those reasons. Preferably the evidence would be found inside the show itself.

So, let’s see if what would happen if we change things by providing reasoning and evidence.


The last season of Game of Thrones was not any good.


Really? But, I still liked it.


They killed off the ultimate bad guy that they had been building up to for many seasons in the third episode.


How is that bad?


It makes what comes up next very anti-climatic. A good story has the biggest conflict with the biggest stakes at the end instead of the middle.


That episode gets a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So, I`d say that structure worked for most viewers.

This conversation is going in a better direction. Here we are debating what really makes a good story arc in a TV series. Tom is commenting material directly in the show itself and providing his reasoning.

Jane counters by bringing up the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes which is better. You could say that a poll is not a strong counterargument (Bandwagon fallacy). But in any case, Tom will need to counter with how it broke the series with other examples, data, etc. or it will just come as a subjective opinion without anything backing it up.

In anycase when you arguing, it is much better to provide logic and evidence behind your assertions. If there is not any, it is just two people asserting there opinion without delving deeper into the issues behind those opinion. Doing so, we can test the validy of the thinking and improve our thinking and have healthier debate.


If you want to have good healthy debate instead of flamewars full of loserthink it is good to following the 4 rules below.

  1. Separate the person from the debate
  2. Separate opinion from facts
  3. Work towards constructive debate
  4. An assertion without evidence is invalid

Also, the debate is itself can be very useful. It helps improve our thinking about a topic. It can also help us find a better position than the one we initially took. Finally, it can also help us make better life decisions by improving our thinking and our thinking about options.

Overall, healthy debate should be encourage. Please don’t shy away from them. It can be scary. Also, it also hurt if your arguments when you find our your arguments are just castles built from sand. But, in the long run you will be much better off.

If you are interested in learning more about debate and other topics, please continue browser at other articles on this site. If you have questions, comments, etc. please leave those feel free to leave them. Also if you have a need for more specific help on presentations, debate, etc., please feel free to contact me here.

Matthew Ownby

Previously worked at NASA, Cisco Japan, and other large IT Corporation. Spent more than 15 years training businessmen and women to be better presenters. Good enough at Japanese help native Japanese speakers win speaking contests. Was fortunate enough to give a TEDx Talk in Kyoto also in Japanese ;). Also aims to build the toughest communication contest ever. That will not only include being good at business presentation skills, but debate, meeting facilitation, negotiation, coaching, and more. Also runs an online communication dojo where the focus is on practical skill application not listening to a sage on a stage.

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