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Since it is a holiday week, I think would be great to take some time and reflect on a classic American holiday past time… Uncomfortable arguments with family members! I want to make sure that you go into these discussions well equipped to persuade, evade and leave family members dismayed!
So with that I’d like to introduce today’s guest, Brian Manuel. Brian is the policy debates coach for Stanford University and the winner of the Michael Bacon coach of the year in 2008. He also coaches the Harvard debate team and has around 20 years of debate experience as a coach and as a competitor.
In this episode, we discuss the concept of leverage and how we can use it in conversations. We’ll also talk about how you can use the debate skills to persuade when you’re in groups, and we also do a quick breakdown of the recent political debates between Trump and Clinton. And don’t worry, we keep it very apolitical and we focus on the skill of debate so we’re not going to throw you back into that discussion.
This was one of my favorite interviews and I know you’re going to get a lot out of it, so without further ado let’s jump into the interview.
My name is Brian Manuel, I’m the director of policy debate at Stanford University, and I’m also the director of debate for Edgemont junior senior high school in Scarsdale New York. I’ve been doing debate for approximately 17 years both at high school and college level. I also work for a governing organization called the National Speech Debate Association that hosts the largest academic competition in the world at this point.
I’ve been doing debate for pretty much my whole entire life, both coaching and competing, so I’m here today to answer all the questions possible!
So as a coach, seeing people develop from high school age through college and now in the professional world – what kind of benefits have you seen personally in your professional life from the skills that you’ve gleaned from debate?
Everything I do, I can attest that debate has had some part to play in it. I’ve managed events at differing levels; I’m very administratively active in the way that many tournaments around the United States work, I have also been active in a number of political campaigns. I’ve actually given assistance to a few state representatives at many political debates that have happened in the state of Pennsylvania. I’ve also given advice to the Democratic Party and the Republican Party and things like that in terms of what tactics can be used at a local level, and also to stay level etc.
I’ve also hosted a National Debate Championship that was here for the National Debate Coaches Association. And beyond that, just my everyday ability to interact with my friends, interact with my colleagues, interact with my students and help deal with problems that come up on an everyday basis, and help problem solve and take a different stance and approach that most normal people are taught even if they are credited as an administrator, I’ve gone through certain training.
A lot of times, debate gives you a different perspective because the one thing that is very vital in debate that people don’t really think about is the ability to learn how to advocate for and against certain positions, and also the idea that sometimes we have to take the switch-side approach to an issue and think about it from the other person’s perspective, and think about it from the other side; and learn how to support your arguments against that that approach.
And by learning the other side, you also figure out what the biggest weaknesses are in your arguments – so it helps you balance everyday accommodations that you come in contact with if you take it from a different perspective that a lot of people have never been trained to do. So many people I feel nowadays are locked into thinking we have to believe in one thing, we’re just gonna be die hard about that. I think that debate in general has really taught me to know that there are two sides to every coin. And as a result of that, you have to analyze both perspectives to be able to take into account why you’re right in an issue.
This is really interesting to me and I can’t help myself here because you said that you’ve essentially consulted with both the Republicans and the Democrats in various debates on the local and state level, and so I was wondering – what is your perspective? If you could put on your coaches hat and stand in either Hillary’s or Trump’s corner just from a purely stylistic and purely message-based position – what advice would you give to either of them? Where are their areas of opportunity to become better communicators and debaters?
If I were to take the perspective of all three debates, I think they all had their advantages and problems. I think one huge thing for the Trump campaign was that they didn’t take advantage when advantage was presented to them. When there was opportunity presented to them, they didn’t know how to advantage of it.
I know there’s a number different points where I thought there was a lot of leverage going in his direction, and he would either switch the topic or he would get lost in making comments about something that was irrelevant. And as a result he pushed the focus of the audience away from the most important questions facing Hillary.
And I think when you look at the Clinton campaign; I think there were a number of times where they could have leveraged things the opposite way. But more importantly the idea that sometimes you don’t always have to do what call in debate “follow the shiny object.” You don’t always have to follow the leader. So if Trump were to present some question, you don’t have to go down that same path. And I think Clinton missed opportunities where she allowed Trump to go off page, and when he went off the page she followed him – and it kind of made the audience lose contact.
I think Trump had a number of different occasions where he could have capitalized on things that the Clinton campaign wasn’t able to articulate, and instead went off on a complete other rant of something that had nothing to do with it. And I guess the best example for this might have been in the third debate where they’re asking Hillary Clinton about her emails and they’re asking about some of the allegations that have been posed about her campaign. And Trump had a time to push her to take a stance on something she hasn’t had to take a stand on in the debate necessarily; or when they ask about Bill or they try to relate to the past Clinton administration.
And instead he wanted to talk about the Middle East or ISIS or something like that, he immediately jumped and it kept jumping, and it’s hard for an audience to follow when you jump from topic to topic. And it only advantages those who don’t want to answer the question when you allow that to happen, because once you skew an audience’s attention it’s impossible to get back to that, and there’s only a very limited amount of time.
Just like in the type of debate that we do not in high school and college, limited time; you only have a set amount of time. And because you don’t have an infinite amount of time, you can’t give up those opportunities. I think there were a lot of opportunities lost by both sides. And I think if they took advantage of those opportunities, there could have been a huge difference.
I don’t know if it could have overcome everything that’s been going on the media etcetera, but I know that there are definitely vital points of that. A lot of people talk about it as if people did take advantage of those when you hear the media spin room go and provoke the Democrats and Republicans, but I think there’s so many opportunities lost I based on the lack of poise, concentration, focus to really zone in on what they needed to take advantage of. And as a result, I think those opportunities left on the table could cost one of them the election.
That’s so interesting and I agree 100% and I really appreciate your nuanced approach to this, because those were some things that because I’m not as into debate as you, I wasn’t able to catch. But now that you’ve rehashed it, it definitely makes sense and I can see that.
One of the things you mentioned was leverage. For the everyday listener out there who’s maybe at work or an entrepreneur trying to figure out how they could take advantage of these situations – how would you tell them to approach leverage? How do you identify where it is in these arguments, and then how do you utilize it to your advantage?
I think one of the biggest things is knowing your strategy before you go into something and I think a lot of people don’t value a pre-game strategy or a pre-talk strategy. I think when people do have a set strategy, what they end up doing is they have an A plan, but they don’t have the contingency plan. They don’t have a B plan and a C plan.
To relate it to how I coach an everyday basis, I have my students write down what we want the A strategy to be. But what is the fallback B and C strategy, and when do we fall back on those? It’s important for people to have that strategy; and then using the leverage is sort of being able to set yourself up and knowing at certain points, what do you expect to happen? And then once that happens, knowing what is the next step past that.
I think the easiest way is to think about it, if you’ve ever done a cross examination or thought about a cross examination ahead of time – you start to prep, if they say yes, here’s the strategy; if they say no, here’s the strategy. If they do this, here’s how I’m going to have to react. Having that kind of play out your head and doing practice in your head is how you gain leverage. Because if you don’t have a strategy, you don’t know how to react to certain instances and it’s impossible to gain leverage unless you already have something prepared to take advantage of.
And I think it’s super important because you can’t just fall into leverage, it’s not luck. Leverage is something that you position yourself to take advantage of, and I think the only way to do that is preparation prior to whatever you’re doing. It can’t be done in the midst of the conflict mediation or in the midst of a passionate debate or something. It’s something that has to be prepared ahead of time.
Preparation is so critical to all the steps, and I don’t think people give it enough credit, how much preparation plays into that the overall effect – especially the conclusion of a lot of these things.
One of the things that I keep saying in this podcast is the importance of preparation in a negotiation. I had a negotiation this morning that was one minute long and I prepped 40 minutes for it! But I think a lot of times the importance of it is lost upon people. But one thing that I’ve heard from a few of the listeners who reached out to me – most recently it was a listener from Australia named Zane – he said that sometimes he can suffer from “a paralysis by analysis” where he feels like he over-prepares.
With your teams how do you work with them in a way that they are adequately prepared but not rigid in their performance?
That is something that I find to be a common problem, especially among younger students, and I think that you have to kind of grow into your skin. Basically you need to learn how to prepare correctly, but then you also have to learn to not be rigid – and it’s hard to say, ‘how to not be rigid’ – but you have to be comfortable in your surroundings. I think what happens is a lot of people fall back on their preparation when they have some level of discomfort in the situation.
Over-preparation is not really the problem, it’s when you prepare enough to only know that material, and you don’t know how familiar you are with that material. So for example on a lot of the debate topics that happen, I know just from my experience, I have a lot of familiarity with the kind of natural arguments that come about in general political conversation, that happens reading the news etc. And then I go into actually looking at the word for word arguments that are happening through all the research, and I realize that you don’t need to understand every word of what’s happening, you just have to understand the concepts – and then the concepts will be filled in by your knowledge that you already understand going into it.
And I think it’s so important for people to know that you don’t need to follow word for word the script, a script is just a model which helps you. Which is why I always try to encourage my students – don’t write speeches word for word, don’t right blocks word for word – you’ve got to just have things on there that help reference ideas you’re comfortable with because you’ve written those ideas, they’re not written in stone somewhere.
I think when people call it over-preparation I think they’re just too tied to the material, too tied to the script, too tied to the written research they’ve done or whatever the case may be. I think that is what they’re calling over-preparation, but in reality I think that’s just because there’s some level of discomfort. The more comfortable you are with your surroundings, the more comfortable you are with the material, the more comfortable you are with presentation – you move away from that rigidity that locks you into thinking if I don’t follow the script perfectly, it’s not gonna work. which is why I feel sometimes – and I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation – where you have to do material ahead of time, but then it gets pushed to someone else that have to conduct it because you’ve been pulled off to another issue or because you’ve been sick or something came up that pushes someone else to have to take your material?
The people who take someone else’s material I feel are caught in a situation more times than not because they have not created the comfort with that material that you have gained with it. And as a result you’ll find that even if the research has been done, and the knowledge is there, they’re just too focused on trying to follow the script rather than just doing it themselves and going with what’s comfortable.
I think comfort is the number one issue, and then beyond that it’s just you have to know a lot about a lot of things. I know that’s hard for people to take in, but the more familiar you are with a little bit of everything, the easier it is to take material and become comfortable with.
Sometimes you have to give a speech on the fly, sometimes you have to use someone else’s notes or be a part of a group project and you didn’t plan on presenting – the next thing you know you’re presenting, or you’re in a team mediation – and sometimes you have to get involved in a part where you didn’t do a lot of research on the mediation, but you’re familiar enough for what your partner in that process did to take over. You don’t need to know everything they did, you’ve just got to be familiar enough to know what the situation is, what they’ve done, what you’ve done and how to make it work on the fly. And that really helps you open up in those situations.
That is brilliant – it’s almost like you’ve been teaching this for nearly 20 years or something! When you were speaking on this topic, it really made me think about some of the most creative and high level arguments that I’ve heard come from people talking about sports or reality TV shows. And so you can imagine those kind of frivolous conversations we have, but they can go on for hours – just arguments for hours – and people knowing all of the statistics is because they sit in front of the TV for hours on end and they’re constantly consuming this material.
But then when it’s time to prepare for a debate or a negotiation, they might prepare for maybe an hour or less – and then they feel, well, I over-prepared, I was too rigid – when it’s really the opposite. They didn’t expose themselves to enough of the material and so it’s really difficult for them to maneuver fluidly in the conversation when it’s time to perform.
And I think that’s one thing I’ll bring up about the political debates that just happened on TV that makes them out of touch with the everyday American is that in those debates, I feel they’re not like a debate in the sense that people want to think about debate, because there are talking points. They are sticking to those talking points. And very rarely do you ever see a time where they come unglued from those talking points.
It’s those moments I was talking about where things weren’t taken advantage of, they weren’t done. But the problem is they’re so unfamiliar with being able to go off the script, that the rigidity locks them into not knowing how to act in those situations, so you can’t take advantage of them. And I think it’s true of like any negotiation, any debate, any interaction you have with someone. Anything can change on the fly and if you’re so rigid to only go with what you know on paper it makes you unable to adapt to that situation. If you can’t adapt to your environment and feel comfortable adapting because of everything you know – then you’re always gonna put yourself at a disadvantage.
This is really interesting. And one of the things to me that’s most interesting about debates and negotiation, when you’re comparing the two side by side is that when you’re in the a debate, your audience is comprised of the spectators, the judges, and the people watching. It seems to me – and this might be a naïve perspective so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here – but it seems to me as though with debate a lot of times, your opponent is more like a tool through which you communicate to the audience; whereas with a negotiation you’re genuinely trying to communicate and persuade the other person to engage in joint action with you. What do you think about that?
I agree completely because I tell my students all the time, the only people you have to convince in a room so you win the debate is the judge. They’re always the most important person in the room. And a lot of times I notice early on, students always engaged their opponent. Engaging with your opponent, looking at them and talking to them as if they’re gonna speak back to you or ever going to agree with you just doesn’t work in competitive debate, because the goal of the debate is to win that your side is right in the context of the debate that happened – not that you’re on the side of truth, that you’re on the side of justice. And there’s only one person who gives that decision, and that’s the judge.
So as a result, you are using them as a tool, you’re talking to them, you’re using things they say against them – but you’re speaking to the judge. And in negotiations it may be like where there’s an arbitrator. You’re speaking to that person, because that’s the one person who’s going to make a judgment at the end and say this is what’s going to happen.
But in a true negotiation where we need to find points to compromise, it’s much more important. So there’s definitely times to be more aggressive, and there’s times to be more passive, and you have to be able to read people more and you have to think a lot more into it and feelings and compassion come in a lot more in a negotiation where you need to play those things in your favor or help kind of play them off to not give into certain things, and everyone’s trying to come to a compromise.
The one thing in debate is that we learn both sides of an issue so we can compromise on our stance later, but in the actual debate, there is going to be no compromise. You’re never going to ask a question and the other team is going to concede, you’re never going to do any of that pretty much like a negotiation probably where you don’t ever think that everyone’s just going to give into all your demand, you have to give and take and in some and lose some, but the ultimate goal is compromise.
But in a competitive debate, the goal is not compromise. It’s not you’re right on some issues, we’re wrong on some issues and here’s where we’re gonna find the middle ground. Obviously that would be ideal, but the real goal is to kind of analyze policies rigidly to test a lot of the truths that are out there, to get to a more enlightened state. My arguments are right – in the context of this debate; even though in the broader scheme of things they might not have been right. I’ve been able to persuade you, the judge, rather than persuade you, the team, to agree that my arguments are correctly spoken.
The interaction between parties is much different in negotiation than it is in a competitive debate. And that’s on every level of debate that happens competitively, there’s always gonna be a winner and there’s always going to be a loser, someone’s going to judge you on it. At least in a negotiation you trying to come to where everyone gets a little bit out of it so there’s some compromise in the middle, there’s not just a clear winner and a clear loser.
This skill seems like it would be very beneficial to somebody in a work environment where you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to persuade your team to go a certain way. And you might have opposing views with somebody else, but your job is to persuade the audience to come your way -not really negotiate with the other person to bring them into the fold because it’s one of those situations where you’re in front of a number of people, and those negotiation skills don’t play as well in front of groups.
So for people who are trying to persuade in meetings, what tips would you have for them to try and get the audience to go come their way?
I think the biggest thing is like I said before, having a strategy, knowing what you have to get. You might want a lot, but you don’t have to get everything – and it’s important to know what you need to get and if there is opposition to you getting what is absolutely necessary. Who’s against you?
So if you go into a group setting where there are five people and you know two of them are on your side and three of them are against you; if you’re going to vote majority rule you only really need to get one person. If you want to get all five people, then you have take into consideration, what is a way for me to reach out and connect with all five of these people in a way that’s going to get them to agree to what I need them to – and I’m willing to compromise on these things.
Which is why I always try to tell my students, the idea of a small group is not something that is going to become foreign to you, because everything you do for the rest of your life is involved in a small group. You need to figure out how leadership exists, and leadership doesn’t exist by force, leadership exists by compromise. And I feel the people who will become the best leaders are the ones who understand you can’t win every battle, but figure there’s a bigger war and you know that certain battles you might lose, but you know the critical ones you have to win.
It’s important in that small group setting, but that’s also important to negotiation strategies, legal strategies, arbitration strategies, competitive debate elements – is knowing that you can’t win everything.
And I try to teach my kids when we’re doing debate, you’ve got to understand the other side – I know you’re going to get something. I know I’m probably not going to win everything, but the things I’m doing are important.
Knowing it’s an ‘even if’ – even if you get these things, I’m still going to get something else – is crucial to understanding because it’s part of a bigger strategy which is that you’ve got to have something to give, to get.
I think a lot of people think that they can just rule with an iron fist or authoritarianism, I know I’m right and I’m just going to force facts down people’s throats. People don’t move on facts, everyone moves differently – why they’re going to switch their opinion, why they’re going to compromise, why they’re going to give in. It’s important to know before you get into it what that opposition is you face, how you want to overcome it, what you’re willing to give up and say to that opposition knowing that – is that going to be enough to give to get them back on your side?
It seems like debates and negotiation could complement each other really well in the group meeting situation. Let’s go back to your example where there’s five people, you know you only need to get three on your side to win the vote. Before the meeting, you can engage in coalition building – which is a little bit more of the negotiation side, and then in front of everybody else you can rely more heavily on those debate skills.
It’s important to create alliances and know that there are people who can help you in certain ways and understand what the end goal is. If the end goal is just one vote and once it’s done it’s done, sure. If it’s a longer term game and you’re looking at being in a leadership role for a while, or trying to be at the head of something, or create or make movements and know that you’re going to have support later on, then you might need to have a more far reaching approach.
I always try to tell people it’s always better to have everyone on your side than know that you’re just one vote ahead, what you think is the final case might switch the next day. But I’m sure people in the business environment have that all the time where your group might have five people and then the next day a different person comes in, someone get’s moved up, they get promoted, someone else is in that spot and all of a sudden the majority changes. So you always need to be in position to know – you want everyone on your side. I think the goal is knowing what you need to get, knowing you’re sacrificing enough and that you’re giving enough, knowing in the end that the negotiation that you worked out was something that’s amenable to everybody rather than just to the majority.
This is really good because you’re the first person that we’ve had on this show that really delved deeply into more of the argumentation side, which is important, which is a key part of it. You can’t only bring one tool to the table and think that you can persuade people. I think this is a really great tool that listeners can use to have a little more well rounded persuasion approach. So I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us today.
I think it’s important that people are open-minded to the idea that there are two sides to every issue. I think some people come in and they think they have to be rigid in their approach or unyielding in their support for an issue or their opposition to an issue, and I think in the end that rigidity locks you into a lot of things that you might not be willing to go all the way with.
If the goal is compromise, and the goal is creating the best combination of everything you have – then everyone is important to that team, everyone is important to what’s in that room. For negotiation it was always just one sided, you went in with an iron fist and say ‘I’m gonna get all these demands, I guarantee I’m getting them.’
You really have to be open-minded to the idea that everyone’s got something to add. You’re probably not going to get everything, but what do you need to get and what are you willing to give up to get that? It all comes back to what we said right in the beginning – preparation is so critical to all of this, and I don’t think it’s ever valued enough.
Everyone just thinks there are people who show up and they’re good game day advocates or ‘I’m ready today, I can always do it, I’m just always on’. I think the people who are always on are the people who are always prepared, and that’s having forward-looking ideas in terms of how you’re going to get to where you need to be.
This is so good, I’m spending a lot of my time not being an interviewer, but being a student and just absorbing as much of this knowledge as I can. This has been really, really, really helpful. So thank you for that.
What’s next for you do you think, professionally speaking? Because you’ve had so much success in this realm, what’s the next level?
I love doing it every day, I really love working with the college students, I love working with the high school students. My real passion is just when I see someone get it – where you’re teaching someone and you’re giving them concepts and you’re trying to give them the knowledge they need to go out there. when you first see someone who really gets it, and they get the concepts and the skills and the different values and then all of a sudden you see them apply them and they lighten up it’s just like ‘wow, I did it.’
To me, that’s what makes my job important and makes me who I am is when I watch kids get it, and they have fun doing it, and it’s not the wins and the losses necessarily – even though those are great.
It’s hard to put a value on what it means to get it, and have those kids with that smile, just the fun of being at an event, where they’re just trying really hard and we’re working every day to get better at what we’re doing.
I know everyone wants to value it in terms of how many trophies did you bring home, but what really makes me love it is that, and I don’t know if there’s really any other field at the moment that really makes me happier than to do what I’m doing in debate. If you can work every day knowing that you love your job, there’s really no better place to work, no matter what you’re doing. And I really do love my job at this point and I can’t imagine doing anything else right now – maybe there’s something different in the future politically or in business or something like that as a consultant. But right now I can’t imagine anything better than teaching kids at both the high school and college level and doing my best to be a mentor to them and help them through to their adult lives, watching them at the same time gaining all these great skills I try to help them.
And then watching my students graduate high school, graduate college, go on to have jobs in government and Silicon Valley and the tech industry, it’s actually just amazing. That’s what puts a smile on my face every day, I love doing my job. and I guess if you had to poll most of America, more than 50 percent of the people aren’t happy with their job I would take a guess at, and I love it – so until I stop loving my job I can’t imagine leaving.
That’s awesome, you are in a good place, you’re one of those lucky few that loves it. I love what I’m doing for the same reason you do, I love seeing people get it and realize that these opportunities to negotiate are everywhere. Well I know we’ve taken up a lot of time, so I really appreciate you being so generous with this information and I know the audience is going to get a lot out of it.
Oh no problem, I love doing it!