Discussion Contest

By: Paul R. Martin


When you think back on your early education, a few of the lessons you learned stand out in your mind. For some reason, some of the lessons had such an impact, that you not only learned the lesson, but you have vivid memories of the learning experience, or incident itself. I vividly remember such a lesson.

I think I was a senior in high school when I was invited by the Speech teacher to participate in a state-wide Speech Festival, or some such title. Mr. Haney was the Speech teacher, and in spite of my never having taken a course from him, never having taken a speech course, and never having participated in debate, he still wanted me to go to the contest with the team. He explained that there was to be a new event at the festival called a 'Discussion Contest', and since it was new, no one would have any more experience with it than I would. He thought I could do well at it. He said that he didn't know much about the event except that it would be an unstructured discussion on an unannounced topic and somehow they would judge the winners. Mr. Haney was persistent and persuasive so I reluctantly agreed to go.

I had no expectations but I was very nervous and felt like a fish out of water. They explained the instructions and rules at the beginning. We were assigned to groups of 8 or 10 discussants; each group was assigned a room and they were to discuss a particular topic (For the life of me I can't remember the topic. It might have been something about Labor Unions, Anti-Trust Laws, or something else.) for a set period of time, then the groups would be shuffled so they were made up of different people and then they were sent back to the rooms to discuss the same topic for another period of time. There were 5 or 6 such shufflings and the idea was that each participant would be in at least one discussion with each other participant in the entire event.

Evidently the 'unannounced' topic was one of a handful of topics that were announced to all the rest of the discussants. As soon as the topic was announced to us, I heard cheers from participants. As I looked around I saw people haul out boxes full of 3x5 cards and gleefully say something like "Yippee, that's exactly the topic I prepared for". My heart sunk as I trudged off to my assigned room overhearing the excited last minute strategizing going on by the other discussants as they riffled through their cards and papers.

I don't remember how the discussants took sides in whatever issue we were to discuss, but they all, except me, took very strong positions on one side or the other. I listened to one after the other of them stand up on the soapbox and deliver a speech advocating their point of view, and attacking the opposing view. After a few speeches, I noticed that none of the speakers addressed anything said by the others; they just took their turns making more or less prepared speeches with no acknowledgment of what was said in the opposition speeches.

Pretty soon, I got up the nerve to ask one of the speakers what he meant by some term. I could tell that the term was important since everyone was talking about it, but I needed to know what it meant in order to understand what they were talking about. I felt pretty stupid for having to ask, and I felt about two inches high with everybody staring at me as the speaker defined the term. But as I heard the definition, I realized that there was a contradiction with something a previous speaker had said, so I asked a follow-up question of the sort "But how does that square with such and such that so and so just told us?"

That question got an immediate positive reaction from the half of the group that supported so and so's position, and they all figured that I was on their side and had just scored a point for them. That made me feel a lot better and encouraged me to ask more questions. I had a lot of opportunities, because I knew virtually nothing about the topic, and I was learning a lot just by asking.

I didn't stay loyal to so and so's side, however. I called any of them on any contradictions, or confusing points as I saw them. The first time I 'switched sides' I remember the confusion of all the rest of the discussants. Was I friend or foe? Since I didn't take sides, I kept them guessing. By the end of the discussion period, all the speakers seemed to be addressing me, I guess trying to get me on their side or at least to try to figure out what position I was advocating. I suppose part of it, too, was that they learned that I was going to call them on anything they said that didn't make sense or hold water, so they might have been paying attention to me to try to avoid getting caught.

When that first session was over, I went to my next session feeling a great sense of relief. I could participate without looking like too much of a fool, and yet not have the foggiest understanding of the topic that the rest of them were so well prepared to discuss. The second session went much better than the first, because I had developed a certain amount of confidence and I had also learned some things about the topic.

When we were scurrying in the halls going to our third session rooms, I noticed some people pointing at me. By the time we were heading for the final session, I overheard some of them saying things like "That's the guy over there", and "There's the guy I was telling you about."

In all of my questioning, I never tried to put anyone down, or make them look bad. I sincerely wanted to learn about the topic and only asked my questions to try to understand what the speaker was saying and why he believed what he was saying was true. It ended up that the speakers seemed to be addressing their speeches to me with the hope that I would explain the ideas to their opponents who weren't listening, but were instead preparing their own speeches.

Well, to bring a long story to a close, I was voted "Outstanding Discussant" by the participants and I was embarrassed and overwhelmed by the enthusiastic applause from the group when the result was announced. I think the important lessons I learned about communication from this experience are obvious. If Yogi Berra didn't say it, he might have: "You can learn a lot more by listening than you can by talking!"

Please send me an email with your comments.

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