Cross Examination – Balancing Firmness vs Respect by: Jackson Zomer

How many times have you seen it happen? A debater loses significant likability with a judge because they are far too rude in cross examination. Or someone loses a round because they don’t bring up a point for the fear of sounding too harsh. In my five years of competing in Speech and Debate, I often experienced being on both ends of the spectrum (more so the former than the latter). This can be categorized as a lack of balance- the balance between firmness and respect. Being out of balance on either side can devastate your chances of winning debate rounds and having genuine communication with your audience. By the end of my senior year, I feel I had greatly improved with this balance and transformed it from a massive weakness into one of my strengths. Part of that is because my TP partner for my last two years, Thomas Walter, is an absolute master at balance and I learned a ton just from observing his habits. I’ve boiled down what I’ve learned about the balance of firmness and respect in debate into a few very practical suggestions that I feel can significantly improve your skills, likability, and success as both a speaker and a cross examiner.

Tips for speeches:

Most of incorporating this skill occurs whenever you are involved in cross examination. However, there are also actions you can take to have more balance in your speeches. It can be difficult to learn, but it’s possible to dismantle someone’s case or side of the resolution without looking like a bully and maintain your likability with the judge. Something I found that commonly worked in my favor is being as kind as possible with how you refer to your opponents. You could spend even a few seconds to say how much you respect them as debaters, or another compliment. . You can even say that some of their arguments are valid! Just make sure the judge knows that you don’t agree with all of them. By doing this, you’ll come across as far more reasonable and likable to your judge than by being harsh and launching ad hominem attacks. Likability is everything in debate. That’s the respectful side of this balance we discussed- but what does the firmness look like? Well, in the same breath as building up your opponents as people and debaters, you should vehemently denounce their side of the argumentation. It is possible to point out everything wrong with someone’s arguments and to totally debunk them while still being kind. Here’s how that could sound in a round: “I respect John very much as a debater and as a person, and the concerns he raised in his case are valid. However, implementing the plan that he and his partner propose would be completely and utterly devastating to the US economy.” In that example, you’ve looked and sounded like a completely reasonable and respectful person while also not holding anything back on the dangers and flaws of your opposition’s side. Respectfully not giving up any ground is the ultimate goal.

Tips for cross examination:

Now we get to where the rubber really meets the road with balance – cross examination. This is where it matters even more and can make or break the round. I should also give a fair warning that seemingly everyone has a different idea of how cross examination should look. Because of that, these may not apply to every judge or situation. Regardless, hopefully the following tips will help more rounds flow to your side!

Ask the judge before the round how they would like cross examination to be conducted. I started doing this in my senior year and I believe it was one of the reasons that my cross examination went from one of my worst speaker categories to one of my best. With regards to the topic of this article, it is far easier to have the balance the judge wants to see if you ask them if they’d rather see a more contentious or conservative approach to cross examination.

Try not to make snippy remarks. As obvious as this might seem, I’ve seen so many debaters struggle with this over the years, as have I. It can be so easy to do in cross examination, especially if the examiner is getting on your nerves. Even if you have great balance throughout the rest of the round and you have even just one or two rude comments in CX, that will stick out like a sore thumb and potentially undo everything else. This is easier said than done but it’s possible. I recommend practicing CX and asking the person you’re practicing with to be intentionally difficult, which should help you in this area.

As examinee:
Sometimes stop talking immediately when the examiner interrupts. This point only applies when a judge says they prefer a more conservative approach to CX. Even though a perfect balance is almost always a good thing, this is one of those specific situations in which I recommend leaning far more towards the respectful and gentle side than being firm.

Tactfully don’t allow the examiner to force you into answering in a specific way. Sometimes, whoever is examining you will want to elicit a yes or no answer from you on a question that can’t accurately be answered with a yes or no. If you outright refuse to do so without explaining why, you risk looking bad and if you do give in then you risk hurting your side. So the best way to handle this is to explain, with as much respect and winsomeness that you can possibly have, that it’s a bit of a loaded question but that you would be happy to give the most accurate answer that you can.

As examiner:
Be tactful with how you interrupt. Sometimes, you really need to cut someone off when they’re not done talking, which is okay to do in debate. But how you do it is everything. The best way to have balance in doing this is to try twice to interrupt in a respectful and courteous manner. However, if the person still doesn’t stop, the next step you can employ is to take a very small step back from the podium and to make eye contact with the judge. This communicates to them that you’ve done your best to be respectful but that your opponent is still trying to steamroll you- and they’ll lose credibility. This strategy is far better than trying to cut them off more times because then you run more of a risk of coming across as hostile.

If someone is dodging a question, keep repeating it. This is the best method to appear even keeled when the examinee is avoiding answering a question of yours. Because they’ll either eventually be forced to answer the question directly or they’ll continue to look bad by not being direct. Doing it will maintain the balance by showing that you’re not going to back down, while also not appearing to be flustered and frustrated. Obviously you don’t want to keep repeating the question if they don’t change their answer but at that point, you’ve already won the exchange, in the first place.

I hope and pray that some of this information will be useful to you in debate! But more importantly, I encourage you to learn the balance of firmness and respect since that’s such a valuable skill to have when it comes to relating to people, outside of debate. And one last thing: if you ever want to further discuss this article with me, have a different debate related question or just want to talk debate….

Jackson Zomer is one of our TP Coaches. He loves to dig into cases, theory, and wants to help you grow! Schedule a coaching call with him today!