Overcoming Conflict: Winning Through Teamwork

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Given the amount of time that any debate team spends together it is not surprising that conflicts on the squad arise so often. These conflicts take many forms: conflicts between coaches and students, conflicts over completing research assignments, personal conflicts, stress-related conflicts, and inter-squad conflicts.

Although conflicts often manifest themselves on the squad and in rounds, academic  debate provides many opportunities to work together by facilitating student-to-student interaction, interdependence, individual accountability, peer tutoring, and group processing skills. Students and coaches need to undertake active measures to overcome these conflicts and work cooperatively. Not only is a cooperative squad more pleasant than a competitive one, but a cooperative squad is a more productive learning environment. In fact, the mere presence of so many conflicts makes debate an excellent forum for people to learn how to work together.

Learning to work together on your team is a valuable skill that you will benefit from for the rest of your life. The shift from a factory-based economy to a knowledge-based economy demands a different type of worker. In a knowledge economy it is no longer useful to have workers who can stand quietly on an assembly line and carry-out repetitive tasks. Workers need to be prepared to find new information, to interpret it, and to act on it, and they need to be able to work together to carry out those tasks. People who are capable of engaging in joint-decision making and cooperation will improve the quality of a company’s products.

Industry now considers cooperative problem solving to be an essential skill and is encouraging schools to teach cooperative skills, the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills Report (2005) of the U.S. Department of Labor “lists collaborative skills such as negotiating, teaching, and leading projects among those skills most critical for the 21ST century workplace” (p. 28). If you are going to walk into the world as an able, cooperative problem solver, then you need experience not only as an individual thinker, but as a cooperative thinker who can work with others to solve problems.

When you cooperate with others on your team and with those from other teams, you are not only cooperating to win, but you are also cooperating to learn. Cooperative learning is a very positive experience because when you cooperate to learn you are developing important cooperative skills. Slavin (1991) reports that cooperative learning does improve student attitudes toward group relationships. Others (Cohen, 1994; Yager, Johnson, & Johnson, 1985) consider cooperative learning to be one of the “most successful methods of promoting peer interaction and prosocial behavior” (Gerow, 1997). Students who are successful at developing productive peer relations and prosocial behavior usually have high self-esteem.

Felder (1997) outlines other more humanizing benefits: assisting students in weaning themselves away from considering teachers as the sole source of knowledge and understanding, increasing the generation of more and better questions, and allowing the assignment of more challenging tasks without making the workload unreasonable.

According the Shepardson (1989), facilitating student-to-student interaction, interdependence, individual accountability, peer tutoring, and group processing skills are all effective means to promote cooperative learning. Since participation in debate teaches all of these concepts, debate offers a way to promote cooperative learning. Your participation in debate is teaching you an important life skill.

Debate certainly encourages you to articulate explaining arguments is critical to your own success. Arguments must be explained in cross-examinations/cross-fires, articulated in rebuttals and constructive speeches, defended in post-round discussions with judges, and reported to coaches and teammates.

But to be a good debater, you not only need to be a good talker, but also an excellent listener. If you are going to respond effectively to an argument then you need to listen clearly to the other side so that you can understand the argument first. If you do not understand the argument properly then you will not answer it as it needs to be answered. Also, if you wish to learn about arguments that are researched by your teammates so that you can use them effectively, you will need to listen actively when those arguments are explained by your teammates. You must listen to judges when they explain their decisions. Judges usually offer useful commentary that can help you win future debates. You should listen to your judges with an active and an open mind.

Debate also provides a large number of opportunities for social interaction that will help you develop the social skills that you will need to advance in society. If you are a younger member of team you have opportunities to learn directly from other members of the team, and if you are an older student you have the opportunity to teach other students and act as a role model. As a debater you have opportunities to learn to negotiate more informal non-peer relationships such as relationships with coaches and judges who are often not much older than you. And, since debate is a competitive event, it provides you with opportunities to learn how to act in competitive circumstances: to act politely, to respect your opponents, and to play fairly. Moreover, since you debate with one partner throughout the course of the season, you must learn to get along with that person and work with someone at a different ability and level (either higher or lower) than yourself. No other team-based activity that I am aware of requires any two individuals to sustain a workable partnership over the course of a nine month season! Such a unique partnership will only succeed with an extensive amount of cooperation, and you need to work at it.

Debate also fosters interdependence and encourages the success of others. Everyone on your team is competitively interdependent. It would very difficult, if not impossible, for you to succeed in debate without the support of your entire squad. Given the tremendous research and argument preparation burden, it is too difficult to prepare by yourself for all of the arguments that you will encounter over the course of the year (Shelton, 1995). As explained by Brockreide (1972), “In this respect debate may be compared with a group of mountain climbers concerned with their mutual safety” (p. 15). If you are a younger debater you will be dependent on the work of older debaters since you are yet to master the arts of effective research and argument design, and if you are an older debater you have a responsibility to help the younger debaters with the development of their argument skills. In debate you are also encouraged to foster the success of others because success of other team members will build “rep” for the squad as a whole which will help you pull-off close debates and gain a few extra speaker points.

Although debate fosters interdependence among squad members, it also encourages individual accountability. As a individual you are recognized with speaker awards, reputation in the community, and much positive reinforcement for exemplary work, particularly exemplary work that is useful for the rest of the squad.

Debate also provides many opportunities for peer tutoring. As mentioned, there are opportunities for you to work with people on the squad. At tournaments, and on the van ride to them, older debaters will often work with younger debaters to help them understand their arguments. After school, many of the older debaters can judge practice debates and work with the younger debaters on their arguments. College students who are former high school debaters may assist with your debate program by coaching or judging. Since these college students are often only one to two years older than you, this is also a form of peer-tutoring and will force you to negotiate peer-adult relationships where the line between the two is not easily drawn.

Competitive academic debate also provides opportunities for you to develop processing skills. Since you may not only be a more or less talented speaker than others, but may be a better or worse argument developer, it is critical that you always learn to refer to debaters on other teams and the debaters on your own teams with respect even when you think the others may be wrong, inexperienced, or less talented.

In order to maximize not only what you will gain competitively but also what you will gain personally from your debate experience, it is very important that you try to maximize the cooperative nature of your competitive debate experience. Throughout this essay I have outlined a number of things that I think that you could do to maximize the cooperative nature of the experience, including clearly articulating your ideas to others, listening actively, making efforts to encourage the success of others, tutoring your peers and being willing to be tutored by them, and respecting everyone that you work with regardless of ability level. In addition to these efforts I will also suggest a number of others:

1. Timely completion of research assignments. Although as a more talented debater the completion of a particular research assignment may not be absolutely necessary before a specific tournament, other less-talented and experienced members on your squad may be depending on your completing that assignment. If everyone turns his/her research assignments in on time the squad will operate very effectively.

2. Speaking positively about others. It is not enough just to say nothing at all if you don’t have anything nice to say. You should always have something nice to say! If you always have something nice to say, people will think that you are a nice individual, will treat you with respect, and will likely befriend you. Development of personal relationships is a positive experience and can be greatly assisted by words of kindness.

3. Leave personal conflicts at home. It may be the case that it seems just impossible to get along with someone else on the team. Until you have time to work out your problems, leave those conflicts at home. At tournaments, you want to be focused on debating, not fighting. If you work with someone you simply don’t like and cannot get along with, you must learn not to live that conflict every day at work. Learning to displace those personal feelings in order to develop a pragmatic working relationship is an important life skill.


4. Work with your partner. If you are more talented than your partner or your partner makes a costly mistake in a debate, you need to work with him/her to improve and prevent the mistake from happening again. Simply complaining about your partner will get you nowhere. Throughout your whole life you will work with some people who are less intelligent and motivated than you. Some people will be more motivated and more intelligent than you are. Everyone you work with will make mistakes and you need to be ready to work with that.

5. Never quit debating. Just because the season or a tournament ends for you doesn’t mean that it is over. You should work to assist your teammates who are still debating in the elimination rounds of the tournament or who still have end of the season tournaments to compete in. These debaters can use your help with argument construction, scouting, and at-tournament updating. You will learn from this experience, and your efforts will be appreciated.

6. Respect decisions of your coaches. Although it is sometimes difficult to understand, coaches are responsible for the functioning of the entire team. Although they would like to meet all of your reasonable needs and desires in regards to tournament attendance, partner arrangements, and many other things, that is not always possible for a variety of reasons. You must work to accept those decisions with an understanding that those decisions are made for the benefit of the group.

7. Respect decisions of your judges. Judging a debate is not a simple task. As a debater you should have as much respect for a judge’s decision as you expect that judge to have for you. Judges, just like debaters, inevitably make mistakes. You should view the judge’s discussion of his or her decision as an educational opportunity and not a post-round debate. Take the decision as an opportunity to learn how you can win the judge’s ballot in the future.

8. Accept diversity. Depending on your background, debate may be one of the first experiences that you have with people with incredibly different ideas and perspectives. Although as a debater you will like to argue with those who differ from you, you should strive to be as tolerant as possible of the difference. Only respect will permit a diverse group of people to cooperate.

In this post I have presented quite a challenge a challenge to cooperate with your teammates to make your debate experience an extra-educational one. Meeting this challenge is no simple task. As I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, there are many characteristics of debate such as its competitive and exhausting nature that increase the likelihood that conflict rather than cooperation will persist on your squad. This possibility for conflict should not only be seen in a negative light, however. All of these possibilities for conflict should be seen as opportunities for you to learn how to deal with the conflict in a productive manner. Learning how to manage conflict will teach you how to cooperate and allow you to leave the activity with yet another important skill.