When I was sixteen, I was on the debate team at school in Ireland and we competed at national level. Our team was composed of two boys and me and our debate strategy was that I would begin our session with a powerful and provocative statement and a follow-through argument that would grab the audience’s attention and keep them focused. My team-mates would continue to build our case impressively, while demolishing the opposition’s argument and we would finish with a flourish.
We often won the debate.
However, the reason we won was not always because we were better speakers on that occasion, nor that we presented a better fundamental argument for our case.
Our success was due to the fact that we got inside the heads of our opponents. Before the debate. How?
We had an amazing coach – a dynamic and insightful lady called Brid Brennan. Sr Brid was a Roman Catholic nun and that is remarkable of itself because when I was sixteen, I was a rebel. And nuns were ‘the enemy’.
They represented everything that I felt would curb my freedom to express myself.
Sr Brid was different. She, too, was a rebel.
But she had a cause.
When, as the debate team instructor, she received the topic – the motion – for the debate, Sr Brid summoned the three of us to her study and told us to note what our initial position on the topic might be. She then instructed us to challenge ourselves to research the topic from the opposite viewpoint. ‘Don’t just pull something out of thin air,’ she warned. ‘Do some research. Get facts, statistics, anecdotes. Then, come back and argue the case from the opposite viewpoint.’
We protested that this seemed like a lot of trouble for nothing. Why bother to research a topic from the opposite point of view when we were already fired up to forge ahead with our own research to make a stunning case for our own position?
Our teacher smiled wryly and said: ‘When you have done the research from the opposite perspective, you will be aware of the assumptions on which the opposition will base their case. This will empower you to question those assumptions and help you build your own case convincingly.’
She added that ‘there are always two sides to a story, even if that makes you feel uncomfortable.’
The life lessons that I have taken from Sr Brid are that:
The exercise of going outside your personal comfort zone stretches you to trigger your curiosity and develop tolerance for others’ right to differ.
And furthermore, this exercise will help you discover things you didn’t even know you didn’t know!
I am still wowed to this day by that remarkable woman, her wisdom and her rebel spirit.
Thank you, Sr Brid. RIP.