Chapter 5 Summary

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Last Updated on October 6, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

In San Francisco in 2019, world record–holding debater Harish Natarajan and Debra Jo Prectet engaged in a public competition with the debate topic: should preschools be subsidized by the government? Although Debra Jo Prectet, having been assigned the affirmative, had compelling data and the majority’s favor, Natarajan was able to sway the balance of opinion to his side. As a member of the audience, Grant had taken interest in Natarajan’s defense and his collaborative approach to changing people’s minds.

English psychologist Neil Rackham found in his research four key differences that set expert negotiators apart from their middling counterparts. The first of these is that, in their preparations, the second group did not take into account any potential areas of mutual understanding. Meanwhile, the expert negotiators devoted much of their planning to finding common ground. Another difference between the two groups is that the average negotiators brought many different arguments to the table, while the experts focused on only a few strong ones so as not to dilute or weaken their entire case. The third difference is that the experts commonly forewent either aggressive offense or defense in favor of open-ended questions, while average negotiators did the exact opposite. This leads to the final difference between the two groups: expert negotiators are more prone to questioning—inviting their partner to step forward instead of directing their thoughts.

Returning to the 2019 debate in San Francisco, Grant reveals that Natarajan’s opponent, Debra Jo Prectet, is his anagram for Project Debater—an AI developed by IBM with a knowledge corpus of 400 million articles. Although the machine is capable of developing arguments, anticipating counterarguments, and even making jokes, it lacks traits of openness and agreeableness. Natarajan emulated expert negotiators’ tactics by first establishing common ground—that poverty and lack of opportunities are societal issues that must be addressed. However, he pivots away from subsidies as a proper solution. Instead of attacking the opponent’s strawman (the weakest version of their case), Natarajan advises us to consider instead the steel man (the strongest version).

While Project Debater had access to more facts and research, Natarajan used his limitations to his advantage by focusing on just two core arguments. Grant cites research which found that multiple lines of argument are often detrimental to one’s case, as people do not like feeling persuaded or shoehorned. While Project Debater presented its case in declarative sentences, Natarajan posed many different questions to the audience. In connection with this, Grant asserts that modeling such confident humility inspires it in one’s audience, thus leading them to a process of rethinking.

Grant reveals another critical tactic commonly utilized by expert negotiators: sidestepping the argument when one’s opponent has resorted to name-calling. By acknowledging their opponent’s feelings and displaying curiosity and interest, these experts are able to effectively de-escalate any hostility and realign the debate.

Finally, Grant emphasizes the importance of being forthcoming with one’s shortcomings and limitations. Instead of expressing extremely high or low confidence, one must find a moderate level of confidence in order to cultivate open and nuanced discussion. He invites us to approach debating as a dance rather than a war—and, in the process, find a rhythm that matches our opponents’.

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