BOOK SUMMARY – Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard

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Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us To Listen And Be Heard by Bo Seo (Hardcover; 352 Pages)

Brief Overview

Bo Seo was eight years old when he moved from South Korea to Australia.  He did not know English, was shy, and life was one big attempt to somehow avoid conflict.  

And, then Bo took part in competitive debating.  He was hooked.  Bo Seo became a champion world traveling debater.  This book tells that story from grade school to college.  

The real core of the book, however, is teaching everyone how to debate.  First, we learn the basic parts of competitive debating.  Then, we learn how to apply this to our everyday life.  

The ability to be a skillful debater has the potential to not only help us in our everyday life but to better deal with the many major disputes society deals with in a time when each side seems mainly to be yelling at each other.  Is there another way?

This book, using the frame of the author’s debating career, suggests there just might be.  And, in the process, we learn how to better process the facts and arguments we consume daily.  

Favorite Quote

Now we are used to seeing arguments either as the symptom of some malaise in our society or as a cause of our discontent.  Indeed they are both.  However, my ultimate hope is to convince readers that arguments can be a cure — an instrument to remake the world.  

When we have an argument, it often is seen as a failure, one that can become ugly quickly.  Bo Seo uses this book to provide a means to learn how to argue well, including avoiding the pitfalls of bad arguments.  We have to process lots of facts; we need all the help we can get.  

Should I Read It?

Bo Seo is a two-time world champion debater and coach.  He knows how to frame arguments and perform well in oral contests.  This book shows Bo Seo is also a good writer. 

Bo Seo breaks down the tools of a good argument in a clear fashion with helpful charts and examples. A student or someone who simply wants to learn how to argue and process information better will find this book helpful.  It would be a useful college textbook without being overly academic.  This would be a handy reference guide to have on your shelf.

The material about his debate adventures is more of a mixed bag.  I found the discussions about his debating experience a bit tiresome after a while.  Great. You won another debate in some worldwide locale.  Fine.  Still, these sections were still well-written and fairly engaging.  

Bo Seo also obtained a master’s degree in China.  He does not discuss this in much detail.  Nonetheless, he is quite the world traveler.  There is a taste of travelogue here as well.  

The book is a good mix of the personal and the practical.  There are no pictures but there are endnotes and an index.  I found the final chapter on technology the least interesting.  

Bo Seo went to law school.  If he writes a book in the future on a legal subject, it promises to be interesting.  This one should be for many readers as well.  

Further Reading: How to Use a Four-Corners Debate Lesson in Social Studies Class

Comprehensive Summary


Bo Seo moved with his parents from South Korea to Australia  He had a hard time adapting and eventually found it hard to deal with any type of conflict.  This changed when he experienced debating in fifth grade.  Bo Seo was soon hooked.  And, conflict became his life.  

Bo Seo sought good debate. The book uses his experiences to discuss two forms of debate. First, there is the formalized process of competitive debate.  Second, there are debates in our everyday lives.  Bo Seo argues that competitive debate can teach us all how to disagree better. 

This is a time of polarization, a time of painful division in which we have trouble debating well. Arguments seem painful and useless.  This book will try to help improve the situation.  

1. Topic: How to find the debate 

The book starts with the general format of the book.  Bo Seo talks about his experiences and mixes in some debate lessons.  I will focus on the lessons in my summary.  

We are transferred back to junior high debate tryouts.  He made it though his technique was somewhat lacking.  Then, we get a lesson from a college student debate coach, who at first was not much to look at … until he started to talk about debating.  

The first five chapters discuss the basic principles of competitive debate.

topic is a statement on which two or more people disagree.  An easy test is to write it in the opposite form (Jane is a reliable person vs. Jane is not a reliable person).  

Both sides should agree on the basic nature of the topic.  First things first: what is the core of disagreement? Disagreements can be over facts, judgments of what should be, and solutions to reach that goal.  Avoid squirreling, or playing around with the topic. Stick to one. 

2. Argument: How to make a point 

This chapter has an example of the author’s use of sources to make his points. A scene from Scent of a Woman (Al Pacino as a blind vet) is used as an example of a convincing argument. 

Steps of an Argument: (1) Determine conclusion (source of disagreement) (2) Add “because” – main claim/point to be proven (3) add “because” – reason/consideration in favor of claim (4) support reason with evidence (5) link main claim to conclusion with another reason to show the main claim is relevant.  An example:  

  • Adam is not a nice person [conclusion]
  • because he is inconsiderate of other people’s feelings [main claim]
  • because he is often cruel to others [reason]
  • At dinner, he made hurtful comments [evidence]
  • The fact Adam is inconsiderate means he is not a nice person because, regardless of intent, he causes people a great deal of pain [link]

And, then there are the “4Ws”: what is the point, why is it true, when has it happened before, and who cares. The key to a successful competitive debate in his experience, no matter the level of competition, was the quality of the arguments. 

3. Rebuttal: How to push back 

Rebuttal is the art of taking down an opposing argument.   

An argument has two burdens of proof to meet: truth and proper supporting evidence.

Truth must be factually correct but also needs to be proven. If truth lacks evidence, it is of limited value to a debate.  Facts and evidence are varying levels of importance.  

Something that is not relevant to the conclusion is not helpful except perhaps to confuse things. A conclusion should follow from the evidence.  Any “logical leaps” should be minor at most.  

A counterclaim is a response to an argument that should provide a better answer, including answers that go beyond the specific arguments the other side makes.  

4. Rhetoric: How to move people 

Rhetoric is elements that go into the practice of persuasive speaking such as words, speech, gesture, and structure. 

You should use clear words, not abstract ones whose meanings are vague.  Sentences should be clear without unnecessary metaphors or qualifying words (“whereas”).  Paragraphs should start with your argument; don’t “bury the lede.”  Avoid unnecessary repetition.

Avoid emotional appeals and insinuations (“dog whistles“). 

Explain why you believe what you believe (“reveal the journey”) and who is harmed or benefitted.  Find a good applause line that has a dramatic effect.  

5. Quiet: How to know when to disagree 

Bo Seo belonged to the tradition of “parliamentary debate,” which avoided performance art in favor of a more argument-focused approach (“real argument”).  This encouraged some care before deciding to engage in the argument, selecting arguments that will be productive.  

A basic rule of thumb would be the “RISA” test

  • Real: Actual differences – not mistaken, not just subjective opinion
  • Important: Disagreement is justified  (difference in values, harm to people you care about not simple pride or defensiveness)
  • Specific: Narrow enough for each side to agree on the contours of topic
  • Aligned: Arguing for the same reasons (get info, change minds, pass time, cause harm)

The basic questions are necessity or the need to debate a claim to resolve a dispute and progress, does contesting the claim get us closer to resolution?  Argument merely to cause harm and cause problems is unproductive.  But, it often is a major reason for arguments.  

Debate also should not just be an intellectual exercise. Bo Seo argues there are certain sensitive topics that are best avoided in professional debating.  Debating also should not attack the equal moral standing of people.  You can be a good debater as well as not a jerk.  

6.  Self-defense: How to defeat a bully 

The book now shifts into applying the lessons of competitive debating to everyday life.  

The Ancient Greeks described a style of argument that is aimed not at finding the truth, but victory over one’s opponent by any means necessary.  This promotion of strife, symbolized by the goddess Eris, was on display during the debates between Trump and Clinton in 2016.   

A system of good arguments must address the presence of bullies.  There are various kinds and each has a specific technique that can be used to address them.  

  • Dodger: dodges question/pivot, ad hominem, tu quoque (you too).  Stay on course.
  • Twister:  misrepresent/strawman (burden push).  Correct record.
  • Wrangler: Only attacks; no good arguments; moves goalposts. Pin the person to a position.
  • Liar: lies to mislead, bluster, and cause problems with the need to correct (liar spread).  “Plug and replace” – plug lies into a broader view of the world, and show problems with lies.  Replace the lie with truth, and explain why truth is better.  Refute key lies.  
  • Brawler: Do not try to gain an unfair advantage; turn the argument into a free-for-all; the goal is to silence and dominate.  Restore debate and flag problem.

7. Education: How to raise citizens 

This chapter starts with a debating society of some renown.  It had long success, including many wins against college teams.  It recently started up once more.  A famous member eventually took the name “Malcolm X.”  The debate society grew up in Norfolk Prison.

Debate is an important part of education.  Education is an important part of being a citizen.  When the Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in education, it declared:

[Education] is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, preparing him for later professional training, and helping him to adjust normally to his environment. 

The skills necessary for good debate must be taught and put into use. The tools include research, teamwork, logical reasoning, composition, and public speaking.  

And, treatment of competitors as equals, who one day might be on your own team.  Not as enemies to destroy.  This was reinforced when Bo Seo became a debate coach himself.  

8. Relationships: How to fight and stay together 

Bo Seo discusses how same-sex marriage was debated in various places, including government and religious locations.  The debates often were left open; important to be respectful

Debates are often about trivial matters, and those often are the ones that are particularly vindicative.  This is especially when people we care about are involved. 

Trivial debates that are heated are often about bigger issues. For instance, a debate about dishes can really be about compatibility, relationship strength, and one’s status in the mind of others.  Such debates can be vague with each side arguing past the other.  

An important tool, which competitive debate furthers, is to “side switch.”  This means that you are able to see the other side of the debate.  You are able to even switch sides.  

Competitive debate means being ready to argue either side of an issue.  You also have to be able to truly understand the other side’s arguments. This includes viewing your arguments from their point of view.  How might they counterargue your position?  You must have empathy.

9. Technology: How to debate in the future.

Bo Seo worked as a reporter and investigated Project Debater, an artificial intelligence system trained to engage humans in a live argument.  Its biggest skill was to marshall evidence, but the machine was less skillful at engaging with a human audience.  

The Internet is infamous for bad arguments.  There are some techniques that work better.  When arguing online, you first need to respond to arguments as fast as possible. The later you respond, the less you are likely to convince.  You should also be honest and provide evidence (“show receipts”), but there is a limit to the level of engagement until people tend to move on. 

The chapter also discusses various techniques used online to advance debate including Reddit forums and the digital minister of Taiwan. They each had to deal with the spread of disinformation and other barriers to good debate found online.  

[I found this chapter more of a struggle to get through and less free and easy to read.]  


Bo Seo received mixed reactions when he first showed a draft of his book to various friends.  Were good debates the appropriate thing to use to address the problems of the day?

He eventually arrived at an agenda to help improve the spirit and practice of debate in public life. First, debate should be encouraged, including setting up welcoming procedures and locations to have them.  Good debate thrives in carefully structured situations.  

Second, the government should provide the public with the education needed to participate.  Good debating is not merely something natural; it is something that is learned. Third, there should be public oversight to ensure that both things are being handled well.  

Fourth, the government should take advantage of and respect the outcomes of such public debates.  Bo Seo determined debate was not only useful for himself but has wide potential.  

Points to Ponder

Bo Seo has a chapter about how professional debaters take a specific position, which is the luck of the draw. You do not choose.  This time you might be arguing for the death penalty, next time you might be arguing against it.  The job of the debater is to put forth the best argument. 

He does not really address the concern (though flags a few people who don’t like this technique, wanting only to promote “the truth”) of supporting “the wrong side.”  

Did Bo Seo ever have to debate a side he personally found abhorrent akin to a vegan needing to support hunting or a pacifist supporting militarism?  How would someone handle that?

The value of a “devil’s advocate” is to make sure you understand positions that you personally might strongly oppose or maybe not consider at all.  For instance, judges sometimes make sure to have law clerks who ideologically oppose the views of the judge.  Provides helpful insights.  


Bo Seo is a two-time world champion debater and a former coach of the Australian national debating team and Harvard College Debating Union.  Bo Seo has also been a reporter for Australian Financial Review.  He has written articles for various major publications.  

Seo graduated from Harvard University and has a public policy degree from Tsinghua University.   He currently is a student at Harvard Law School.  This is his first book.  

Is Good Arguments a Reliable Source?

Bo Seo is a champion debater and has been a coach to competitive debaters as well.  This book focuses on what the author knows best.  The reader is able to trust the source.

The book focuses on debate analysis techniques.  The author also provides various historical examples (Aristotle, Malcolm X, and so on) and other details.  

These are also reliably expressed, including with the addition of professional endnotes.  The author’s academic bona fides help here as well.  Bo Seo also provides some personal opinions throughout the book.  Again, as a whole, I found these to be sensible and reliable. 
Good Arguments is a reliable source.