Zibby is joined by two-time world champion debater Bo Seo to talk about his first book, Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard. Bo shares his belief that quieter people make the best debaters, why he was originally hesitant to write this book in the first person, and his top tips for preventing a conversation from becoming an argument. Bo also reveals to Zibby that he was a Schwarzman Scholar (Zibby’s dad even blurbed his book!) and the two discuss what he is considering doing next in his career.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Bo. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard.

Bo Seo: Thanks so much, Zibby. It’s a huge honor to be here. I have to say to you, I wrote a big chunk of this book during the pandemic. Every afternoon, I’d go on a walk near the park out in front of my house. It would be about a thirty-minute walk. This was around the time when you started producing every day. I would listen to the programs on the walk. It feels like I’ve been walking with you forever. I’m so happy to meet you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m so, so thrilled to hear that. That makes me so happy. Wow, that’s really awesome. I hear every so often from people who had incorporated this at that time in their lives. It really means so much to me knowing that we went through that period of craziness together and that it was in some way helpful. Awesome.

Bo: Very special. Thank you.

Zibby: I am particularly delighted to hear that having delved into your book and learned more about you. When I got the pitch for this book, I was like, you know what, that sounds so interesting. I know I’m going to learn a lot from this book. I was just totally intrigued. What does it mean to be a two-time debating world champion? What can we learn? Of course, we all fight, argue. It’s such a waste of time. It’s crazy. I loved how you wove in your own story and how you became this way. There was so much personal narrative in here in addition to some of the advice and how you broke down arguments and everything. Why don’t you tell listeners a little about how this became a book and the whole process of writing it?

Bo: The story starts when I was eight years old. I moved from South Korea to Australia. I didn’t speak English at the time. I quickly learned that the hardest part of crossing language lines is adjusting to real-life conversation. The hardest real-life conversations to adjust to were disagreements. That’s when people start to interrupt. The rhythms of everyday speech tend to break down. That made me resolve at that young age to not disagree very much, to keep most of my thoughts to myself, and to smile and just be a very agreeable person. The thing that broke me out of that was, in the fifth grade, my elementary school teacher promising me, really, that in debate, when one person speaks, no one else does. To someone who had been spoken over and spun out of conversation and interrupted, that felt like a kind of salvation. I ended up pursuing it. It ended up being the pursuit of my relatively young life so far. I ended up winning the world championships in January 2016. This was a real highlight. This was the part where, if it was a sports narrative or something, a very sedentary one, this is when the music would start playing. It was the height of it. You’ll remember what happened next was there was an incredibly divisive presidential election campaign here where the debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton became not only a symbol of polarization, but also a tool by which those dynamics worsened. Afterwards, I was on the Schwarzman Scholarship, actually, in Beijing.

Zibby: Were you really?

Bo: I really was.

Zibby: You were a Schwarzman Scholar?

Bo: Yeah, I was. I was in the second group.

Zibby: Stop. That’s amazing. You know that’s my dad, right?

Bo: I know that. He was kind enough to blurb the book. Did you see that?

Zibby: No! Stop it. I did not see that. Oh, my gosh. It’s not in my advance copy.

Bo: We saved you the surprise for the conversation.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that is so funny. Wow, blown away here. I didn’t even know that.

Bo: I made it over there. It was a program started at the height of optimism about cross-cultural exchange between East and West, US and China. That was when the trade war set in. All of these things created a condition where it was very hard to think about disagreement as anything other than poisonous and harmful and painful. It made me think all over again that maybe disagreeing is not worth it. I started thinking back in the search for something a bit more positive to what had broken me out of that spell of conflict-aversion in the first instance. That was debate. It was the activity that showed me that disagreement could be something more. It could be a source of joy and revelation and intimacy and all of those things. I wanted to make the case for it. The reason why it’s so personal is because I wanted to be honest about where I was coming from. Also, frankly, as an author, I found it hard to cross across the distance of my knowing something about the debate, the reader usually coming to it fresh. If I was a better writer, I think I might have been able to just do the third-personal thing. I had to think about someone who didn’t know a whole lot about debate, and that was me when I was young. I thought by taking readers on that journey I’d be able to walk them through and to do it bit by bit and bring it to, more or less, where I am now. It’s a book that gets people from coming new to a subject, as I did, and then ending up with the totality of all that I know on the subject.

Zibby: Wow. That is so amazing. I’m so glad you chose to write it. I don’t think it’s a function of not being a good writer. The best way to tell a story is to connect with somebody and to teach through storytelling. This is so effective. Instead of just learning about squirreling in debate, we get to hear your story about being uncertain in that one context and being like, wait, what if we do it this way? They didn’t say this about drugs. What if we say this? Now I know what it means. Now I’m not going to forget. It’s like finding the loophole. It’s like show, don’t tell. Isn’t that just the age-old advice in writing?

Bo: I think so. It does take a bit of a mental jump to consider yourself worthy enough to use the first-person quite this much. The thing that helped me do that is just the knowledge — when you’re writing a book, you sometimes think it’ll be the last word on the subject. One thing I found rewarding is that you’re putting on the table all that you know, but really, you’re inviting people to a conversation. The best part of seeing it go out into the world is the way in which it adapts and morphs and gets translated into different contexts and the conversations people are having in their homes and workplaces and so on. Just knowing that it’s the beginning and it’s a contribution to that ongoing conversation helped with that.

Zibby: I particularly liked when you taught us how to identify what we’re even arguing about and how so often, we bring in eight thousand other things that are not always related to what we’re talking about. I am totally guilty of this constantly. I start on one thing. Then next thing you know, I’m talking about that trip we didn’t take two weeks ago or whatever it is. I just bring it all into this big mishmash. Your advice here and the way you spell it out in terms of even just everyday conversation the way you did with your parents, it’s like, wait, what are we even arguing about? First, let’s identify the argument. Then let’s take it apart. Tell me about how that tool of debate really can be translated to the home.

Bo: It does begin in the home. I think the reason for that is we do something very special with our loved ones, which is we decide to share our lives together. There’s obviously lots of wonderful things about that overlap. One problem that arises is you could be disagreeing about a thousand things at any given time because there is so much that you share. There is so much friction that comes with sharing so much time with people and knowing them in that way. There’s a particular kind of carelessness we have in those intimate relationships where we have this assumption they should get us without us having said anything or that they’re going to end up agreeing with us by the time this is over, which is an assumption we wouldn’t dare make about a stranger. I do think it does really begin in the home. What debate says, and it is a bit of a theme throughout the book, is that we have to be very deliberate about our disagreements. Every disagreement should start with some agreement. That’s agreement about, as you say, what it is that we’re actually discussing.

Once you’re able to name the dispute and say, we are talking today about the dirty dishes and not about what you did to me last month or how you looked at me the other day and so on, that brings a kind of focus and prevents it from getting out of hand in this way. One of the things that I discuss in the book is, if we’re having a disagreement, for example, about sending the kids to the local public school, that seems like a pretty straightforward disagreement about what we should do and where we should send the kids to school, but embedded in that might be all kinds of other disagreements: factual disagreements about what we think the local school is like; it might be a philosophical disagreement about what we think our role as community members and neighbors might be to the local public school system; and then ultimately, the disagreement about what we should do about it, whether we send the kids or not. Before we launch into a disagreement, I think there needs to be this mini discussion, a kind of negotiating period of what it is that we’re actually talking about and how we’re going to go about having this dispute to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.

Zibby: Very useful. Yes, one argument at a time.

Bo: Exactly. I think our conversations tend to buckle under the weight of expectation that we place on them sometimes. I do want this book to be a tool kit that helps people have better conversations, to be able to make their point, to be heard, but it’s better conversations (emphasis on plural). I think a part of that is acknowledging that we’re going to have to do it a bit at a time. As long as we’re disagreeing in such a way that keeps the conversation going, there’s some hope.

Zibby: Interesting. Your path to becoming a debater, it was almost lucky. You’re like, this sounds interesting. Then you got more and more into it. You realized you were good at it. Even that preparation, you loved it. You get your affirmative, whatever. You run into the back and then go to work. You could just feel how excited you were in all those scenarios. How do you know who is good at debate? I know we have applications of it in our homes and in every area of our lives. In terms of actually being a debater, could my kids be great debaters? Tell me about this. How do you know what makes a great debater? How can you identify that in someone else?

Bo: I think kids are often very good debaters. You see it in friends of mine with really young kids. You see in their impulse to question, but more than that, to needle you a bit just to see how they’re received and how far they can push it. That kind of makes me think we do have this argumentative impulse. There is something accidental about how I got into it, but I think there is a deep attraction to putting forward an idea, having it received, having to come back at it. That process of evolution and being in that kind of really candid, vulnerable relationship with another is such a special thing. It is something that I think we naturally gravitate towards, but there are a lot of things in the world that can beat that impulse out of someone. That could be the bullies on the playground. It could be, often, an adult not taking the views serious or telling them to go away or be quiet. There are so many societal pressures to conform to, obviously. I tend to think of it less as instilling in children, the desire to debate because I think that’s already there. I think it’s about cultivating it and giving it a structure and a set of skills that allows it to express. At least, that’s what I’ve found.

Then just the last little bit I’ll say is, one surprising thing that I’ve noticed about people who tend to be very good debaters is they tend to be slightly marginal figures. You might remember from high school. The debaters are kind of wall-flies and slight oddballs. I think the reason is, those people who are a little bit peripheral, who are outsiders, they know to listen before they speak. They know to read a room before making their intervention. I felt that, obviously, culturally, linguistically moving to a new place. I think this feeling of being an outsider or of being marginal is something we all feel whenever we go to a new space or a place where we’re not fully comfortable. That, I’ve found over the years, is not antithetical to being a good debater. It can often be the start of it because debating and any conversation where you have a hope of persuading someone does have to start with listening.

Zibby: I also feel like those oddball tendencies, that can also draw you to writing, all that observation. It’s the same skill set, listening to language, listening to conversation, having to analyze when to join, when not to, all of that. I went through this whole period of my life where I was very shy. I was always analyzing conversation patterns and just watching how people jumped in and jumped out and the ease with which they could speak. I feel like writing is a good tool for that as well.

Bo: I love that. We’re living in a time where people say, quite carelessly, that what we say doesn’t matter. We can’t change people’s minds through the use of language. I think maybe it was that English was a language I didn’t have. I had to learn it one word at a time. That instilled in me, the sense what we say and how we say it matters. I saw that as a debater. I was a newspaper reporter. I saw that when I was reporting. You’re right that writers have that impulse to observe a whole lot before they put it down.

Zibby: Bo, first of all, Schwarzman Scholars — for those people listening who might not know what it is, my dad started this program in China where he took a cohort of students each year. You go. You meet each other. There’s a whole campus. I got to go for the first years.

Bo: Oh, you did?

Zibby: I did. I was there. It was so neat. Each year, there’s a class. I have to say, I have been sent lots of résumés and things like that. I look at the class. I’m like, I cannot people have done all these things at such a young age. It’s crazy.

Bo: I also couldn’t believe it.

Zibby: How is it even possible that these kids can be so accomplished? In addition to being the debate champion of the world and everything, tell me more about you and what you did before and after being a Schwarzman Scholar and where you’re going from here.

Bo: They are unbelievably impressive people. The thing that helps you get used to it is just seeing them in their pajamas. I grew up in Australia. I went to college at Harvard. Debate was a big part of it. I always had an idea of wanting to go into public service to work on human rights issues. I couldn’t resist the invitation to go because it seemed like such a unique opportunity at such a unique time. I went in 2018 where there was this opening where there was some enthusiasm from both China and the United States for a kind of exchange and a way of finding some relationship that’s going to be sustainable. This was before a lot of the tensions had arisen. This program, you all live in one house, one college. It seemed to me then and it seems to me now, a kind of edifice that evinces a faith in the power of what we can do when we try to talk across difference. In some ways, it can feel anachronistic at a time when there’s so much geopolitical tension and where conflict and nationalism and splitting off into our different camps seems to be the order of the day.

It still feels to me like an edifice towards a future that I hope we can continue to work towards, that our differences can be more than a source of division and a source of weakness. I saw that in debate primarily, but I see it in that time too. I was there. The bit about the pajama thing is real because I think the thing that made the program work at its best was when we weren’t dealing with each other as, you’re the person from America or you’re the person from China, but we saw each other in the particulars. We started having particular conversations with particular people. Those are the parts that I remember. Afterwards, I was a newspaper reporter in Australia. I covered politics and business. Then I’m now at the law school at Harvard. I think I’m still, in all of these things, whether through storytelling or through writing or now in the law, still circling around the same theme that brought me to Beijing and to all of these different roles, which is, what do we do with the fact that we’re all different but we have to find ways to live together?

Zibby: Are you going to run for office?

Bo: I had thought about that for a very long time. These days, I’m less certain.

Zibby: It seems a bit unsavory.

Bo: It takes a lot out of you.

Zibby: I’m so impressed. From the book side, what did you learn having accomplished this feat? What do you wish you’d known at the outset?

Bo: The first is that whatever work you don’t do as an author, the reader is going to have to do. There was so much time after I had gotten the basic outline done and had written a rough draft of it where we just spent a long time polishing. In particular, the book is biographical in parts. There are stories of historical incidents where a lot of the great movements throughout history kind of crystalize in these encounters between people. Those are debates. There are stories to do with that. Then the third part is, there are teaching bits where I’m coaching people to learn the basics of debate. There are drills and acronyms and exercises people can use in their day-to-day life. With that in particular, I just wanted it to be as polished as I possibly can so that people will be able to integrate it into their daily lives. That was one thing.

Another was where we started the conversation, which is, especially as a first-time author, sometimes you think, do I deserve this? There’s a certain safety from adopting the voice of God, third person raining down truths from on high. Now I read those books and I think, well, how do you know that? There was a fear about putting myself in the book because I thought it would make it too limiting or that I’m not worthy in some ways of the themes that I’m writing towards. Realizing that it’s through individual experiences that we can get at great truths, that you can feel unworthy or small relative to what you’re writing, but I think it may be the only way to get at those truths, that helped me overcome that. I wish I’d known that too.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Bo, this has been so fun. I can’t wait to call my dad and tell him. I can’t believe I didn’t know this. I feel like a moron. I’m sorry. I should’ve gotten the final copy. Anyway, congratulations on your book. Congratulations on everything. I can’t wait to follow your journey going forward. I’m just so thrilled that this all worked out like this.

Bo: Thanks so much. It was a real honor and actually a dream. I’m really thankful for your time.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, thank you. Take care. Buh-bye.


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