Monday, September 19, 2011

Elements of Debate - Cross Examination

Good cross-examination (Cross-x) is an acquired skill which comes from practice and experience.  Anyone who has ever watched a court-room drama on television or witnessed an actual trial has probably seen the witness cross-examined by the prosecutor or defense team.  Rarely are the questions simply attempts to clarify the witness testimony. The cross-x is carefully worded so as to provide some positive impact for the examiner's case or some negative impact on the opponent's case.

Cross-X Purpose
Cross-x presents an opportunity to fulfill three possible objectives:

  1. It is a chance to clarify certain aspects of the opponent's case.
  2. It is a chance to expose weaknesses in the opponent's case.
  3. It is a chance to build one's own case.

Clarification of Points
Sometimes, certain aspects of the opponent's case may not be clear, or you may have missed something which could be significant to your rebuttals. In these situations it may be a good idea to ask the opponent to clarify or explain the information.  This should be done cautiously, in my opinion, and it is better if it is not necessary at all.  Clarification takes time and does little to advance the debate. In some cases, it may be to your advantage to leave the judge as confused as you rather than allow the opponent to clarify.  On the other hand, there may be advantages for you if the opponent is allowed to clarify a point which is confusing to the judge because a clear understanding of the point may help in the judge's understanding of your attacks against the point.  Be aware clarifications essentially extend the opponent's speech time so you must not allow the opponent to over-explain. As soon as you are satisfied, say "Thank you" and move on with the next questions. If he appears to be filibustering or missing the point, it is better, to intervene with a rephrased question which may narrow the focus.

Expose Weaknesses
Cross-x can be an opportunity to begin exposing certain weaknesses in the opponent's case by asking probing or leading questions. This allows you to extend your rebuttal time since you will essentially be attacking his case even before your official rebuttal speeches begin. The only difference is, your attacks will be in the form of questions. In some circumstances you can also reduce the opponents ethos (credibility) by asking questions which the opponent finds difficult to answer.  Doing so makes the opponent appear unknowledgable or unprepared.  However, it is best not to drive this weakness too hard, as it can arouse sympathy for the opponent or appear that you are badgering or attacking the opponent rather than the opponent's case. This is perceived by the judge as an "ad hominen" (personal) attack and harms your credibility.

Build Your Case
Cross-x is an opportunity to build or repair your own case.  I believe it is very beneficial to have a series of questions pre-written which are designed to set-up your case or in the best situation, get your opponent to agree with concepts or ideas which will be brought out in your case. For example, a Lincoln-Douglas debater may want to get the opponent to agree that some value is better than another or a certain criterion is a better way to evaluate a value. A Public Forum or Policy debaters may want to get the opponent to agree a certain situation is a problem or a solution leads to is something undesirable (or better) under certain circumstances.

Things to Avoid
Do not be rude or overly aggressive, yet you must not allow the opponent to dominate the time by filibistering or over-explaining. Cross-x is not speech time so be aware that some opponents will tend to use it as an opportunity to extend their cases. The best approach is to interrupt with "thank-you" and begin to ask your next question.  If the opponent asks for time to explain, you may reply, "thank-you, I understand the point..." and move on.  After these interruptions, if the opponent continues to speak, the opponent will appear rude. Conversely, if you are being questioned, you may want to use the time to build your own case whenever possible.

It is not always effective to demand yes or no answers to your questions.  There is a good possibility the opponent will not comply and in some circumstances it makes you appear overly aggressive which can invoke sympathy for your opponent in the mind of the judge.

Cross-x is not a good time to introduce new claims, evidence or contentions yet this often happens and those claims end up being argued throughout the rest of the debate. Inexperienced debaters are more likely to do this and it is probably more likely to happen in Public Forum debate than other categories.  Try not to frame your questions in such a way that affords the opponent the opportunity to introduce new claims or evidence and if it happens, try to divert attention away from the response. For example, "I'm sorry, you didn't mention that in your constructive speech so it wouldn't be proper to bring it up in cross-x...".

Always remember who is supposed to be asking the questions.  In Public Forum debate, any side is free to ask questions but in Lincoln-Douglas and Policy, the cross-x belongs to one side. Therefore do not allow your opponent to turn things and question you. Simply respond, "I'm sorry. You can ask that during your cross-x time."

When you are the one being questioned, if you find time to extend case, do it. Also, when you are being questioned, never agree with your opponent unless you are absolutely certain your agreement can not be used against you. It is typically a strategy to get you to agree to some point so it can be used against you. Develop methods to avoid absolute agreements. Always allow yourself a means of escape. For example, your opponent asks: "Do you agree that convicted murders should be removed from society?" You say, "Not necessarily, in some cases, perhaps that is a reason criminals are rarely rehabilitated?" Notice there are no absolutes in the answer through the use of words like, "in some cases" and "perhaps". 

What to Ask
It may seem intuitive to focus on the journalistic questions of "who?, what?, where?, when? and how?" when formulating cross-x questions but usually a more focused approach is better. In the examples given, only ask these kinds of questions if the opponent's case has not already answered the questions because you do not want to give them opporutinity to extend the case they have already made.  For example, if the opponent's case has impacts, there are specific attacks you can use.  Impacts may be any claimed benefit or advantage and they may be any claimed harm or disadvantage.  Ask questions such as, "when will this advantage (or harm) occur? Are you sure this will happen? Why has it not occurred already? Is there a chance it will not occur? What is the probability of it happening? How bad (or good) will it be? Can something happen in the meantime that would prevent the impact from occurring or reduce its magnitude?" If the opponent's case advocates a plan or course of action ask questions such as, "who will make this happen (what agent will be the facilitator)? How much will it cost? How soon can be the action be implemented? How long will it take to carry out? Do you know of similar plans already in place? Has this been done before?".  If the opponents case advocates a value, ask, "Are there circumstances where other values may be more important? Are there better ways to achieve the value?". If the opponent's case suggest a certain cause leading to some impact, question the correlation, "Is that the only way for this result to occur? Can other results occur as well?"  The art of cross-x is not asking these questions directly but using techniques in which you guide the opponent into giving an answer you want to hear by asking in an indirect way or asking a series of questions which lead to the inevitable conclusion you want. Finally, do not focus on a single point. A broad line of questioning is preferable.  A common mistake is to nitpick some point which in the end may prove insignificant, especially if the opponent drops it or kicks out of it. Mastery of these techniques takes time. Develop a line of questioning that works for a broad range of cases.


  1. This article was extremely helpful. Thank you

  2. thank you for this


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