Lessons in Disagreeing Better from a Two-Time World Debate Champion

bo seo

Democracy360, an ambitious three-day collection of events hosted by the Karsh Institute of Democracy and produced in partnership with schools and units across UVA, including the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, brought together thousands of people on Grounds and in Charlottesville last week to understand the emerging challenges to American democracy.

The panel discussions and workshops led by thought leaders, journalists, policymakers, scholars, activists, artists, and students touched on a raft of ways to shore up the nation’s democratic ideals, including how to hold elected leaders accountable, how to better educate citizens and how to disagree more productively. Below is part one of our coverage of three Batten-sponsored events. 

Read part two of our coverage of three Batten-sponsored events. 

Watch Episode 2 of our "Grounds to Listen" vidcast series, with Seo and Dean Solomon.


In an engaging and interactive Democracy360 conversation entitled “How to Disagree Better,” journalist, author and two-time world debating champion, Bo Seo, highlighted ways that productive debate can help improve democracy. Seo's compelling talk shed light on the transformative nature of debate and how it can empower individuals to think critically, express themselves freely, and embrace diversity of thought. The event was co-sponsored by Think Again UVA, an initiative dedicated to promoting intellectual humility and viewpoint diversity, a mission that resonated profoundly with Seo's experiences.

Seo's journey into the world of debate began with a poignant realization - debate gave him a voice. As a young boy who emigrated from his native Korea to Australia with his family, Seo found it challenging to articulate his disagreements, particularly due to language barriers, but also due to the conditional acceptance he felt in his new country, where he strived to assimilate. He often found himself simply smiling and nodding in the face of disagreements, and trying to remain “invisible” to try to fit in. 

Everything changed, however, when he joined his school’s debate team in fifth grade. Seo discovered that the rules of debate offered him a platform where he could both listen to others and truly be heard, giving him the confidence to realize that he didn’t need to limit or change himself in order to be engaged with the world around him.   

Bo Seo and Mary Kate Cary
Bo Seo (left) and Mary Kate Cary, a practitioner senior fellow with UVA's Department of Politics and former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.

Seo highlighted the essential skills debate instilled in him, particularly the steps of topic analysis and constructing a compelling argument. Understanding what a disagreement is truly about is the first step – debaters have to first agree what they are debating. Further, a well-structured argument involves establishing not only the truth of one’s claim but also why it matters and who it affects. 

Beyond the world of structured debates, Seo emphasized that arguments – from domestic quarrels over household chores to community controversies over public spending to international negotiations – are less about “winning” and more about listening and gaining perspective. Naming the disagreement can be a useful tactic in untangling complex issues, said, which can be especially useful in moral disagreements, which can be particularly challenging due to the personal nature of the subject.

Seo encouraged asking, "What will it take for me to convince you?" and really trying to open up to new, differing perspectives. A “good” disagreement is when both parties are willing to talk again, he said.

Seo stressed that skillful debate is essential to our democracy. By mastering the art of arguing, we learn how to engage in critical discussions, seek common ground, and enhance our understanding of diverse perspectives. In a world that often feels polarized, the power of debate is more critical than ever, he said. 


Garrett Hall at Sunset

Stay Up To Date with the Latest Batten News and Events