How to Answer an Unreasonable Question

If your opponent asks you a complex or unfair question, you have a few bad options. You could refuse to answer, which would undermine your sincerity. You could try to explain it, but that might make you look cagey. Instead, try this powerful response:

“The answer to that will take about thirty seconds to explain. Do you have time for that?”

From here, the examiner has two bad choices. If he says no, you’re off the hook. You don’t have to answer the question. If he he says yes, you have thirty seconds to carefully explain your position in a way that can’t be misinterpreted.

You shouldn’t use this question more than once per round, and then only with a question with a complicated answer.

The trick to this answer – and any time you negotiate with the examiner – is that you hold him to his answer.

Did America invade Germany to stop the holocaust?

The answer to that will take about thirty seconds to explain. Do you have time for that?


America was originally an isolationist country. We were only pulled into war after Pearl Harbor,  and technically that only meant war with …

I’m just asking about the …

Hang on. Don’t interrupt. So: we were technically only at war with Japan.

Just tell me if …

You said I had thirty seconds to answer the question. Did you change your mind?

I just want a yes or no.

If you’re going to go back on what you said earlier and you won’t let me answer, it sounds like you should move on to the next question.

Can’t you just tell me why America invaded Germany?

That’s up to you. You decided not to let me – which is funny, because if you hadn’t kept interrupting, I’d be done answering by now.

More is at stake than just the risk of being misconstrued. Cross-ex is a direct interaction between the debaters. The judge is learning a lot about who is the most dominant, confident debater in the room. Cross-ex like a champion. Don’t let the examiner push you around. Remember: you gave him the option of not giving you those thirty seconds. He decided to give them to you. You’re just holding him to his word.