There are three crossfires in a debate round: the first crossfire (1CX) which occurs between the two first-speakers after the cases have been read, the second crossfire (2CX) which occurs between the two second-speakers after both rebuttals have been delivered, and the grand crossfire (GCX), which involves all four debaters and occurs after the summaries have been delivered.
Crossfires are always the most hectic parts of the round and most debaters do not understand how to use their time in crossfire strategically, leading to a loss in perceptual dominance, and often losing the round.
This article will break down the differences between the objectives of each crossfire and provides examples of the types of questions you should ask in various circumstances. (For another free resource on Crossfire, check out Ten Tips To Improve Your Crossfire Skills.)
At the time of the first crossfire, the only material you have to work with is your opponent’s case. In order to ask strategic questions about your opponent’s case, you will want to zero in on logical inconsistencies.
Novice debaters who don’t have strong questions prepared for the first crossfire will often ask their opponents to re-explain one of their arguments. This is just about the worst thing that you can do. If you go up there and say, “I was confused by your contention two; could you re-explain it?” you are providing your opponents time to explain their arguments in-depth to the judge, and you can’t justify cutting them off because you asked them to do so.
The questions you ask in first crossfire should help you accomplish one of the following two goals.
1. Help your partner give a great rebuttal
If your partner doesn’t fully understand the nuances of your opponent’s links, it will be hard to give a strong response in rebuttal
Here is a sample question you could ask. “In your first contention, you impact to lives but I had trouble understanding how you access that impact; is the link that ______?” And in the blank space, you try your best to re-explain the link efficiently and concisely.
This is a polite question that demonstrates you understand what is going on. But the real power is it pins your opponent to an advocacy. Let’s say their only response is “yes.” You can follow up with a quick “and that’s the only way you access that impact, right?”
The goal here is to simultaneously clarify the opponent’s position and close doors for them – to pin them to a specific advocacy. Then your partner can attack that link and in doing so, cut them off from their impact.
2. Establish perceptual dominance
An important aspect of crossfire is demonstrating that you are smarter than your opponent. However, you must do this delicately; saying “actually you’re wrong because ___” will not fly 90% of the time even if you are factually correct.
Instead, through your answers to questions and the wording of your own questions, you want to imply that you have a deeper understanding of the topic without saying so explicitly.
Here are three types of questions that are great for establishing perceptual dominance.
Question Type 1: Ask specific questions about their evidence.
It is very unlikely that your opponent will be able to answer specific questions about the methodology and results of their evidence, even their most important evidence, on the fly. Questions like “what date is your study from?,” “How big is the sample size in your study,” and “Can you explain how the methodology of your study demonstrates causality” are all great questions to attempt to demonstrate to the judge that your side is better-prepared.
These are good questions because it is hard to BS an answer. If you don’t know the date of your study, you don’t know the date. (Keep in mind that if you ask the date question, there should be a reason for it – you should be ready to say that your study postdates theirs. If it doesn’t, don’t ask about dates).
What you don’t want to do is to merely say “can you explain the methodology of your study?” This question is too vague and your opponent can say pretty much anything in response and sound like they adequately answered the question. By contrast, if you ask about how their study establishes causality specifically, or which variables it controls for (and have in mind some reasons that sort of analysis would need control variables), it is much more challenging to come up with a reasonable answer on the spot because they either know or they don’t.
Of course, you need to be prepared for your opponents to come right back at you with the same questions, and you should have at least a working understanding or a prepared line that you can come back with. That said, most of the time your opponent won’t ask the same question right back to you – you just want to be careful and ensure you aren’t coming off as a hypocrite.
(Note if you're having trouble finding powerful evidence to support your arguments, check out How Should I Research for Debate? for 5 strategic considerations and 5 free research tips!)
Question Type 2: Identify contradictions
If you see a potential contradiction between two of your opponent’s contentions, that is a good place to zero in. Something like “You say in your first contention that sanctions on Russia are effective in preventing violence, but then in your second contention you talk about a battle that happened just last month. Doesn’t that show sanctions haven’t actually been effective?”
Of course, your opponent will be able to find their way out of that, and unless you have found the perfect contradiction this won’t do much to win the round for you on the flow. However, it does plant a seed of doubt in the judge’s mind and demonstrates that you are sharp enough to think on the fly, having only just heard your opponent’s case a few minutes ago.
You don’t want to harp on this for too long – the idea is just to get out a good question and shift the perceptual dominance to your side.
Question Type 3: Set traps
Traps are questions designed to elicit answers that will be brought up again in later speeches. The idea is to pin your opponent to a certain advocacy and then use their words against them later in the round. It is not uncommon to hear a debater in the final focus speech say “and remember they agreed to this in first cross – don’t let them change their advocacy now.”
The simplest type of trap is a weighing trap. If you ask, “can we agree that lives are the most important impact of the round?” and your opponent agrees, you will want to reference this precedent in the summary and final focus speeches when explaining why their impact to the economy shouldn’t win them the round.
Traps can get much more complex than this and we will delve into them further in later posts. Just know that traps are very tough to execute correctly, but if you can pull one off it can completely change the trajectory of the round. Traps should be planned out prior to the round and should be particularly designed to cooperate with your own arguments.
Your number one goal in the second crossfire is to make your partner’s summary easier by taking out the responses they put on your case.
The summary speech is often called the hardest speech in the round because you have to boil 16 minutes of content and 6 minutes of crossfires down into a 3-minute speech. As a second speaker, you want to make this as easy as possible for your partner.
(If you're a first speaker, feel free to check out our free Summary resources: Five Big Tips for the Summary Speech and How to Structure a Summary. You may also be interested in How to Write a Debate Case.)
Pick three responses made in the opponent’s rebuttal and put a bull’s eye on them. Ask questions about those responses, poking holes at the logic, the evidence, really anything you can think of to take them down.
Then when your partner goes up to give that response in summary, the judge will already have a sense of what they’re talking about and it is much less likely to go right over the judge’s head.
When picking which responses to target, you will want to prioritize ones you can kill over ones that are strong. If you can kill a strong response, even better! But what you don’t want is to give the opponent extra time to go into the logic of their response, especially if it’s their best response, when you don’t know how to take that logic out. You want to be targeting holes.
There is no need to spend excessive time on each question; in fact we recommend that you try to move in and out of questions quickly during the second crossfire instead of getting bogged down on one. (Unless you’ve got your opponent on their heels and pushing deeper will allow you to gain more and more perceptual dominance.)
If you effectively entirely take down 2 or more responses your opponent made on your case, your partner will thank you when they are delivering the summary, and you will thank yourself when delivering the final focus.
Grand crossfire is generally considered the craziest three minutes of the round, and for good reason.
It is important to know that you will not accomplish any of your strategic goals in grand crossfire. It is too late to set traps, and even if you wanted to you probably would fail because there is really nothing to stop all 4 debaters from speaking at once while the judge sits there and just feels generally upset about life.
All you need to care about in grand crossfire is perceptual dominance. Remain calm and unflustered. Glance at the judge and smile / laugh when something funny happens like your opponents both talking at once. Try to establish some empathy with the judge and get them to want to vote for you, while of course remaining professional and kind (don’t be condescending!)
The same general principles of the first two crossfires do apply. You can challenge evidence or try to take out responses. You can also try to do some weighing. Just don’t plan for this time to be strategically productive because it won’t be – instead, focus your energy on perceptual dominance and getting the judge to feel like they want to vote for you.
To recap, here are some strong sample questions you can ask if you don’t know what to ask about.
1. Evidence – Date
a. “I was hoping we could discuss your evidence about poverty. The card we cite is from 2019; what year is your evidence from?”
2. Evidence – Methodology
a. “Can you explain how the author you cite in your poverty contention specifically isolates for causality? For example what control variables do they use?”
3. Evidence – Sample Size
a. “I know that a lot of studies on poverty aren’t especially robust – can you tell me about the sample size used in your study?