Communication: Differentiating Debate, Discussion, & Dialogue

debatediscussiondialogueI have been asked to clarify the difference between ‘debates‘, ‘discussions‘, and ‘dialogues‘ (note wikipedia incorrectly clumps discussion into the same definition as ‘debate’). Below is a first attempt at trying to evolve our understanding of these three primary communication processes. I ask for your feedback, and also for your own insights on this matter.

The intent here is to help organizational change processes be more conscious and more effective by becoming aware that how we communicate with each other strongly effects meeting outcomes, as well as how well thsoe outcomes sustain the desired changes.

In short, this is all about how we make conscious decisions that influence positive change. debatediscussiondialogue2

Our world is in dire need of evolved decision-making techniques that can provide us with a better way for sharing and choosing solutions that are healthier for ourselves and the planet. Effective communication is the glue that allows for real, sustained change to happen. Note that communication colors all levels of organizational development, including its methods of leadership, its ability to learn, team work and collaboration, and the sustainability of innovation itself.

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debatediscussiondialogue3DEBATE = Language is manipulated with the intent to cripple other viewpoints (argumentative). Change is hard to come by with this approach. However, it is useful for keeping an existing systems in place. Energy comes from the lizard mechanisms in the brain, which attempt to protect and defend. The person with the most power over another is seen as the best leader. This process is not good for creating change except at conscious predetermined places in the process where challenge generates a different thought process that can bring clarity and assurance on choices that have been made.

debatediscussiondialogue4DISCUSSION = Questioning each other comes from a predisposed positioning (having an agenda). Change is possible but usually can not be sustained due to the process being based on a questioning process that makes each feel someone has to win. Others often loose their identity to consensus. It’s based on a sudo-democracy process whereby everyone unconsciously assumes that there is a best answer, thus only one viewpoint is ultimately chosen. Occasionally discussion moves into dialog, but usually it moves into debate.

debatediscussiondialogue5DIALOG = Collaborative inquiry with an openness to possibilities beyond each others own beliefs and views. Communication about communication happens allowing the creation of a safe environment; a place where the unexpected and insight can happen more freely. Everyone’s viewpoint is allowed whether or not others agree with it. All work to wear the shoes of the one speaking and seek to integrate diversity rather than extract the best answer. It stands for the power of the question is valued more than answers. The challenge for creating change is that too often dialog does not move toward decision-making and action. 

debatediscussiondialogue6TRILOG = Ideally, all three forms of conversation are useful if used in tandem with each other. Dialog is to be used during the early envisioning stages. Discussion during the goals and strategy-making stages, but only at the point when decisions have to be determined. Debate is useful to challenge a new system against an old one. It must be used very consciously however, because otherwise power over can destroy all previous efforts. Dialog should again be used to close a group’s process because it brings us back to our humanity and to what’s most important, which are the relationships. They are as important (or more) than the outcomes generated by the group, for it is what becomes the foundation for sustaining the determined change.

debatediscussiondialogue7About Room Geometry = One final point to make here is this: Be aware of the geometry of the room in which people gather. If shared views are the choice, be sure to stage the room with multiple small circles in mind. If one person’s opinion is to be impressed upon the group, then line up the chairs in straight lines without breaking up the group. I for one almost always choose to use circular geometries because it seems to appease the need for all to feel like they are participants rather than merely receivers of information. A room’s geometry needs to be considered at all levels of a community’s decision-making hierarchy including company meetings, town hall meetings, city council meetings, board rooms, and living room gatherings.

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To bring in more of a trilog approach (with an emphasis on ‘dialogue), use this collaborative design tool during your next meeting: Create a ‘Learning Exchange Markeplace’. For more information, contact Vic Desotelle.




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