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Dialogue and Debate

The need for Conflict-Resolving Government challenges us to establish civil discourse.

The following three articles raise our awareness and give strategies: 

By Dr Keith Suter, Author, Lecturer, Consultant for Social Policy 

We live in a society divided by debate. We urgently need a society that makes greater use of dialogue.

There is a difference between “debate” and “dialogue”. In a debate, the atmosphere is usually threatening, with interruptions expected. The participants express unwavering commitment to their own point of view. There is often a great deal of heat but little light.

In a dialogue, by contrast, the atmosphere is more exploratory, where participants express uncertainties as well as deeply held beliefs, and where the participants listen to, understand and gain insight from others.

In a standard debate, the statements are predictable and offer little new information. In a dialogue, new information comes to the surface. In a dialogue, objections will be raised; disagreement based on non-negotiable convictions will still hold firm; but the tone is different. The goal is changed from conquering to growing; from silencing to knowing; from telling to asking. When questions are employed they are used to learn and grow, not to defeat and conquer. This is a path to greater creativity and expanding horizons.

How one says something is as important as what one says. Much the same goes for politics. Imagine what an election campaign would be like if all the parties adopted a dialogue style rather than the current debate style. Well, we might want to listen to the political candidates for a start. The voters are much smarter than the politicians. They have moved on. Voters already prefer a dialogue style of considering public affairs. But the politicians – or at least their campaign advisers – are keeping them locked into an old-fashioned style of campaigning. 

Political parties are built into our democratic system. The Conflict Resolution Network (CRN) is not advocating their disappearance. Rather, CRN promotes creativity and diversity, and it supports a more productive and professional response to the electorates’ issues. It is not so much a matter that a particular political party should win but that the democratic system itself is enhanced by the election process. Therefore, we need to move from the old-fashioned adversarial system of politics to a more productive system based on dialogue and creativity.


True dialogue is not a life jacket when the boat is sinking. It is the boat itself and the very careful crafting required to hold it together when the storm of diversity inevitably crashes it about.                                                                

Carolyn Schrock-Shenk

By Joseph Phelps for Conciliation Quarterly, a publication of the MCC US Mennonite Conciliation Service, Vol. 15, No. 2: PO Box 500, Akron PA 17501-0500 USA.

The term “dialogue” comes from the Greek “dialogos” (dia = through, logos = word). The literal translation suggests its meaning; the use of words moving conversants through an interaction to a place where new meaning is uncovered. In dialogue, speech moves beyond simple interaction on the one hand, and through a competitive exchange on the other hand, to an activity in which participants work together as a team in search of new light and truth. 

On their way to a public dialogue between psychotherapist Carl Rogers and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, the moderator for the evening asked Bateson, “How will I know whether or not we have done our job tonight?” Bateson responded, “If either Carl or I says something that we haven’t said before, we’ll know that it’s a success. 

The teamwork of dialogue moves the conversation away from win/lose, either/or. At least for the duration of the dialogue, adversaries become allies, working together to break new ground. Objections will still be raised; disagreement based on non-negotiable convictions will still hold firm, but the tone is different. That goal is changed from conquering to growing; from silencing to knowing; from telling to asking. Questions are employed as tools for probing, not weapons for stabbing. New possibilities are considered. As David Bohm says, we dialogue “so that creativity can be liberated”. 

When personal positions are offered to the team, there is a better possibility that one’s convictions or assumptions can be viewed more objectively by both the team and the individual, allowing participants to see points of incoherence as well as insight in their position. Incoherence is more than being illogical; it is also thinking that is producing undesired consequences. In the abortion conflict, for example, most pro-life advocates do not want the result of their conviction to mean that low-income women who decide to abort will be forced to obtain medically dangerous abortions, nor do they want to see children raised by parents who do not want them. Similarly, most pro-choice advocates do not want the result of their position to mean that abortion will be casually used as a form of birth control. 

In dialogue, new implications of a position may be uncovered which will cause the position to be re-examined for coherence. Thus, the dialogue sends participants deeper into themselves in order to explore their positions and their implications more carefully. 


DEBATE     DIALOGUE         
Pre-meeting communication between sponsors and participants is minimal and largely irrelevant to what follows.Pre-meeting contacts and preparation of participants are essential elements of the full process.

Participants tend to be leaders known for propounding a carefully crafted position.  The personas displayed in the debate are usually already familiar to the public.
Those chosen to participate are not necessarily outspoken “leaders” Whoever they are, they speak as individuals whose own unique experiences differ in some respect from others on their “side”. 
The behaviour of the participants tends ot conform to stereotypes.

Their behaviour is likely to vary in some degree and among some dimensions from stereotypic images others may hold of them.

The atmosphere is threatening: attacks and interruptions are expected by participants and are usually permitted by moderators.
The atmosphere is one of safety; facilitators propose, get agreement on, and enforce clear ground rules to enhance safety and promote respectful exchange.

Participants speak as representatives of groups.

Participants speak as individuals, from their own unique experience.

Participants speak to their own constituents and, perhaps, to the undecided middle.

Participants speak to each other.
Differences within “sides” are denied or minimised. 
Differences among participants on the same “side” are revealed, as individual and personal foundations of beliefs and values are explored.

Participants express unswerving commitment to a point of view, approach, or idea.
Participants express uncertainties, as well as deeply held beliefs.

Participants listen in order to refute the other side’s data and to expose faulty logic in their arguments. Questions are asked from a position of certainty. These questions are often rhetorical challenges or disguised statements. 
Participants listen to understand and gain insight into the beliefs and concerns of the others. Questions are asked from a position of curiosity.

Statements are predictable and offer little new information. ​
New information surfaces.

Success requires simple impassioned statements.
Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.

Debates operate within the constraints of the dominant public discourse. (The discourse defines the problem and the options for resolution. It assumes that fundamental needs and values are already clearly understood.)

Participants are encouraged to question the dominant public discourse, that is, to express fundamental needs that may or may not be reflected in the discourse and to explore various options for problem definition and resolution. Participants may discover inadequacies in the usual language and concepts used in the public debate.

This table contrasts debate as commonly seen on television with the kind of dialogue we aim to promote in dialogue sessions conducted by the Public Conversations Project. 

© Copyright for this table is held by The Public Conversations Project 46 Kondazian Street, Watertown MA 02472 USA, e-mail: [email protected], phone (617) 923-1216, fax (617) 923-2757.

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