Distinguishing Between Debate and Dialogue

Dialogue is a habit of mind that has a profound impact on how we communicate with each other. The following explores how dialogue breaks down our assumptions in order to co-construct new meaning with others.

Toolkit_Goals_Comic_fullpageThis section explores dialogue, defined as a shared exploration among two or more people leading towards a greater collective understanding, connection, and increased likelihood of action.

The “Argument Culture”

Unfortunately, we all live in what the linguist Deborah Tannen has called “the argument culture,” in which people talk over one another, are wedded to their own opinions, and close off opportunities to adjust their thinking. All too often, the result is greater hostility, misinformation, and lack of civility. Therefore it is critical that you distinguish between dialogue and debate and put in place the structures necessary for productive conversations.

Toolkit_2014_engagement_streams_snapshotEffective Communications Techniques

Hundreds of effective techniques have been developed to enable people to have meaningful and productive dialogues. The most effective have the following structures and processes in common:

  • They use ground rules or agreements to create a safe environment in which people are able to express their thoughts and feelings freely. This agreement comes from New Hampshire Listens, a project of the Carsey Institute at the University of NH. This one is from Shaping Our Future Together. These ground rules were created by the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.
  • They use facilitators to guide the discussion and frame the issue at hand, generating thought-provoking questions and providing background information.
  • They include people from all sides of an issue, providing a space for people to talk face-to-face in small groups.
  • They collect and synthesize what emerged from the dialogue to shape decisions and action plans, perhaps using a template like this one from Everyday Democracy.

Unlike debate, dialogue deepens people’s knowledge and understanding of issues, increases buy-in for decisions, enhances people’s sense of connection and commitment to their communities, and often brings untapped talent and potential into full view.

Check out the The National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation’s Engagement Streams Framework to determine which methods of dialogue best fit your goals.

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