Dialogue, Discussion and Debate: Why you need to know the difference

Amy and Jack were ready to take their small software company to the next level after two years in business, so they set up a meeting with staff to plot strategy.

The meeting was meant to be an exchange of ideas, but the business partners went in with preconceived notions about what should be done. As a result, what should have been a creative open dialogue turned into a debate.

Amy and Jack’s missed opportunity with staff is typical of what can happen in the workplace when we enter into discussions as though we’re trying to win an argument, rather than collaborating towards a solution. When we aim for authentic dialogue, the process may take a little longer, but the results are much more meaningful.

Debate and discussion are common forms of communication in deadline-driven workplaces, but it is dialogue that can often lead to the breakthrough insights that can move your organization ahead.

Let’s define the three Ds:

Discussion: We often use discussion when we are trying to figure out a problem; we take apart a problem and look at all sides of it before making a decision. (Discussion derives from a Latin term that means to strike asunder or break up.) Discussions can become heated, too, and has been referred to as “debate trying to play nice.”

Debate: No surprise that the word debate comes from a Latin term that means to beat down. In debates, there is a winner and a loser. Communication this way is not about really listening to what someone is saying, but rather proving how much we know and denigrating what your opponent has to say.

Dialogue: And now we come to the type of conversation we rarely have in society these days – dialogue. In dialogue we hear viewpoints, understand differences, and find larger and uniting patterns. Here we come in with no judgment, ready to listen without critiquing and without assumptions. The word is rooted in a Greek term that means “flow of meaning.”

This is what Amy and Jack should have done in their strategic planning meeting.

Gotta-get-it-done mindset

While each of the three Ds has their place in communications, dialogue has become nearly non-existent, even a foreign concept to us. Why? I chalk it up, in part, to the fact that we live in a super-urgent world. We want what we want fast and convenient. We prefer cryptic texts to phone call, we ask our staff to bring solutions, not problems, we schedule meetings in 15-minute increments. We are unwilling to invest time to explore an issue in depth.

I see such impatience in my dealings with some clients. I’ve been asked for outcome guarantees at minute four of a three hour workshop. They want a strategic plan, actions, and measurables in six hours. Sure, it can be done, but what have we missed along the way? We miss the chance to really listen to each other, to deeply understand another’s perspective, to see a larger pattern, a more cohesive whole and possibly a different way – the strength of dialogue.

In our haste to be right, we have lost the ability to have dialogue. Instead, we are polarized – me against you. We seem to be more comfortable with openly disagreeing than we do seeking a deeper understanding.

There is often a willingness to want to talk, but not a lot of skills of how to talk.

How did we get here?

We live in a world that is increasingly complex, due in large part to the breathtaking evolution of technology. Our daily intake of information often includes swiping through headlines or breaking news alerts, engaging with people on Twitter in 280 characters or by dashed off text message. Yes, we can go deep on bits and pieces of information, but we are not getting the big picture.

Organizations address complexity by creating units, divisions, functions, department and teams. The lower one goes into an organization the deeper one delves into a piece of the organization.  And so fragmentation – whether in the information we consume or the breadth of exposure we have to the organization is a significant contributor to our inability to have dialogue. To see the whole picture takes time and diligence.

Brain games

We humans have been using our fight or flight response for millennia. The part of the brain that controls that emotional response is called the amygdala and it can hijack our emotions before our thought processes can get to the front of the brain for high order thinking. The polarization that we are seeing today is that emotional response causing us to become stuck in this mode. A psychologist friend of mine calls it ‘threat brain’. A consequence of threat brain is that we vigorously defend our position rather than seek to understand someone else’s viewpoint. When we are defending, we are in debate mode and there are only winners and losers.   

A way out of threat brain is self-awareness. Self-awareness acknowledges that I might have judgments, biases and preconceptions that limit my understanding. This is why we are calling on leaders to be more emotionally intelligent, why we promote self-reflection and meditation. They are ways of uncovering assumptions that contribute to threat brain and constrain dialogue.

Take the dialogue challenge

In my role as a facilitator, part of my process when I work with clients is to create conditions for dialogue. I try to take people through the thinking processes, by starting with what they know. It’s so interesting to see how often we all know something different about the same thing.

Then we spend time exploring their uncertainties, experiences, associations and reflections as it relates to what we know. This might take an hour or even a day, but it is so important in preparing the group to explore options, alternatives, analysis and recommendations. In this stage, we are exchanging meanings so that we can move past ‘threat brain’.

For meaning to flow, we must come into dialogue with the willingness to receive information without judgment. We must be curious. We must be patient enough to hear someone else’s meaning. This is tough for modern humans, because we are always drawing on our own past experiences and memories when we listen people and trying to short cut to the end given our urgency and bias towards action.

It’s interesting to note that humans have had social processes such as listening circles, talking circles and healing circles for millennia which have been dedicated to the flow of meaning. Sadly, they’ve been a casualty of our advancing world.

I challenge you the next time you have a conversation, allow your friend, co-worker, husband, or child to speak for two minutes while you simply listen without saying a word. It’s a tough thing to do and may feel awkward at first, but just like any type of activity you want to excel at you have to work at it. You have to work at listening to be good at listening. It’s like building a muscle.

In our fast-paced, agenda-driven world, to broaden your perspective you need to be a purist about dialogue. Do not have an agenda, unplug, put your phone away and slow down. Be curious about what someone is saying and don’t judge, just receive. I guarantee by doing so you will broaden your perspective on so many things.