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Debate vs. Dialogue

The way that teams usually make decisions is through debate.

A debate is a formal discussion where individuals advocate in a competitive manner to gain support for their point of view.

Debates tend to be divisive. Each person is an advocate for their position because they believe that is the best way to get their needs met.

In such situations we tend to engage in “destructive” listening—this is listening that focuses on the weaknesses of the other person’s argument so that we can find ways to promote our own ideas. We tend to ignore the strengths of others person’s arguments and focus only on the parts we can destroy. The more we bring our egos to a debate, the more destructive the listening becomes.

If you want to see debate in action simply watch the proceedings of the British or Australian Parliament, or the American Congress. So much energy is devoted to making the opposing party look bad, and so little energy is devoted to collaboration for the good of the country. Frankly, it amazes me how so many so-called intelligent people waste so much time in parliamentary debate. Instead of working together for the good of the country, they are constantly fighting each other to see who can come out on top. Party politics attempts to overlay belief based decision-making on a values-based framework of governance. It simply isn’t efficient or effective. 

Dialogue, on the other hand, allows us to participate in appreciative and “constructive” listening. A dialogue is an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue with a view to reaching an agreement.

William Isaacs, a proponent of the use of dialogue, says the goal of dialogue is to reach a shared understanding by exposing our beliefs and assumptions to other people and having them expose theirs to us. There are three conditions that must be met for dialogue to possess the capacity to facilitate changes of understanding.

  • Participants must suspend their assumptions so they are able to fully hear what other people are saying. Questions are asked solely for the purpose of seeking clarification.  
  • Participants must be willing to see each other as colleagues—there has to be a sense of equality in the exchanges.  
  • Someone should take on the role of facilitator to monitor the process and intervene if the dialogue degenerates into a debate.

The main advantage of dialogue is that it activates the collective creativity of the group, thereby resulting in better decisions.

Everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first, and our thinking depends on the quality of our attention to each other. Therefore, creating a thinking environment is absolutely essential for success.

Nancy Klein suggests ten conditions for stimulating thinking either in groups or on one-on-one coaching sessions. These conditions are similar to the principles for promoting dialogue. The most essential conditions for creating a thinking environment are:

  • Equality: Everyone gets an equal amount of time to put forward their ideas and expose their assumptions. While people are talking, no one interrupts. Questions can be asked for the sake of clarity when the person has finished speaking. Depending on the size of the group, everyone should be heard at least twice.
  • Attention: Listen, listen and listen. Especially in a one-on-one discussion, ask over and over again, “What else do you think about this?” “What else is on your mind?” What other ideas do you have?” The purpose here is to have the person think so deeply that they tap into their intuition. It is important to recognise that you cannot listen at this deep level if you are thinking about your own agenda. Therefore, you must park your ideas for the moment. Since you know you will get your turn to speak, you can put your ideas on hold until your turn arrives.
  • Questions: The purpose of questioning is to remove limiting assumptions. Questions should be open-ended and freeing.  For example, “If you were to assume for a moment that there are no budget constraints, what would you do to tackle this issue?” or “If you could choose anyone at all in the company to work with you on this, whom would you choose?” The purpose is to uncover the individual and group assumptions that are limiting the ability to think. Very often the perceived obstacles are assumptions that may or may not be real.
  • Feelings: It is important to recognise that when people are passionate about something they are expressing their positive energy. When passion encounters what is perceived as an obstacle, frustration and emotion bubble up. The ensuing upset stops people thinking. Therefore, it is important to allow feelings to be expressed. As soon as they are expressed, thinking starts again. So allowing feelings to be expressed is an essential pre-requisite for a thinking environment.

Ultimately, the purpose of dialogue is to enhance meaning-making, thereby reaching a more informed decision.

Based on the above, you can see how important it is to differentiate between dialogue time, and debate time. Dialogue time opens up the conversation to everyone so together they can explore diverse options. Debate time closes the conversation down by trying to narrow the options to one.


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