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NCDD – and D?

Does authentic ‘Debate’ require as high an explicit distinction in our community of practice as ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Deliberation’? Such things keep me up at night.

I’ve always appreciated the explicit distinction in the “DD” of “NCDD” – dialogue and deliberation. In fact, I can’t seem to overemphasize the importance of the different experiences a dialogue and deliberation provide – both are highly appropriate in varying degrees given different purposes for a conversation. Dialogues are divergent processes, aimed at building understanding. Deliberations are convergent processes, aimed at group decision-making. And, while they are different, it’s clear they don’t exist apart from each other – rich deliberative processes incorporate, to some exent, rich dialogic components.

But what about The Third D: Debate? My immediate thinking about where debate fits in was that it’s a deliberative technique – debate is a way to move towards a decision. Debate involves advocates of different positions crafting the strongest set of premises for their own position while critiquing alternative positions. That certainly seems to relate to the idea of deliberation, so problem solved, debate is a deliberation technique.  But wait…

As I was helping coordinate a debate on evolution and creation this week, it became obvious that part of the motivation of the speakers was to model a civil exchange on an issue that has deep, belief-oriented support on many sides. Through a “debate” we were actually aiming to model civil dialogue. Whoa. Furthermore, we agreed that the debate format is a wonderful way to educate the audience on the issue and may have nothing to do with swaying anyone to any side, i.e. the debate might not have any deliberative objective but an educational one. Double whoa. Could debate be both a dialogic technique and a deliberative technique – or is it its own form of conversation?

The more I think about it, the more I come to this conclusion: a debate format can be used in a dialogic or deliberation setting, but the principles of authentic debate are always appropriate and applicable to any dialogic or deliberative setting. Whether we’re in an organized debate or not, the ways real debaters argue is a way to add integrity, richness, and meaning to almost any kind of conversation.

This increases the significance that the term “debate” has been co-opted by Crossfire-type exchange. Many people think simply “debate bad, dialogue good”, which is a major problem on a number of levels. The level I’d focus on is that by alienating the authentic form of debate, we miss opportunities to experience real debate and – most importantly – aren’t able to learn/teach the principles of authentic debate that could add richness to any type of conversation we have.

So, maybe we need to add a third dimension to NCDD, from NC2D to NC3D. Besides just sounding cool, it might help legitimize the form of debate. What do you think?

Kai Degner
Kai is a member of the Harrisonburg, VA city council and previously Harrisonburg mayor. As mayor, Kai brought his passion for public engagement to the forfront of his service and continues to do so as a leader in the Harrisonburg area.

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  1. Andy Fluke says:

    On a purely aesthetic note: NC3D sounds way to much like a Star Wars robot, and I'm having a hard enough time dealing with our use of D&D to go there. 🙂

    The word debate, like dialogue and deliberation can be interpreted in many ways, but it seems to me that its strict definition removes it from the realm of open conversation and places it in a stricter form of goal oriented communication. A well facilitated dialogue or deliberative conversation has the freedom to follow a course set by its participants, even if that means veering off course to a totally unexpected result. The rules of debate don't really allow for this. Obviously, as you point out Kai, there's many similarities, but I think the differences do seperate the forms.

  2. We should ask John Gastil to respond to your post, Kai. He's spoken about this topic and is very passionate about the importance of true debate and the fact that real debate is not being practiced in the public sphere. I'll send him an email tomorrow about this.

    To add another point to Andy's comments, dialogue is frequently compared to debate because debate and dialogue are so different (plus, people generally know what debate is, while dialogue is a much fuzzier concept).

    Have you seen the debate vs. dialogue chart? I have my own version of this chart that I could send you if you haven't seen it, but here's a snibbet:

    Dialogue is collaborative: two or more sides work together toward common understanding; while debate is oppositional: two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong.

    In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal. In debate, winning is the goal.

    In dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) in order to understand, find meaning, and find agreement. In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter its arguments.

    In dialogue, assumptions are revealed for re-evaluation. In debate, assumptions are defended as truth.

    In dialogue, introspection of one’s own position occurs. In debate, critique of the other position occurs.

    Debate certainly isn't inherently bad (even though it might sound like that in the debate vs. dialogue chart!) – it's just useful for quite different purposes.

    Kai, I'd agree with you that a debate format can be used in a dialogic or deliberation setting (especially as fodder for deliberation), but I have to disagree with you when you say that the principles of authentic debate are always appropriate and applicable to any dialogic or deliberative setting. Perhaps the principles of debate can be used for quality deliberation, I do think many of those principles are antithetical to quality dialogue.

  3. I think you're on to something really important here. There are deep connections between all three D's, and healthy ("true") debate is underappreciated. A great recent example of healthy debate is the Long Now debate on nuclear power as an emergency solution to global warming. They structured the debate in rounds where each opponent had to summarize their understanding of the other side's POV — until the other side agreed they'd got it. Beautiful!

    This also bears on Jane Mansbridge's point that deliberative democracy forms are sometimes inclined to underestimate or bypass crucial places where consensus is difficult or impossible to achieve. I'm interested in experiments where a cross-examination or debate structure is introduced into the softer dialogue and deliberation processes, as has been done in some citizen juries.

  4. I think we are just beginning to discern differences in dialogue (let alone debate). We use dialogue in many ways and mean different things by it. A heart to heart dialogue is between two people. We also say Arabs and Jews need to dialogue. And mentor-disciple is a kind of dialogue too — one of fusion of equal hearts with a particular mission. There is the Martin Buber form of dialogue that is a high risk encounter. There is hopefullness of dialogue instead of war.

    I am looking for some common or professional adjectives to put in front of "dialogue"


  5. Kai Degner says:

    Thanks for your responses! In the interest of true debate, let me respond..

    Sandy: Rereading my post, I did make some claims in need of some qualifiers – all conversation obviously doesn't require the tactics of debate – good point. This is most obvious in dialogic moments where we're trying to understand a position rather than investigate it.

    You also share the idea that dialogue is collaborative and debate is oppositional. I wonder if debate can't actually be seen as much as a collaborative exercise as dialogue. I think real, practiced debaters – while advocating vigorously for different positions – are in agreement to collaborate using the stage of debate to discover the strongest possible ways to defend their own position. And, they agree to subject their own arguments to rigorous and fair scrutiny by the other side(s) in order to pursue all premises to their logical conclusion. Isn't that very collaborative? I might even take a position that quality debate requires a higher degree of collaboration than dialogue though that's probably not a useful distinction to make.

    Andy: I agree that a dialogue leaves room for more tangents and even subject changes during the conversation. At one level, debate might not allow as much divergence on the topic, but debate very much has potential for an exploration that could lead to unexpected results. I'm in agreement with you that debate is a different form than dialogue and deliberation and I certainly don't mean to suggest the form of debate is always applicable. The question is does this different nature – and function – make debate it's own "thing" on a level with dialogue and deliberation?

    And, Andy, NC3D is certainly too much like R2D2.

  6. Kai Degner says:

    Phil Mitchell: "I’m interested in experiments where a cross-examination or debate structure is introduced into the softer dialogue and deliberation processes, as has been done in some citizen juries."

    This is what I'm searching for, too. Can you point us to resources that capture what's happened "in some citizen juries?"

  7. Jack Paulus says:


    Thanks for an excellent topic.

    Considering the distinctions as stated on the D&D chart, an additional thought is that debate often involves persons playing the Devil's Advocate in support of a position and this is very often done in order to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of a given point of view. So educating oneself is often the goal of a debate rather than winning. Similarly the purpose of debate is not necessarily to find just the flaws in another's position but in your own as well. Debate can easily be a dialogic, educational experience.

    Additionally, in true debate assumptions should also be revealed and open for examination as this is often where the true difference in opinion lies. Good debate should not have assumptions that are off-limits.

    And finally, a good debate that is stripped of noise is an excellent educational tool for non-participants interested in the topic.

    I agree that we need to reclaim 'debate' from the Crossfire stereotype.

    But I have no comment on potential acronyms.

  8. Marilyn Null says:

    Kai: My two cents worth — I've always believed that the three "Ds" of democracy are Discussion, Dialogue, and Debate. At least in this country, debate is integral to decision-making; without it, the "true" middle ground can't be identified. At least that's been my experience in developing and implementing stakeholder involvement programs for the past 20 years. I believe that debate helps focus the discussion and dialogue, as well as demonstrating where one must agree to disagree, particularly when values are involved.

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