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Dialogue Versus Debate

This 2004 table was adapted by NCDD director Sandy Heierbacher from a paper prepared by Shelley Berman, which was based on discussions of the Dialogue Group of the Boston Chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR), and from the Public Conversations Project’s much-used Distinguishing Debate from Dialogue table.

Dialogue Debate
Collaborative: two or more sides work together toward common understanding Oppositional: two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong
Finding common ground is the goal Winning is the goal
One listens to the other side(s) in order to understand, find meaning, and find agreement One listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter its arguments
Participants speak for themselves as individuals whose own experiences differ even from others on their “side.” Their behavior is likely to vary from stereotypic images others may hold of them. Participants tend to be leaders known for
advocating a carefully crafted position. Participants’ behavior tends to conform to stereotypes.
Participant’s point of view is enlarged and possibly changed Participant’s point of view is affirmed
The atmosphere is one of safety; facilitators propose, get agreement on, and enforce clear ground rules to enhance safety and promote respectful exchange. The atmosphere is threatening; attacks and interruptions are expected by participants and are usually permitted by moderators.
Assumptions are revealed for re-evaluation Assumptions are defended as truth
Introspection of one’s own position occurs Critique of the other position occurs
There is the possibility of reaching a better solution than any existing solutions One’s own positions are defended as the best solution; other solutions are excluded and new solutions are not considered
An open-minded attitude is created; participants express uncertainties as well as deeply held beliefs. A close-minded attitude is created; participants are determined to be right and express unswerving commitment to a point of view, approach, or idea.
Participants search for basic agreements Participants search for glaring differences
Participants search for strengths in other positions Participants search for flaws and weaknesses in other positions
Holds that many people have pieces of the answer and that together they can put them into a workable solution Holds that there is a right answer and that someone has it

and another helpful chart…

Debate, Dialogue and Empathetic Discourse

Prepared by Mark Gerzon, John Steiner, and Ben Levi (2005). Thanks go to The Public Conversations Project, the Study Circles Resource Center (now Everyday Democracy), The Common Enterprise, Choice Point Consulting and Jim Turner.

Assuming that there is a right answer—and that you have it. Assuming that everyone has pieces of the answer and that, together, they craft a new solution. Avoiding viewing the world as divided into problems and solutions. Enjoying the complexity of each individual’s unique perspectives.
Combative: Participants attempt to prove the other side wrong Collaborative: Participants work toward common understanding. Inclusive: Participants acknowledge their diversity and seek a multiplicity of approaches.
About winning. About exploring common ground. About exploring diversity. Aristotle said that Genius is the ability to make distinctions and connections. Effective communication consistently does both.
Listening to find flaws and make counter-arguments. Listening to understand and find agreement. Listening to discover and experience the self and each other. Finding community in spite of the absence of agreement.
Defending assumptions as truth. Revealing assumptions for re-evaluation. Replacing assumptions with personal relations. Using differences to animate and authenticate those connections.
Critiquing the other side’s position. Re-examining all positions. Giving up the attachment to all positions. Savoring the resonance created by the balancing of the personal energies involved.
Defending one’s views against the views of others. Admitting that others’ thoughts can improve on one’s own. Embracing the imperfection of one’s own and others’ thoughts, and experiencing the pleasure of their exchange.
Searching for flaws and weaknesses in others’ positions. Searching for strengths and value in others’ positions. Holding every belief and its expression as hallowed. Working with others to create the space for this expression.
Seeking a specific outcome that ratifies your position Discovering new options without seeking closure. Seeking the pleasure of real connection and emotional closure from the pain of true openness. Creating new relationship webs which embrace diversity and foster trust, care, love, and hope.


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  1. Changing debates into dialogues « Wishful Thinking Works: Create the life you really want Says:

    […] conversational style, here are some thoughts on the subject. This chart was posted in 2011 on the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation web site. I believe it was developed for group and organized discussions – but I  could be […]