On Communication: Debate vs. Dialogue

I was watching a video the other night, and some people who were on the video were sharing some things from a point of view that I didn’t agree with. I found myself becoming more and more upset as I continued to watch. My saving grace was a loved one who said to me “hey, they’re just sharing their experience.”

Their experience. That statement alone was enough to rein me in and remind me why I love having spaces to engage in dialogue. In this space, one cannot compete with another’s experience. One cannot tell another what they have felt or experienced, but we can listen to that experience, share our own experiences, find commonalities or differences, and possibly come to a greater understanding.

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone about something important to you, and felt as if you weren’t being listened to? Ever felt like your experiences were being invalidated or explained away?

On the other hand, have you ever felt as if another person’s point of view was totally wrong, and it was up to you to “make them understand” the right way? Have you ever found yourself quickly thinking of a rebuttal or counter-example to something they’ve just said, from the moment they were beginning to say it?

If so, you may have been engaging in a debate.

Working to resolve conflicts can be difficult, and when approached from an adversarial perspective, any sort of gain can seem to be impossibly out of reach.

However, conflict does not always have to be a bad thing.

Here is a resource I use in engaging and teaching others the skills to foster another, more collaborative kind of communication: Dialogue.



Assuming that there is one right answer and that you have it

Assuming that many people have pieces of the answer and that only together can they craft a solution

Combative: participants attempt to prove the other side wrong

Collaborative: participants work together toward common understanding

About winning

About learning

Listening to find flaws and make counterarguments

Listening to understand and find meaning

Defending assumptions as truth

Revealing assumptions for reevaluation

Critiquing the other side’s position

Re-examining all positions

Defending one’s own views against those of others

Admitting that others’ thinking can improve one’s own

Searching for flaws and weaknesses in other positions

Searching for strengths and value in others’ positions

Seeking a conclusion or vote that ratifies your position

Discovering new opinions, not seeking closure

Chart adapted from Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue (1999)

In thinking about the journey to build more equitable and inclusive communities, getting to “that place” can be difficult. It can be hard to talk in-depth about our experiences with issues of race, class, sexual orientation, gender, ability, religion, age, and our experiences with our identifying in other parts of our identities as well, but as I work to engage myself and others in dialogue about these issues, I’ve found it helpful to stay mindful of these differences in communication.

Could you see yourself anywhere in this comparison? How we can move beyond debate in our lives?


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW



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Written by

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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4 Responses

  1. Geof says:

    I was brought up to believe the true sign of intelligence is the ability to recognize what we don’t know. In a lot of ways, I have been really spoiled by this approach because it always left me wanting to know how a person got to the perspective I thought was foolish. I didn’t want to appear foolish, so I always tried to ask questions, even if they were leading questions. See, I was also brought up using a very Socratic method of teaching.

    The thing is I have been lucky enough to often find in the answers given where I find I am wrong. On other times, I at least get to better understand the other perspectives. The hardest part is remembering to not only ask the questions but also to listen for answers never assuming there is only one correct path to truth. Then balancing this approach with recognizing there are indeed falsehoods and asking what the impact of believing them may be. Some times there is value in the outcomes even if beliefs leading us down the road turn out to be wrong which begs the question of whether “truth” is always important.

    For example, I am agnostic, but I pray every night with my daughter and we end each prayer with something from the day for which we are thankful. I asked myself, “Worst case, what if God doesn’t care?” If this is reality, we still gain for our prayers. They let us be aware and thankful for the good in our lives, and what better way is there to end our day? This is just another thing I learned from talking with my then 5 year old daughter about her faith. I figure anyone who has lived through 4 heart surgeries and a stroke may have inside knowledge. It turns out she has faith I wish I shared. Still, saying prayers with her every night is some thing I cherish in our relationship to this day.

    • Hey Geof!

      Like you said, sometimes the hardest part is realizing that we don’t have all the answers. I liked your point about listening for others’answers as well because I think when we allow ourselves to do that, we can possibly end up with an entirely new or better informed outlook about ourselves or about someone else.

      Your story about your daughter reminds me in a way of my story at the beginning of this post when I was describing my experience listening to some things that I had a different perspective on.

      When someone told me “hey, they’re just sharing their experience” was a great reminder and help to me. It seems in your life, your daughter is sharing her experience with you, and you’ve both gained something valuable from it as a result. Great story Geof. Thanks for telling it here at N.A.H.

  2. michelle sicignano says:

    Great piece Relando. Should be mandatory reading for social service providers!

    • Thanks Michelle! I most definitely agree. Being introduced to this kind of information when I was a student greatly impacted me personally, as well as how I carry out my work professionally. I hope to one day be in a position to teach others what I am learning and have learned using dialogue as a tool for effective communication. I think anyone who wishes to work to help others in some way should consider incorporating dialogue into their practice.

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