Debate vs Dialogue

Ken Cloke is known world-wide for his work and teachings in conflict resolution, mediation, dialogue facilitation, systems design, and more. I remember seeing his name for the first time in my syllabus for Intro to Conflict Resolution my freshman year of undergrad. 

A visitor I met with a few moths ago reminded me of a section in his new book: Politics, Dialogue and the Evolution of Democracy: How to Discuss Race, Abortion, Immigration, Gun Control, Climate Change, Same Sex Marriage and Other Hot Topics. While meeting with this visitor, I was struck by what felt to me like a contradiction. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, though.

The visitor, Mark, was interested in having a facilitated dialogue between him and his colleague, Mary (these are false names to protect their identities). Mark and Mary have different supervisors, but their day to day work requires a lot of coordination and collaboration to be done well and efficiently. In the few months prior, they experienced difficulty working together, and it started to feel like they were intentionally trying to impede the other’s ability to do their job. 

While Mark was in my office, he stated many times that he wanted to find common ground and identify Mary’s concerns so they could get back to working collaboratively. Then, he would list all of the things she said and did wrong and how his approaches and interpretations were the correct ones. Any time I tried to offer that there could be other possible interpretations, he was quick to tell me that there is no way his interpretations and assumptions about Mary’s motives were the absolute correct ones. 

When I asked Mark what challenges he thinks Mary might bring up in a facilitated conversation, as I ask everyone preparing for this, he said he had done nothing wrong and had no reason to apologize for anything, even for the times he raised his voice and threw her under the bus in a meeting. He was justified in his actions. 

This is when I remembered the section in the book comparing debate and dialogue. I realized that while Mark asserted a desire for dialogue, his actions and words indicated otherwise. Mark was preparing for  debate. 

Here is the comparison:



Debate is oppositional: two sides are opposed and attempt to prove each other wrong.  Dialogue is collaborative: two or more sides work together to develop a common understanding
In debate, the goal is to be the only one to win. In dialogue, the goal is to find common ground and to find better solutions.
In debate, one listens in order to find flaws and refute arguments. In dialogue, one listens in order to learn and find commonalities.
Debate affirms each side’s own point of view. Dialogue enlarges and transforms both side’s points of view. 
Debate rarely questions assumptions but defends them against criticism.  Dialogue questions assumptions and discusses and re-evaluates them. 
Debate rarely results in open apology or introspection. Dialogue encourages apology and introspection, and openly shares them.
Debate defends one’s own position as the best solution and excludes the other side’s positions and solutions.  Dialogue elicits interests rather than positions and reaches better solutions by creatively combining them. 
Debate produces closed minds and hearts, a determination to be right, and a resistance to change.  Dialogue produces open minds and hearts, a willingness to be proven wrong, and participation in change.
Debate results in the solidification and entrenchment of beliefs. Dialogue results in the modification and re-examination of beliefs.
In debate, one searches for disagreements, mistakes, and difficulties. In dialogue, one searches for strengths and commonalities in other’s positions. 
Debate involves opposing the other side without recognizing feelings or relationships, and belittling or deprecating the other person.  Dialogue involves genuine concern for the other person, acknowledges feelings and relationships, and empathizes with and supports the other side.
Debate assumes there is a single truth or correct answer, only one side has possession of it, and that combining them only weakens them.  Dialogue assumes there are many correct answers, may people have pieces of it, and that combining them creates much more satisfying and effective solutions. 
Debate implies an end or conclusion. Dialogue is open-ended and on-going. 
Debate assumes that conflict is only resolvable when one side wins. Dialogue assumes that conflict is resolvable by both sides winning. 

Mark and I discussed the differences between the two approaches. Then I explained that mediation or facilitated discussions use practices consistent with dialogue. If that is what he was truly interested in, he needed to make a shift.

This distinction is also relevant regarding issues of politics, race, gun control, and other topics on the forefront of our society’s mind. After reading the above comparison, I encourage you to listen to friends, family, and the news speak about these issues. Start to notice when people are using a debate or dialogue approach. 

Ken Cloke asserts that how we design these discussions can and will have a direct impact on our ability to stay in dialogue and stay out of debate. Whether it is a conversation with a co-worker about job responsibilities, or a discussion among friends regarding a political issue, what would shift in our lives if we moved from debate to dialogue?

To learn more about how to do this, pick up Ken Cloke’s book. We also invite you to join us at the Rocky Mountain Regional Ombuds Day Event  on October 10th at the CU Law School in Boulder, CO to meet Ken and hear him speak.

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds,
University of Colorado Denver|Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

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