Moving from debate to dialogue

Understanding the differences between debate and dialogue can improve communication and relationships.

Conversations about race and racism (and other issues related to human differences) can be very difficult for people. Many of us lack positive role models or very many opportunities for engaging in discussions focused on complex issues in ways that lead to increased understanding and positive relationship-building across differences. In addition, conversations about race, gender, class and other differences can trigger strong emotions in people including guilt, shame, anger, trauma and despair.

One way we can improve our conversations and relationships is to practice self-awareness, which includes noticing what we’re feeling and thinking—and making intentional choices about how we want to engage in difficult discussions about hard issues.  Deborah Flick, Ph.D. author of “From Debate to Dialogue: Using the Understanding Process to Transform Our Conversations,” suggests that moving from debate to dialogue can increase our understanding of ourselves and others while improving our communication skills and relationships. Based on Flick’s work, here are some differences between debate and dialogue:

Debate Process

  • You’re searching for one “right” answer.
  • The goal is to be right, win the argument or persuade others.
  • Your thoughts are evaluating and critical as you listen to others.
  • You’re listening judgmentally for errors and flaws in other people’s perspectives.
  • The question in your mind is “What’s wrong with this picture?”
  • Rather than listening deeply, you’re planning your rebuttal.

Dialogue Process

  • You’re aware that there are multiple and valid perspectives on many issues.
  • The goal is to understand others.
  • You work to remain open and curious.
  • You practice listening to other people’s stories about their realities and lived experiences.
  • You believe people about their realities and experiences—rather than becoming defensive and stuck in denial.
  • The question in your mind is “What can I learn about myself and others?”
  • You listen more than you talk.
  • You practice reflecting on what you’re feeling and respond in intentional ways rather than reacting in ways that lack self-awareness.

While debate processes may be helpful in some situations, the dialogue process is more likely to increase people’s ability to connect in healthy ways in order to create environments that are safe, affirming and fair for everyone.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources and workshops focused on issues of social and emotional health and well-being—as well as ways to build and sustain authentic relationships across differences and other areas of diversity and multiculturalism

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