The 3 Ds: Debate, Discussion, Dialogue

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As words swirl around health care, how do we effectively talk to each other, as individuals, as a nation?

Fights recently broke out at several town-hall meetings on health-care reform, one-minute partisan speeches began each legislative day, and a congressman called the president a “liar” at a televised presidential address. As Americans, we don’t just disagree, we are polarized. We’re not listening to each other. Part of the confusion is that we have no common definition for how we talk about our differences. Public “debate,” “discussion” and “dialogue” are used interchangeably when they mean very different things. 

3D definition
Take debate. Remember the presidential candidate debates at election time? All candidates presented their case and did their best to poke holes in the opponents’ arguments. In debate, the goal is to win, to sway others to your point of view. 

Discussion is defined as an “exchange of ideas,” but generally is more like debate when differences are expressed. The same root word in “discussion” is in “percussion” and “concussion.” Discussion and debate are conversations heavy on advocacy and critique. Listening happens more like a “pause to reload” than a real attempt to understand what the other person is saying. 

In contrast, dialogue is a communication process whose goal is to reach deeper understanding. Dialogue comes from the Greek root words “dia” and “logos,” roughly translated to “meaning passing between.” Dialogue requires a special kind of listening and speaking in which we suspend judgment to explore different perspectives, beliefs and assumptions at a deeper level. 

Going deeper
Dialogue shows up in many forms and traditions, such as Native American council process or Quaker meetings, with similar principles and practices. People speak one at a time. The pace of conversation is slower, with moments of silence in which people can get in touch with how they’re feeling and thinking. In dialogue, the playing field is equalized by setting aside differences in roles or status, allowing each person equal opportunity to speak. Instead of speaking for others, people are encouraged to speak to their own experience, to speak into the center of the group and to speak from the heart. When a comment triggers an emotional reaction in you, the expectation in dialogue is that you will internally identify and share the assumption or belief you hold that is being challenged. Understanding grows with increasing awareness and skill to communicate in this way. 

Sarita Chawla, a wise teacher of mine, describes dialogue as like going to a potluck. At a potluck, everyone brings a different dish. In a dialogue, everyone brings different assumptions and beliefs. At a potluck, you could eat only the dish you brought. The same is true in dialogue. You are not asked to give up your own beliefs. What dialogue offers is an opportunity to sample a rich feast of different perspectives and worldviews. 

Change the rules
The skills needed for dialogue are not well developed in our culture that values strong arguments and quick solutions. Too often people show up locked and loaded into position, ready for a good fight. Or they don’t show up at all. 

Certain conditions need to be in place to create a safe environment for dialogue (see dialogue guidelines in the box). These guidelines encourage participants to listen and speak respectfully. Advice giving is not allowed in dialogue because it shifts the group into problem solving, explaining, justifying and defending. None of these create a climate in which people are willing to uncover and share at a deeper level. 

Developing skills to listen, to self-reflect and to manage the discomfort of staying in the “not knowing” for longer periods of time takes both patience and stamina. Three things must be present for successful dialogue: 1) a complex question or issue to explore; 2) skills in and commitment to the dialogue approach; and 3) time to explore without the need to get quickly to action. 

Practice peacemaking
Participating for 10 years in the Dialogue Learning Group, which sponsored several public dialogues and shared best practices in facilitating dialogue, I learned first hand how dialogue strengthens relationships. 

The more complex the issue and the further we are from having shared agreement about the issue, the more we need dialogue. The value of dialogue is that it encourages greater understanding and can help us find the places where we may have common ground. Even more, dialogue can be a tool for peacemaking, transforming relationships across deep differences. 

The Public Conversations Project (PCP) between six prominent pro-life and pro-choice women leaders is a good example of public dialogue. The activists from the two “embattled camps” began a private dialogue that continued over six years and resulted in a co-authored article about their experience. In the end, neither side changed what it believed about abortion. What changed was the capacity to hold the paradox of irreconcilable worldviews while embracing the humanity in one another. And that changed how the two groups did their work, decreasing inflammatory rhetoric and the potential for violence. “We’ve experienced something radical and life-altering that we describe in nonpolitical terms: the mystery of love, holy ground, or simply, mysterious,” they wrote. They show us how dialogue might transform us to create a more compassionate and civil society. 

Ginny Belden-Charles is a facilitator and consultant helping groups reach common understanding and achieve common goals. She is a cofounder of the Center for Emerging Leadership and its Women’s Leadership Community and adjunct faculty member at St. Catherine University. 

Read About It

  • Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard 
  • The Transformative Power of Dialogue, Volume 12 (Research in Public Policy Analysis and Management), by Nancy Roberts 
  • “Talking With the Enemy” Boston Globe, Sunday, January 28, 2001 

National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD):, a community of practitioners, organizations, researchers, public officials, activists, artists, students and others dedicated to solving problems through honest talk, quality thinking and collaborative action. 

AmericaSpeaks: AmericaSpeaks’ mission is to reinvigorate American Democracy by engaging citizens in the public decision-making that most impacts their lives. 


• Listen for understanding 
• Respect the person, even if you disagree 
• Allow differences of perspective 
• Allow for silence 
• Refrain from advocacy or advice-giving 
• Keep confidentiality 

What dialogue offers is an opportunity to sample a rich feast of different perspectives and worldviews.