Why the Difference Between Debate, Dialogue, and Deliberation Matters More than Ever

Long ago, I believed that communication was simple. “I communicate, you communicate, we all communicate” about summed up the subject. But then I took a class that went deep into all the ways that our communication whips up worlds into existence, from the “unwanted repetitive patterns” that trap families or colleagues in systems of their own making, to the hierarchy of contexts that always invisibly frame any situation that we find ourselves in (I’ll write more about these in future posts). I was intrigued and took another class, and another, and another, and here I am 25 years later still finding myself utterly fascinated by communication’s complexities, consequences, and applications.

Just yesterday I came across a quick story about the late Barnett Pearce that gets at the heart of all this (via the always thoughtful and brilliant Kim Pearce). When he was five years old, Barnett used to visit one set of grandparents who were austere, somber, and rule-bound. He’d then visit his other set of grandparents, where joy and laughter filled the air, and all the ways of thinking and acting seemed different. This led Barnett to a lifetime of questions about the ways in which communication can create such different “social worlds” for people, how we come to live into our forms of communication, and how we might get stuck or unstuck from these creations.

We often don’t see what we’ve been making together through our communication, nor where opportunities might be found to create something new. Through repetition, our lives and environments all come to feel natural and “the way things are.” In that light, the very types of communication that we use in any situation matters. Every engagement with others would benefit by starting with a simple question: “what form of communication am I using here?” To illustrate why this is so important, let me show you three different modes of communication that have varying impacts in our lives.

Highlighting the differences between debate, dialogue, and deliberation, here’s a chart from the newDemocracy Foundation that I’ve found students or participants in classes or workshops find helpful:

A good question to ask oneself in work meetings, when texting with a friend, or especially when discussing politics with anyone is: “which mode am I in?” As you can see, the goal of debate is to marshal support for a side and persuade others to a single-minded cause. That can be important at times but has lots of tradeoffs, including a heightened possibility of perceived divisions or ignoring evidence that complicates one’s commitments.

Dialogue is all about creating understanding with people, opening enough space for non-judgmental communication to let others know you are truly listening and taking in what’s being said. It’s intentionally expansive and engages people with the purpose of seeing more than any one of us can ever see. Yet that honest exploration (often left out of a debate orientation) could forgo a necessary case for an issue, arguments for the value of certain facts, values, or policies, or decision making.

The goal of deliberation is to explore issues, work through diverse differences, and make a choice together. If there’s potholes in the roads all over town, the city council should sit down and talk through what is known and what should be done about it, with the goal of deciding how much to budget for the problem. On the other hand, two candidates running for public office probably shouldn’t engage in deliberation. Citizens need to see the differences in their positions and outlooks, since at the end of the day it’s not a joint problem to address that’s at stake, but who should be voted into office.

Where does this get especially practical? When it comes to discussions of issues, some people never turn off the “debate” switch, turning every issue into an opportunity to persuade others to one’s cause. I have met people who haven’t had a true “dialogue” with someone of different beliefs in years, nor a difficult mutual problem-solving session among diverse stakeholders where a joint decision needs made. The same challenges can go the other way, where some people avoid debate or self-censor from discussions of issues at all costs, when some clash of interests, claims, and evidence could contribute to greater understanding.

These are only three forms of communication among others we could discuss. Each gives and each takes. But for now, here’s the takeaway: at every opportunity continue asking “what type of communication I am engaging in” and better yet, “what form of communication might best serve people and this situation?” I think you’ll find that the ability to switch between the modes of debate, dialogue, and deliberation, and asking others what the ideal type of communication for a situation might be, provides a critical skill for life.