Dialogue vs Debate

How can the Blindmen discover that they are feeling an elephant?Blindmen and elephant

Active Listening is the foundation stone. Through active listening you can help your team members express their perspective and fully understand it.

It is not enough on its own however. To see the full elephant, your team will need to become masters of Dialogue instead of Debate.

The different objectives of Dialogue and Debate

Dialogue: A conversation with the objective of reaching the best possible team solution

Debate: A conversation with the objective that your point of view wins

These very different objectives make Dialogue a very different conversation to debate.

What do Dialogue and Debate look like?

You will recognise these from your own experience:

Dialogue Debate
Laying out your assumptions Unpack your thinking clearly, enabling others to  critique your logic at every stage What assumptions? You have no assumptions, only truth!
Response to questions Engage and use the question to move the team thinking forward Defend your point of view…then counter-attack!
Listening to others Active listening, genuinely trying to understand their perspective Don’t bother, unless you spot a weakness to attack. Prepare what you will say next instead.
Style of questioning Curious, helping them unpack their thinking Gotcha!
Tactics No tactics that distract from getting the best team solution Whatever you need to beat your enemy; use humour, distractions, personal attacks, undermining credibility
Changing your mind Open to revising your assumptions and thinking when additional points and perspectives emerge Changing your view signals weakness and means you have lost
How the other person feels afterwards Respected and engaged; a valued team member Beaten

Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin give a good demonstration of debate on Saturday Night Live Point/Counterpoint. Funny, but not a constructive way to reach the best possible solution!

Improving your team’s Dialogue

The team will need to practice two key skills:

1) Helping others unpack their thinking

Half the world are intuitive (N on Myers-Briggs N-S dimension). Their brains jump to answers without stepping through the intermediate stages. Note to non-intuitive thinkers – their inability to articulate the intermediate stages does not mean they are wrong! They are often right, their brains have just short-cut the process.

You need dialogue to combine the insight of the intuitives on your team, with the step-by-step logic of the sensors. Put these together and see your elephant!

The sensors need to ask questions to help the intuitives unpack their thinking. What caused that? Why is that important? Why do you believe that? What are your assumptions underlying that point of view? What would happen if they didn’t do that?

The intuitives need to patiently respond to these questions, helping others put together the intervening letters after they have jumped from A to Z. Recognise that whereas you know Z is right, at least half the world needs to see the steps before they will believe.

2) Unpacking your own thinking

It can be challenging to expose your own assumptions.

If you are intuitive, you may not be conscious of them and so unable to expose them without help from your teammates.

Even if you are aware of them, exposing them opens them up to challenge, and they may be found wanting. And who wants to be WRONG.

The smarter you are, the bigger this barrier will be for you. Deeply carved in your self-image is that you are smart, and being WRONG challenges your self-worth. Smart people are also well equipped to win debates, dancing rings round slower (not better!) thinkers. To learn more about this curse of being smart, read Chris Argyris great article “Teaching Smart people how to Learn“.

Smart people need courage to engage in dialogue, abandoning the cut and thrust of debate they excel at.

One way past this is to redefine what “smart” means in your self-image. Throw out attachment to being “right”, to the value you put on your judgement, to “winning” in front of others.

Instead let “smart” mean your ability to unpack your thinking in a way everyone understands. Let it mean your ability to hold judgement and assumptions lightly, ready to modify and drop them when new evidence and perspectives come in. “Smart” people will have flexible mental models, making powerful new assumptions, unpacking them for others to critique and them discarding them freely when they are no longer useful.

Staying Practical

Dialogue is almost always a more effective style, but it requires a confident, constructive culture. Not all businesses can do it well.

Some business cultures are very internally competitive and aggressive. All their meetings and interactions will be forms of debate. If you are engaging in dialogue, while the rest of the company are debating, they will eat you alive. You will look weak, a “loser”. Debate them back……or find a more constructive company to work in.

Some circumstances may call for more of a debate style……for example, once dialogue has occurred, there may still be differences of opinion. The leader may need to thank everyone for their contribution to the dialogue and then lay out “this is what we are going to do”.

Debate has its place sometimes in the business world……….there are few cultures (or people!) so healthy that they operate in dialogue all the time. However, debate will kill your ability to get the best from your team. Even if the rest of the company prefers debate, your team can operate with dialogue. And maybe you will change them when they see your results!


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