Debate vs. Dialogue

I’ve read hundreds of science fiction, spy fiction, law and mystery novels (Grisham, Silva, Flynn, Eisler, Clancy, Decker…) and understand how the world is getting smaller and how weaponry and intelligence gathering is getting more pervasive and dangerous. We now have the tools to destroy all human life, and no weapon has ever been invented that wasn’t eventually used. It seems if we don’t find ways reduce our political identities and increase our collaboration as a “human family,” there is a high probability that we will destroy ourselves. I think we need to start moving towards a new political environment of dialogue rather than two political parties becoming further entrenched into a hardening stalemate.
Towards this goal, we need to reform the idea of political and academic debate into something less polarizing and more inclusive. If competitive dialogue can begin to replace old forms of debate, we will allow more voices and ideas to collaborate and develop shared identity. If we fail, the world may continue to become more fragmented, suspicious and dangerous. I’ve traveled to fifteen countries on three continents and realize that people are generally the same everywhere (more about me). We must assume better of others in working towards common understandings, transforming polarized conflict (debate) into cooperation (sustained dialogue).
In “Parliamentary” debate format, similar to our own U.S. Congress, scoring political points is often more important than compromising towards a solution. I observe this uncivil attitude in popular media as well, where identity becomes more about our political differences than our common humanity. In debate, as in politics, we see others as opponents and use “selective listening” that ignores their strengths while focusing on their weakest points. Even the French root word of debate (“debatre”) means to fight. Political debate seems to spend most of its time making the other party look bad, punching for a “knock out” rather than searching for collaborations that benefit all.
In dialogue, we try to temporarily suspend our own (limited) beliefs in order to fully consider other ideas. Dialogue begins with a mutual agreement to give all ideas ample attention. All parties in dialogue must see each other as colleagues — as equals in search of common ground. Just as in debate, there are rules, but the rules of dialogue are different (see below). Debate unleashes the creativity of individual performance, whereas dialogue unites the combined creativity of all participants. Pearl S. Buck said ““Self-expression must pass into communication for its fulfillment.””  Humanity will never be “fulfilled” until we move our politics from debate into communication. Please review my ongoing ideas for competitive dialogue and other new forensic models.

The following debate/dialogue comparisons are compiled from the work of William Isaacs, Shelly Berman, Peter Senge, Daniel Yankelovich, Nancy Klein, David Bohm, Leonard Swidler, John Rymers, Richard Gunderman and Pat Washburn:

Dialogue listens for strengths so as to affirm and learn
Debate listens for weaknesses so as to discount and devalue
Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of answers and that cooperation can lead to a greater understanding.
Debate assumes a single right answer that somebody already has.
The goal of dialogue is increased understanding of myself and others
The goal of debate is the successful argument of my position over that of my opponent
In dialogue, I speak for myself from my own understanding and experience
In debate, I speak based on assumptions made about others’ positions and motivations
Dialogue allows others to complete their communications
Debate interrupts or manipulates the subject
Dialogue concentrates on others’ words and feelings
Debate focuses on its next point
Dialogue accepts others’ experiences as real and valid for them
Debate critiques others’ experiences as distorted or invalid
Dialogue allows the expression of real feelings (in myself and others) for understanding and catharsis.
Debate expresses feelings to manipulate others and denies others’ feelings as legitimate.
Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude, an openness to being wrong and an openness to change.
Debate creates a close-minded attitude, a determination to be right.
In dialogue, one submits ones best thinking, expecting that other people’s reflections will help improve it rather than threaten it.
In debate one submits one’s best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right.
Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending of one’s beliefs.
Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one’s beliefs.
Dialogue respects all participants and seeks not to alienate or offend.
Debate rebuts contrary positions and may belittle or deprecate other participants.
Dialogue causes introspection on one’s own position.
Debate causes critique of the other position.
Dialogue opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions.
Debate defends ones own position as the best solution and excludes other solutions.
Dialogue listens to understand, find meaning and agreement
Debate listens to find flaws and make counterarguments.
Dialogue admits that others’ thinking can improve on one’s own
Debate defends one’s own views against those of others
Dialogue is collaborative: participants work together toward common understanding.
Debate is combative: participants attempt to prove the other side wrong.
Dialogue is about discovering new options, not seeking closure.
Debate seeks a conclusion or vote that ratifies your position.
Dialogue is about exploring common ground.
Debate is about winning.
Dialogue aims to enlighten – Debate aims to defeat
Dialogue honors silence – Debate uses silence to gain advantage
Dialogue generates light – Debate generates heat
Dialogue is collaborative – Debate is oppositional
Dialogue enlarges perspective – Debate affirms perspective
Dialogue searches for agreement – Debate searches for differences
Dialogue causes introspection – Debate causes critique
Dialogue looks for strengths – Debate looks for weaknesses
Dialogue re-evaluates assumptions – Debate defends assumptions
Dialogue listens for meaning – Debate listens in order to counter
Dialogue remains open-ended – Debate implies a conclusion
Dialogue is divergent – Debate is convergent
Dialogue is about speaking with – Debate is about speaking to
Dialogue encourages reflection – Debate encourages quick thinking
Dialogue encourages emergence – Debate encourages lock-in


COMPETITIVE DIALOGUE: Specific proposals for changing high school and college debate


MY STORY: Some Background


DEBATE 911: Home page



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