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The Distinction between Dialogue and Debate

Posted by Hilary Oliver, PCC | February 14, 2017 | Comments (9)

Welcome to the February ICF Board Column.  In January, I wrote that this year would be a year of Growth, Change and Transition. We started that important discourse at our first Global Board meeting of the year in Bangkok, Thailand.

Our four new board members had to immerse themselves quickly so that we could have meaningful discussions, enabling us to keep moving forward.  As you know, any change of team member requires patience from the existing members and ability to dance with the “unknown” by the new members to ensure that ongoing discussions and topics don’t have to start again.

We know that in order to get the best outcomes, it is important that we have dialogues that consider different perspectives.  With the diversity of cultures and experiences of our board members, we do get that.  We also get to use our great coaching skills of listening deeply, asking powerful and searching questions to create new awareness.

I was reminded recently of the distinction between dialogue and debate and how important it is to know the difference.  In our board meetings, to ensure we get to the right place for ICF and our members, we need dialogue.  In today’s world, it has never been more important to listen and seek to understand different perspectives, so I wanted to share a piece* I was given about Dialogue vs Debate, that I hope you find useful:

1-DIALOGUE is to collaborate: multiple sides work toward shared understanding. DEBATE is oppositional: two opposing sides try to prove each other wrong.

2-In DIALOGUE, one listens to understand, to make meaning and to find common ground. In DEBATE, one listens to find flaws, to spot differences, and to center arguments.

3-DIALOGUE enlarges and possibly changes a participant’s point of view. DEBATE affirms a participant’s point of view.

4-DIALOGUE reveals assumptions for reevaluation. DEBATE defends assumptions as truth.

5-DIALOGUE creates an open-minded attitude, an openness to being wrong and an openness to change. DEBATE creates a closed-minded attitude and a determination to be correct.

6-In DIALOGUE, one submits one’s best thinking, expecting that others’ reflections will help improve it rather than threaten it. In DEBATE, one submits one’s best thinking and defends it against a challenge to show that it is correct.

7-In DIALOGUE, one searches for the strengths in all positions. In DEBATE, one searches for the weakness in all positions.

8-DIALOGUE respects all the other participants and seeks not to alienate or offend. DEBATE rebuts contrary positions and may belittle or deprecate other participants.

9-DIALOGUE assumes that many people have pieces of answers and that cooperation can lead to workable solutions. DEBATE assumes a single correct answer that someone already has.

Enjoy your ongoing dialogues, and I hope the video and Board Report demonstrate that we did indeed engage in meaningful dialogue in Bangkok.

See you in March,

Hilary Oliver, PCC

2017 ICF Global Board Chair

*From Socratic Seminars

Hilary Oliver, PCC

Hilary works as an executive and leadership coach, facilitator, trainer, coach-mentor and coach supervisor in her own private practice. Hilary has been coaching internationally as a professional coach for 15 years, and prior to that had over 20 years of experience in a wide range of business sectors and executive positions. Hilary enjoys working with all levels of leadership and loves working with the younger leaders of today. In her personal life, she is a long-distance endurance walker and has a passion for travel.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (9)

  1. Neil Scotton says:

    Hi Hilary, Thanks for sharing the dialogue vs. debate comparisons. Insightful. practical. Wise. And much needed in so many places. And perhaps inspiring us as something where we as a profession,and as coaches, can play a part in create the places and opportunities for more dialogue to take place. Good luck and best wishes to you and the new team.

  2. Thanks Hilary. This is a great reminder in a world of stark opposites and intolerance. Many people do indeed hold different pieces of the jigsaw – and we have to spend time finding out what the different pieces are before we can work out how they fit together to give us the overall picture.

  3. Hilary says:

    Thanks sarah, so true and glad it provoked thought! Hilary

  4. Excellent stuff Hilary, thanks a lot. When witnessing a debate (or participating in, as I am also human and can therefore also fall prey to the debate 🙂 it is very helpful to have this easy to read and clear distinction to help us become aware of the situation we are in, and, hopefully, turn the discussion from debate to dialogue.
    Thanks again Hilary.

  5. Hi Hilary! Would you have this on a word document to share with non-ICF Members? I coach some CEOs who are really interested in dialogue as a concept and would like to forward your ideas to them. Thanks – Amanda Cahir-O’Donnell (Ireland)

  6. Donna Needs says:

    Thank you Hilary. Enlightening and much needed in our polarized world.
    Donna Needs

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