A Debate is not a Discussion, and a Discussion is not a Dialogue

March 7, 2016

Debate PodiumsWith all the presidential candidate debates filling up the airwaves recently, it’s time to think about what makes for a good conversation.

Regrettably, we are not seeing any significant examples of memorable conversations in the so-called “public discourse.”

I thought it might help to spend a few minutes thinking about what does make a conversation both memorable and meaningful.

A meaningful conversation changes you in important ways. You see the world differently, or you have new insights into a problem you’ve been struggling with, or you know someone in a far more personal way.

If it’s an experience you remember, one you want more of, and one you know had a significant impact, then it was a meaningful conversation. As the conversation winds up you’re either incredibly energized and ready to do something important, or you are disappointed it’s over and hungry for more.

How often does that happen in the spectacles the political parties are producing this year? I see lots of yelling and personal attacks, positions being hardened, and gaps between the candidates growing larger. Hardly a constructive experience for anyone!

As I think back on particular conversations I enjoyed (as a participant or an observer) it seems clear that all contributors to those exchanges were speaking openly and honestly, and with respect for each others’ experiences and intentions. They were “in the moment” exploring a topic they all cared deeply about.

Those are clues about what drives a conversation from good to great. But they are only clues, and they are only my personal insights. In gearing up to write Making Meetings Matter I did the only thing I could think of to extend my own understanding:  I asked people I respect and admire to share their views about what makes a great conversation.

Chris Hood, Managing Director for Workplace Innovation with CBRE, thought a moment and described it this way:

I attended a workshop several years ago that was focused on improving conversations between managers and employees. The primary emphasis was on authenticity – where both parties were saying what they really mean, as opposed to just saying what they were supposed to say.

There are all sorts of personal skills involved too – empathy, interest in the other person, nonverbal behaviors, being engaged, being clear.

When you have a good conversation you know it. There is something almost magical about one idea building on another, or one link following another. The succession of ideas just flows.

Patt Schwab, a good friend who is a professional speaker, educator, and the founder of FUNdamentally Speaking, stressed authenticity as well.

However, her first response to my question was her observation that in a really memorable conversation the participants each start with a basic respect for the other person or people.

Perhaps the most important factor that drives a conversation from good to great is that each participant genuinely wants to learn from the other person.

So often when we meet strangers, as at a cocktail party or a reception, we are pre-occupied with our own issues (and so is the other person) – we don’t really connect in the moment, or with any energy or willingness to either open up or enter the other person’s world.

I recently saw a post on Facebook featuring a statement attributed to Maria Shriver: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

And the best line I’ve ever heard for starting a “real” dialogue with a stranger is this:

“If I really knew you, I would know..?”

Respect for others includes acknowledging their humanity and their individuality, and being curious about their personal experiences – a mindset that often leads to unique insights and perspectives, to say nothing of deep connections.

For Brady Mick, an architect and workplace strategist with BDHP Architecture, a good conversation starts with listening – both people (or everyone, if more thanListening two are involved) are interested in learning from, and hearing from, the other participants. And there is a sense of balance, of wanting to share with each other.

Brady also believes that every good conversation includes stories. Stories are the way we create meaningful memories. When we share stories we are sharing meaning, and passing lessons along from one person to another.

Of course, not every meeting or conversation has to be life-changing to be satisfying or meaningful. Maybe you just exchanged pleasantries, or you and a friend traded memories of a recent football game, or you talked about the professional conference you just returned from.

In any case, however, if you enjoyed the interaction, it probably had some or all of these characteristics:

  • its purpose was clear to everyone involved;
  • everyone was reasonably interested in the topic being discussed;
  • there was genuine interest in learning something new;
  • everyone was “in the moment” – actively focused on the conversation;
  • each of the participants felt respected by the other(s);
  • everyone was open to hearing other points of view;
  • everyone felt secure – they were able to be open and candid
  • it was in an appropriate physical place

I so wish our would-be “leaders” could learn to have those kinds of exchanges!

What have I missed? How do you think about conversations that matter? What separates a “debate” and a true dialogue in your experience?


Note: Making Meetings Matter is now available for purchase on Amazon.com (at http://amzn.to/1SKV1Rp) and from Apple as an iBook (at http://apple.co/21EW3Q2).


Contact me today for a free 30-minute strategic conversation about how you can make all your meetings and other corporate conversations both productive and popular. Please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter to explore what’s possible.


Note: this article is cross-posted on my new blog, Making Meetings Matter. Feel free to read and comment there if you wish.

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