The 3 Ds of Better Conversations: Dialogue, Debate, and Discuss



“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” — Peter Drucker

I’ve noticed some conversations just go a lot easier with some people, but I wasn’t sure why.

Recently, a colleague pointed me to an article, Dialogue: The Power of Understanding by Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper.

The article has a nice way of framing types of conversations.  Some conversations are about exploring ideas, while others are about a winning argument or a winning idea.  Once you know the nature of the conversation, you can adapt the conversations, adjust yourself, or avoid it altogether.

Dialogue, Debate and Discussion

Ann offers 3 labels for conversations that you can use to help understand what’s going on::

  1. Dialogue
  2. Debate
  3. Discussion

Dialogue is Listening with an Open Spirit

A dialogue is listening with an open spirit.

There’s no set idea.

It’s about listening with an open mind and asking questions that lead to understanding (the goal is not to win.)  Ann writes:

“The first and most difficult task of dialogue involves parking the ego and listening with an open spirit.  From this receptivity can come questions which lead to understanding.”

Debate is a Verbal “Fight”

A debate is verbal “fight.” It’s about winning an argument.  Ann writes:

Dialogue is the opposite of debate, a verbal “fight,” the goal of which is to win an argument by besting an opponent. 

The focus is on listening for flaws in the “opponent’s” argument rather than listening to understand something new or from a different perspective.

Ego is typically at the center of this win-lose conversation.”

Discussion is the “Breaking Apart” of Issues

A discussion is the “breaking apart” of issues.  It’s about  pushing a winning idea.  Ann writes:

“Dialogue is also different from discussion, the “breaking apart” of issues, individuals or situations to gain agreement. 

Discussions tend to be fast-paced, persuasive conversations in which one person tries to convince the other of a point of view or solution.

Ego, control and power over others are often at the forefront of this style of talking.”

How To Change to a Dialogue

If you need to shift to a dialogue, you can ask yourself, how might that be true, to get curious and park your doubting mind for the moment.

If you need to shift somebody from a debate or discussion to a dialogue, then first listening until they feel they’ve been heard (empathic listening), and then shift to solution-focused questions.

Ann offers 3 questions that can help you shift to dialogue:

  1. What is it you see that I don’t?
  2. How do you see this differently and why?
  3. Please help me understand from your perspective.

Sometimes it’s just too personal, and you can break the loop by either putting it on a whiteboard (it takes the focus off of you and puts it on the whiteboard), or by using a facilitator who can help make sure everybody’s ideas are explored.

I’ve successfully used facilitators for some politically charged meetings.

Characteristics of High Performing Teams

Ann provides characteristics of high performing teams that achieve effective dialogue.  I’ve summarized some of them here:

  1. When tempers flair, people look for ways to build bridges.
  2. Restate strong, toxic statements to clarify meaning in a respectful manner.
  3. When two people get in a shooting match, a 3rd party steps in to find a 3rd alternative, or capture the best of each perspective.
  4. Rather than sweep issues under the rug, surrounding partners clarify meaning, calm emotions, and introduce respect for differences.
  5. Take a time out when there’s strong differences, and resume to collaborate instead of compete.
  6. Clarify the different points of view and then sleep on it.
  7. Posing good questions to open up thinking and slow down polarization.

From experience, I can say these techniques work in practice.  In fact, they can be surprisingly effective.  Sometimes it’s simply a matter of feeling heard or understood.

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Photo by pasukaru76.


  1. Dialogue, Debate, and Discussion — great topic! I love how they are intertwined yet so separate. I’m glad you wrote about this today. It’s something I really enjoyed reading about!

  2. I think what also helps is to put one’s ego to the side. Often when people react negatively to a comment or an idea, is because they either take it personally or they feel threatened on some level. I think the key is to have an open mind and heart or as you so beautifully put it, an open spirit.

    Everybody has some wisdom to offer. In some people it is easy to access and in others, you have to dig deep. 🙂

  3. Adapting to a discussion or changing the discussion is really an art from. I’ve seen people who are skilled at this take a potential volatile situation and turn it into a positive one. They kept the dance going, never giving up until they found a middle ground where both parties could be happy.

    These are skills I’m working on. Sometimes I get too caught up in my own ego, but the more I let go the easier and more productive my interactions become.

  4. hmmm … that’s interesting. Makes me understand why I used to lose debates a lot – I get the other party completely coz I am in dialogue mode 🙂 Now I can switch better.

    How to change your mode to dialogue is easy. How to switch your conversation from one to other is difficult since it involves others as well. Would love to read more on this.

  5. Hi J.D. – This is a nice breakdown of different types of conversation. It’s funny – sometimes I’m talking to someone and it starts to feel like a competition – probably a “discussion” as has been described above. Nice tips for turning things towards a dialogue. It’s amazing what listening first and talking second can do. 🙂

  6. I like this! If we are consciously aware of what kind of conversation we are having, then we can also change our attitude and conversation-style to make communication more productive.

    I sometimes find it a bit tough to come out of my “work” mode, which involves a LOT of teaching (and sometimes I do get on my soap box) and get back into dialogue. It just depends on how many clients I have in a day. 🙂


  7. @ Positively Present

    Great to hear! I find I’m using it all the time now to know what sort of conversation I’m in.

    @ Nadia

    I agree. It’s really about where you shift your focus. Exploring ideas means focusing on possibility.

    @ Louisa

    Now that you’re aware, I think you’ll be able to master it quickly.

    @ Karl

    I know what you mean. I think the people that are very good at this though are very skilled through practice.

    It might help to know that the earlier you are in an idea stage, the more attached you naturally are. The longer you perculate an idea, the easier it is to detach your ego.

    @ Avani

    It can be tough and sometimes the best you can do is pave the way. If the other person feels heard, such as you replay back what you hear, then it’s easier for them to let go vs. stick to their point. You can then ask “what if” questions to open doors. Really, the best you can do is use effective questions. Questions change focus.

    @ Amanda

    You framed it very well with listen first, talk second. It’s such a simple technique, but you can see it work in so many scenarios day to day.

    @ Andrea

    Absolutely. Just knowing is more than half the battle.

    The most effective way I’ve found for switching modes is switching questions. If I find myself sticking to a point, then I ask myself “what’s the opposite” or “what else might be true” or “how might that be true.” This leads to a follow up question, which is, if that were true, what assumptions would be true. It’s like switching to an explorer’s hat.

  8. JD,

    I love the systematic way your mind works – breaking things down and showing the differences between them. Debate can be fun but exhausting when egos spiral out of control. My favourite is dialogue, though a good discussion can be very stimulating and this happens on your blog a lot!

  9. @ Daphne

    Thank you. It looks like you’ve picked up the vocabulary and distinctions already 🙂

    I’ve found a lot of power in reading a situation. If you know the situation you’re in, it’s a lot easier to know what to expect or change direction as needed. It’s like having a map you trust vs. feeling lost.

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