Conversation types

Dialogue is used interchangeably for many types of conversation. This may be confusing. We refer to spoken interaction as ‘conversation’ of which dialogue is one of many forms. Other commonly used forms are debate, discussion and deliberation. Let’s briefly clarify these forms and give examples. Important to realise: dialogue and deliberation are not always the most appropriate form of conversation to use.

Dialogue Deliberation Debate Discussion
Most useful when: Multiple stakeholders with diverging stakes, interests, assumptions and perspectives. In situations that don’t have single bullet solutions; when you have to operate in an unpredictable, uncontrollable and constantly changing context A decision or criteria for a decision, about the best way(s) to approach an issue or problem is needed. A position or course of action is being advocated and winning is the goal People want to talk together about something without desiring any particular outcome from the conversation.
Attitude towards differences Dialogue is collaborative: two or more sides work together towards shared understanding. Deliberation emphasizes the importance of examining options and trade-offs to make better decisions. Debate is oppositional: two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong Discussion analyses the different points of view through open and informal exchange.
Attitude towards ‘truth’ finding In a dialogue there is no right or wrong, neither is there a single universal truth to be found. The point is to understand each other and use that as a basis for further collaboration. Deliberation is about exploring the right course(s) of action. Debate assumes that there is a right answer and that someone has it. -
Identity, status, power In dialogue explicit attention for (differences in) identity and status is common. Exploring (differences in) experiences and identities are a key element of the conversation. - Debates often assume an “equal playing field” with little or no attention to identity, status and power Discussions often assume an “equal playing field” with little or no attention to identity, status and power.
Self-orientation In dialogue, one submits one’s best thinking, knowing that other peoples’ reflections will help improve it rather than destroy it. In deliberation people explore what’s important to them and others by asking questions. Deliberation presents assumptions for re-evaluation. In deliberation, personal experience is measured against that of the group as a whole and subject to consensus. In debate, one submits one’s best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right. Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one’s beliefs. Debate defends assumptions as truth. Discussions are often conducted with the primary goal of increasing clarity and understanding of the issue with the assumption that we are working with a stable reality.
Other-orientation In dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) in order to understand, find meaning, and points of connection. In deliberation, one listens in order to reach a consensus. In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter its arguments. In discussion, one listens only to be able to insert one’s own perspective.