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9 Communication Skills Tips to Enter into Dialogue Instead of Debate

Posted on September 8, 2011 by Luanne Paynick

bighorn sheep

In the United States, it’s often assumed that debate is the best way to settle disputes. In a debate, the objective is to win. Courtroom lawyers argue for opposing sides, and at the end of the trial one wins and one loses. In Congress, nonstop debates all too often end in stalemate. Political candidates search for ways to win by disagreement. Talk shows take debate to a new low—dissolving into bickering and character assassination in vain attempts to prove a point.

Even in business, you’ll see the debate method in action—with parties arguing for their own point of view, each person needing to be right . . . to look good . . . to win the day. They are silent, not to listen but only to wait until it’s time for them to state their case again.

Is it Better to Debate or Communicate?

But is debate really the best way to reach agreement and solve problems? More and more, the answer is a resounding NO! Today’s problems—at the corporate level, nationally, and in our own lives—are so vast and complex, that backing the other guy into a corner in order to win is a colossal waste of time. The win-lose method of solving problems leaves casualties on both sides, resulting in:

  • Misused resources,
  • Work that misses the mark,
  • Unintended consequences,
  • A cross-functional ripple effect that has a negative effect on everyone.

I believe it’s time to put aside our adversarial methods of resolving differences and consider a different method . . . Dialogue. Dialogue is the open and frank interchange of ideas in order to achieve mutual understanding or harmony. It’s an incredibly effective method whereby you explore alternative points of view with an open mind. You influence others, yet remain open to being influenced. In a debate, the other person is positioned as the enemy, but in Dialogue, he or she is a collaborative partner.

Here is a brief review of the steps required to enter into Dialogue, either with an individual or with a group.

  1. Provide accurate and complete information, including feelings that bear upon the issue.
  2. Use reasoned arguments to advocate your own position, not just opinions.
  3. Invite others to critique your reasoning.
  4. Inquire into others’ reasoning when it differs from your own.
  5. Voice the other person’s point of view.
  6. Confirm others’ personal competence when disagreeing with their ideas.
  7. Regard all assertions as hypotheses to be tested.
  8. Design ways to test competing viewpoints.
  9. Be willing to change or adjust your position when others offer convincing data and rationale.

Note that throughout the Dialogue, you are showing respect for the other person, yet insisting that the ideas of all parties, including your own, are tested for validity. The goal is to find the best possible solution, not to be right or to disparage anyone else.

One criticism of Dialogue is that it takes too much time. It is true that providing accurate and complete information may take some homework and the testing of hypotheses will need follow-up. But if undertaken in the appropriate spirit, Dialogue can take less time than a formal debate. And the results are much, much better. All parties are happier with the solutions and there are fewer surprises down the line.

What does it take to become proficient in Dialogue? A number of skills are involved, including interpersonal communication skills, listening, and the ability to advocate effectively for one’s cause. Respect and courtesy toward all other parties is a must.

So take off your debating hat and set aside your need to win. Join the real problem solvers of the world in Dialogue. It’s effective, it’s resourceful, and it can elicit astonishing results.

For more information…

Image by Daryl L. Hunter - The Hole Picture

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