Three Communication Styles – Debate, Discussion, and Dialog

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These are the three main types of conversation that most people at work engage in. Each one has its own structure; underlying assumptions; purpose and goals; strategies; and likely outcomes.

The problem occurs when the conversation styles are unconscious and automatic. For example, most lawyers are trained and paid to be warriors. They have to become unconsciously competent at the skills of debate.

During a chat with a partner in a prestigious law firm, we touched on the subject of interpersonal skills for lawyers. I voiced my professional opinion by saying, “You can be excellent at arguing a point and brilliant at winning a lawsuit. But those skills will not help you build relationships.” He chuckled with me. “That’s what my wife tells me all the time.”

The differences between the three communication styles — Debate, Discussion, and Dialog — may seem subtle, but they have profound consequences in issues of conflict and cooperation.

Debate Style: It has been shown that this is one of the most common unconscious default styles. This one is more closely aligned with the War Metaphor than the other two.

o The content consists of ideas and facts to back up ideas.

o The purpose of a debate is to win — to beat the other side.

o The relationship of the two sides is opponents. The strategy is to attack their ideas or arguments and defend your own arguments by proving superiority.

o The reason for listening to the other side is to uncover weakness, both in their ideas and in their confidence.

o The feeling atmosphere is generally tense and lively.

o The likely outcome is polarization.

People rarely end a debate having persuaded each other to their sides. There are likely to be hurt feelings. If the debate is formal and intentional, the party that lost might feel only disappointment. However, in the workplace, the feelings are likely to be more intense and enduring.

Discussion Style: This is another very common conversation style in many workplaces.

o The purpose of a discussion is to exchange ideas.

o The relationship is as colleagues, acquaintances or friends.

o The strategy is to volley, simultaneously or sequentially, and sometimes explore the ideas further.

o The purpose for talking is to persuade, decide or sometimes to impress and entertain.

o The main reason for listening is to find an opportunity to contribute your ideas.

o The content is mostly ideas, facts and opinions.

o The feeling atmosphere can be mild or lively and sometimes heated, depending on the subject matter.

o The likely outcome is some form of status quo. People usually leave a discussion without deeply changed ideas or beliefs.

A colleague once described a discussion as two people, or groups throwing “idea discuses” at each other like the sport.

Dialogue Style: The least common mode and the most likely to transform conflict into cooperation.

o The purpose of a dialogue is to understand, be understood and connect.

o The relationship is first as people.

o The strategy is to share, inquire, empathized, acknowledge and listen.

o The main reason for listening is to better understand the other person, and to look for both common ground and for interesting differences.

o The content includes feelings, experiences and appropriate personal (not necessarily private) information.

o The feeling atmosphere is usually open, dynamic and eventually a relief.

o The likely outcomes include increased mutual understanding, deeper self-understanding, new, shared meaning and more clarity about the work relationship and the work.

Choose Dialogue Power for Cooperation

Start to observe your co-workers in conversation. Using the criteria presented, practice noticing if they are mostly debating, discussing or engaging in dialogue. Compare the outcomes they are trying to reach with the style of conversation they are using. What do you observe?

Create a conscious plan for an important conversation that is already on your calendar. Or think of an important work relationship that you could improve with a good dialogue.

With the help of a coach or skillful communicator, or your own quiet resources, go through the following checklist to plan your part of a dialogue.

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