- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

Distinguishing Debate From Dialogue

Taken from the Public Conversations Project. Permission to Reprint Granted

Debate Dialogue
Pre-meeting communication between sponsors and participants is minimal and largely irrelevant to what follows. Pre-meeting contacts and preparation of   participants are essential elements of the full process.
Participants tend to be leaders known for propounding a carefully crafted position.  The personas displayed in the debate are usually already familiar to the public.  The behavior of the participants tends to conform to stereotypes. Those chosen to participate are not necessarily “outspoken” leaders.  Whoever they are, they speak as individuals whose own unique experiences differ in some respects from others on their “side.”  Their behavior is likely to vary in some degree and along some dimensions from stereotypic images others may hold of them.
The atmosphere is threatening; attacks and interruptions are expected by participants and are usually permitted by moderators. The atmosphere is one of safety; facilitators propose, get agreement on, and enforce clear ground rules to enhance safety and promote respectful exchange.
Participants speak as representatives of groups. Participants speak as individuals, for their own unique experience.
Participants speak to their own constituents and, perhaps, to the undecided middle. Participants speak to each other
Differences within “sides” are denied or minimized. Differences among participants on the same “side” are revealed, as individuals and personal foundations of beliefs and values are explored.
Participants express unswerving commitment to a point of view, approach, or idea. Participants express uncertainties as well as deeply held beliefs.
Participants listen in order to refute the side’s data to expose faulty logic in their arguments.  Questions are asked from a positive of certainty.  These questions are often rhetorical challenges or disguised statements. Participants listen to understand and gain insight into the beliefs and concerns of the others.  Questions are asked from a position of curiosity.
Statements are predictable and offer little new information. New information surfaces.


Success requires simple impassioned statements. Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.
Debates operate within the constraints of the dominant public discourse.  (The discourse defines the problem and the options for resolution.  It assumes that fundamental needs and values are already clearly understood). Participants are encouraged to question the dominant public discourse, that is, to express fundamental needs that may or may not be reflected in the discourse and to explore various options for problem definition and resolution.  Participants may discover inadequacies in the usual language and concepts used in the public debate.