What is Authentic Dialogue?

"Authentic dialogue is about shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together. It’s an exchange where people think together to co-create something new. It is the seeking of a greater truth...a shared truth that results from a deeper understanding of ourselves and one another."

Dr. William Isaacs - Founder of the Dialogue Project at MIT and author of "Dialogue and The Art of Thinking Together"

We live in a society that teaches and models debate as the primary means for solving conflicts and making group decisions. In schools there are debate clubs and our politicians have debates on national television.

Debates tend to lead to arguments where “Power-Over” dynamics usually come into play (i.e I have more money or I’m the parent, the manager/boss, the man of the household, etc....so my opinions matter more or I have the final say). Or in some instances, one person in a debate may be really extroverted, charismatic, and/or a quick thinker which all tend to be advantages in a debate-based situation.

In dialogue, people freely explore issues, listen deeply to each other and suspend their own views and assumptions in search of common ground and a collective truth. The purpose of dialogue is to go beyond any one individual's understanding. In dialogue, we are not trying to win...we all win if we are doing it right.

Every personal and professional relationship is unique and always evolving. Through dialogue, you get to co-create relationships in a way where every person’s voice is heard, feels valued, cared for, and feels like a meaningful contributor to the relationship, family, or organization.

Dialogue vs. Debate

  • Dialogue is collaborative: two or more sides work together toward common understanding.
    • Debate is oppositional: two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong.

  • In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal.
    • In debate, winning is the goal.

  • In dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) in order to understand, find meaning and find agreement.
    • In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter its arguments.

  • Dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participants point of view.
    • Debate affirms a participant's own point of view.

  • Dialogue reveals assumptions for re-evaluation.
    • Debate defends assumptions as truth.

  • Dialogue causes introspection on ones own position.
    • Debate causes critique of the other position.

  • Dialogue opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions.
    • Debate defends one's own positions as the best solution and excludes other solutions.

  • Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude: an openness to being wrong and an openness to change.
    • Debate creates a close-minded attitude, a determination to be right.

  • In dialogue, one submits ones best thinking, knowing that other people's reflections will help improve it rather than destroy it.
    • In debate, one submits one's best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right.

  • Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending one's beliefs.
    • Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one's beliefs.

  • In dialogue, one searches for basic agreements.
    • In debate, one searches for glaring differences.

  • In dialogue one searches for strengths in the other positions.
    • In debate one searches for flaws and weaknesses in the other position.

  • Dialogue involves a real concern for the other person and seeks to not alienate or offend.
    • Debate involves a countering of the other position without focusing on feelings or relationship and often belittles or deprecates the other person.

  • Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together they can put them into a workable solution.
    • Debate assumes that there is a right answer and that someone has it.

  • Dialogue remains open-ended.
    • Debate implies a conclusion.

Adapted from a paper prepared by Shelley Berman, which was based on discussions of the Dialogue Group of the Boston Chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR).