Debate v Dialogue

by Rev. M. Scott Hughes

Who’s ready to rumble? Some people enjoy a good verbal fight. I am not one of them. I am, however, a huge fan of an engaging conversation. In fact, I’ll take an engaging conversation with someone who has a divergent perspective over a trip to Disney. Clearly, for most people, there is a distinction between a verbal altercation or debate and an extended conversation or dialogue.

Many participants in Courageous Conversation settings have found the differentiation between a debate and dialogue beneficial. The distinction is, perhaps, obvious to some. However, before or during a conversation where anxiety is present, being explicit about the differences can offer reassurances and set the expectations for those involved in the dialogue.

Debate is what is most commonly modeled for us, and it is what we experience most often in our relationships. Political candidates do not have dialogues; they have debates. High schools and colleges might have a debate team or a mock trial club, but none that I know of offers a club for those wanting to hone their skills in dialogue. Families often debate over issues instead of being in dialogue.

Since debate is what we are most familiar with, people often enter discussions with fear or hesitancy, wanting to avoid a potential confrontation. So churches should not be too surprised that many people will not show up for a Bible study about hot topics. People may even skip church if they know the pastor is preaching on a topic that triggers their anxiety. Who can blame them? Too often, in our political debates, we see debaters resorting to such tactics as name calling, attacking minor flaws, failing to address the subject directly, and being unwilling to adjust their opinions. Why subject ourselves to something similar in a church setting? The place we go for comfort and affirmation?

On the other hand, learning to be a good debater offers useful skills of learning logic and discerning weaknesses and flaws in arguments. There’s a reason for debate teams. Debating skills help us to be more logically consistent and more methodological in articulating our thoughts. And also, who doesn’t like to win a debate? A debate, at least formally, has winners and losers. The competition, the attempt to triumph over another and to be justified in your opinions, contributes to a boost in self-esteem. But these sorts of interactions are zero-sum games. If there is a winner, then there is also a clear loser.

Here we begin to see some clear distinctions between debate and dialogues. One of the real downsides of debate is that our daily interactions more often require skills in dialogue. Very few discussions require skills in debating. Additionally, dialogues, unlike debates, don’t aim to have clear winners and losers. In dialogues, part of the goal is furthering the relationship itself.

These are just some of the reasons why learning to have a dialogue is more practical and more fitting of the kingdom. While participants in a debate aim to win, participants in dialogues have a different goal. One of the main goals of a dialogue is to build relationship. Debates often have an end point ­– when a person surrenders or the other person is declared the winner. Dialogues don’t have a clear endpoint because they are fundamentally about sustained relationship. Even when there is recognition that one person has the stronger case, dialogues continue with the belief that ongoing discernment is necessary. Ultimately, there is the recognition that the relationship itself is a greater priority than being right.

Next, while debaters are looking to attack weaknesses in others’ arguments, participants in a dialogue have a different posture. Their posture is about learning. Thus in a dialogue, instead of listening for flaws, we’re looking to gain a richer perspective about the opinions of those we are in dialogue with and about our own positions. While the debater might gain mastery in logic and reasoning, those who are skilled in dialogue are looking to grow relationally and in wisdom.

In debates that I’ve seen, one of the skills appears to be looking confident despite how weak the argument is (for manipulative purposes). This is the opposite of those who are skilled in a dialogue. The posture in a dialogue, instead of projecting self-assurance, is one of curiosity. The posture is one of learning and humility that acknowledges we don’t have all the answers and we need dialogue partners to grow in wisdom.

Finally, while debaters aim to minimize their weaknesses and exploit the weaknesses of their opponents, in dialogue we are free to reveal our assumptions and the assumptions of those with whom we are in dialogue. This is often where real learning happens.

Real learning happens when we question our assumptions and gain a broader perspective on our position and the positions of others. While debaters are constrained toward self-justification, those engaged in true dialogue are free to explore alternatives and imagine new possibilities in collaboration.

Dialogue not only results in greater wisdom, the posture of each of the parties in dialogue is more fitting of the kingdom - a posture of humility. This is not to say debate should never be used. However, debate is not the most practical or the best path toward learning. Courageous Conversations take courage, because dialogue takes courage. It takes courage to sustain relationship through disagreement; it takes courage to be vulnerable enough to expose our assumptions; it takes courage to learn from one another and not  try to ‘win’ the fight. 

The reason I advocate for Courageous Conversations as dialogues for structured learning: they are fitting of the kingdom of God. They occur at the intersection of what people wish they would experience in their relationships in a church (authentic community) and what the church offers (common identity through our baptism) as a learning community. Many people are looking for brave places to dialogue and learn in our culture where partisanship is rampant. Churches can be and should be places where people are willing to listen to and learn from another. Since so many people are hesitant to enter these conversations, leaders must invite and model a better way, a way fitting of the kingdom of God. 


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