Teachers and professors commonly use debate to teach students critical thinking and argumentation skills, such as researching topics and basing claims on convincing evidences. Developing these crucial skills will serve students well, not only in school but in every arena of life. But complex issues can usually be understood from multiple perspectives, so the agree/disagree mindset that debating at least tacitly promotes won’t be appropriate for all–or even most–complex topics that students will address in college and in the professional workplace. Dialogue, on the other hand, helps students develop the same communication and argumentation skills while also steering students away from an unhealthily narrow and competitive way of thinking.
The Differences Between Debate and Dialogue
According to the National Speech & Debate Association, a debate is a researched argument between two individuals or groups who assume diametrically opposing views on a controversial issue. In a debate, an inherently competitive exchange, the object is to win the argument. Conversely, dialogue is conversation between participants sharing divergent views in order to expand their understandings, claims Daniel Yankelovich, author of “The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation.” In dialogue, an inherently collaborative exchange, the object is to learn from others, not to defeat them.
Debate is Combative
Debaters set out to support their own claims while refuting the opposition, making debates inherently combative. Participants listen critically to counter arguments in order to find justifications for rebuttal. Take the following potential NSDA debate topic: “the ‘right to be forgotten’ from Internet searches ought to be a civil right.” The two counterarguments–agreement and disagreement with the claim–are mutually exclusive. That is, one cannot both agree and disagree with the claim, forcing a battle between debaters to win the argument.
Dialogue is Collaborative
Conversely, partners in dialogue collaborate to learn from different perspectives. The author of 2000’s “Words and Minds: How We Use Language to Think Together,” Neil Mercer, calls dialogue “exploratory talk” because participants explore topics together. Through dialogue, “partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas” and “agreement is sought as a basis for joint progress,” according to Mercer.
Debate encourages conflict whereas dialogue encourages consensus. While debate encourages fragmented and reductionist thinking, dialogue promotes holistic thinking. Debate encourages the hiding of one’s own potentially flawed assumptions, but dialogue encourages partners to reflect on their assumptions and reevaluate them in light of new information. The goal of debate is to provide answers to win arguments whereas the goals of dialogue are to learn through questioning others and to make good use of their diverse contributions, no matter how challenging and complicating those contributions may be.
Examples of the Power of Dialogue
Dialogue can “strengthen personal relationships and [solve] problems,” according to Yankelovich. To illustrate, the author recounts the story of a formerly authoritarian CEO who, by taking a more democratic approach to leadership via dialoguing with his young engineers, managed to staunch a serious bleed-out of talent threatening his company. Yankelovich also cites Mikhail Gorbachev as crediting healthy dialogue with Ronald Regan for fostering “enough trust and mutual understanding” between the two leaders “to begin to reverse the nuclear arms race” of the Cold War era. More recently, Gorbachev warned that the unrest in the Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and the pro-western Ukrainian government, which began in 2014, can only be ended “through resumed dialogue between Russia and the US.”
Scholastic: Think About It: Critical Thinking
About Education: Argumentation
National Speech & Debate Association: What is Speech and Debate?
Daniel Yankelovich; The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation
National Speech & Debate Association: Current Topics
Neil Mercer; Words and Minds: How We Use Language to Think Together
The New York Times: Chapter One of The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation by Daniel Yankelovich
RT: West Should Stop Dragging Ukraine Into NATO – Gorbachev