Monday, October 12, 2015

Dialogue -v- Discussion

I used to use the words dialogue and discussion interchangeably, but since sitting in on a Responsive Classroom session last month I've realized that they are actually two very different things. Dialogue is simply about understanding others' viewpoints, whereas discussion involves critical thinking in order to come to a decision. Let's consider these in more detail.

This is where members of a group or team inquire into their own and others beliefs and values, and as such listening - in particular listening to your own inner voice - is as important as speaking.  It's important that in dialogue ideas are able to flow without judgment.  When we start a dialogue we need to be able to "listen to our listening".  We need to check that we are not running though our own personal anecdotes in order to compose a reply, but instead listening to others and then deciding what the best course of action is. This could involve paraphrasing in order to check that everyone has the same understanding, asking a question to inquire further into the ideas of others, or putting a new idea on the table to widen the dialogue.

Dialogue is not about decision making.  Often poor decisions are made when there is not enough dialogue to build understanding, but instead a rush to action which leads to conflict. Misunderstanding is at the bottom of most group conflict, so going slowly during dialogue, can mean that when it's time to discuss and make a decision things can go quickly.   Dialogue, in fact, can and should produce "productive tension" - if we are not comfortable with this then we lose the opportunities to learn.

This is much more focused on proposed actions and solutions.  Often discussion is ineffective as it is simply a sharing of ideas without inquiring into the thinking and proposals of other team members. Sometimes decisions are made through voting or trying to come up with consensus, but without prior dialogue these decisions can be low quality and simply represent the ideas of the most vocal people in the group.  These decisions are not ones that the group as a whole has committed to, and therefore often don't stay made.  In a skilled discussion the focus is on one topic at a time, and the group is also committed to one process at a time.  The group facilitator needs to provide a clear structure and to keep everyone on track.  Effective group members are responsible for sharing knowledge and ideas and listening out for areas of confusion.  A discussion should not degenerate into a debate, where people take sides and challenge others, instead it should be a place where ideas are generated, organized, analyzed and a decision made considering the alternatives.  Some ideas will need to be eliminated so that stronger ideas can be decided upon.  It's important that these decisions are based on the ideas, not the individuals proposing the ideas - the group must collectively own the ideas and then shape them.

Understanding the difference between a dialogue and a discussion has already impacted my role in the various meetings I've attended over the past couple of weeks, as I've been trying to put my learning into practice.

Photo Credit: Marc Wathieu via Compfight cc

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