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Debate v dialogue

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been the polarisation of opinions. From the United States to Nicaragua, Colombia and India, people at the extremes seem to get farther and farther apart.

Peter Coleman, a psychologist and mediator who was invited by Biden to address the toxic polarisation that America is facing, said that one of the things that is most needed right now is radical listening.

The temptation when the positions are extreme is to engage in debate as a way of addressing the differences intellectually and rationally.

Coleman thinks otherwise:

“Many of us, by default, move into debate. But if your intention is not to move into a competitive, even contentious dynamic because these issues are really important to people and their identity is wrapped up in them, debate is a dangerous path; the alternative is what we call "dialogue". Dialogue is the opposite of debate – it's a space where people can learn and discover things about themselves and others’ life and experience that can help everyone move forward."

Debate is about winning, not about learning. It doesn’t invite empathy, curiosity or openness.

Debate works well when emotions are not at stake, when your sense of belonging and identity is not threatened by the other person’s point of view. That’s why you want a lawyer to represent you in court: they’re in a better position to argue and debate your case than you are, as they aren’t emotionally invested in it.

Outside academia, intellectual scenarios and courts, debate rarely takes place under the right conditions.

It’s a bad idea to start a debate when emotions are high, when people are angry, when there is no trust.

If debate starts with the arguments that divide us, dialogue is centred around experiences that we all share.

Dialogue embraces curiosity and openness, and is the place to start when talking seems impossible.


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