Positive Psychology – dialogue & debate

Difference between dialogue and debate

This is the ninth in a series of blogs/newsletters about the courses, teachers and books that have inspired me in the past ten years.

Our view of the world is imperfect
This week I’m continuing to explore the idea the idea that our perception of reality is narrow and imperfect.  As I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, explains how limited our perception is:

 “We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us. Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening. There are so many examples of this such as optical illusions and false recall by eye witnesses . Illusions demonstrate that these really simple things that you think are going on in front of you are not actually representing physical reality but instead your brain is constructing something.”

Recognizing this limited view is an important step in recognising that the truth of reality can only emerge through dialogue. David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt : the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there. In yoga this imperfect view is described as Avidya (basically ignorance).This umwelt creates a belief that our view is the correct one and also an arrogance about our abilities compared to others.  Part of yoga training is to start to understand this veil of ignorance.  Our brains can never be equipped to understand the universe and that it is only through dialogue between people, between communities and between humans and the rest of the natural world that something approximating to a higher truth can emerge. Yoga training also teaches us to be confident about our place in the world and to play to our strengths whilst also developing humility ie. we need to be humble because our singular view of the universe will by definition be imperfect

How to explore a more perfect truth through dialogue
Take a look around the people at work and spend some time listening to what they say and what you are saying.  Begin to start analysing conversations and decide whether conversational exchanges are debating (ie. arguing a case to support a particular view of the world) or dialogue (ie. developing and exploring someone else’s ideas).

We find that many conversations are defensive in nature where we seek to find evidence to bolster our world view and we also align our world view with our sense of confidence and position in the world.  Authentic leaders have the ability to separate their feelings of confidence with the dialogue that unfolds around them.  They listen to emerging truths and don’t hold rigidly to a set world view.  Allowing ourselves to accept that others have difference insights (and sometimes greater knowledge) can be unsettling.  It requires great courage and real internal confidence to listen to others even when they might be in more socially junior positions to us.

Over the next few weeks at work listen to others and what you are saying and ask yourself whether ideas are being created or positions bolstered. To help with this process these may be some of the differences between dialogue and debate:

The conditions for good dialogue at work:

The group is welcoming, everyone matters and is included, being ‘in dialogue’ is celebrated, participants are attentive to the physical environment.

There are many ways to contribute, no one is compelled to talk and each kind of contribution impacts on the group. Each person’s contribution is acknowledged.

Paying attention at many levels, of what is said, how it is said, how it relates to what has already been said. Attention must also be paid to what is not said.  Mindfulness is also about an awareness of the discussion as a whole and how well it is addressing the issues being explored.

No one person’s knowledge and understanding are total.  Participants accept that there is always more to learn and the group’s collective wisdom benefits each individual.
Humility demands deep listening; humble participants listen at three levels, to self, to others and to the group for shared learning.

The more each person is free to contribute the more everyone else profits.  Mutuality also suggests a commitment to inquiry, raising questions to foster individual and collective understanding.

This refers to the willingness of participants to explore issues as fully as possible, offering arguments and counter arguments.  Deliberations obliges us to take strong, well substantiated stands unless there are good reasons not to.

Taking the time to acknowledge a useful insight or contribution.  The opportunity to discuss difficult issues is life-enhancing and so we should seize opportunities to express gratitude to others as part of that.

Hope is a mainstay of good dialogue.  It assumes that good can come of people taking the time to discuss important issues.  It affirms our collective capacity to use dialogue to envision new possibilities and act towards the common good.

We have a responsibility to stand up for what we believe.  It doesn’t negate the value of learning from and with the group, but there are times when we feel we must defy the group and go our own way.  The importance of autonomy reinforces the idea that groups are strongest when individuals are affirmed and allowed to voice their views.

Dialogue vs Debate

common meaning

listen for meaning

enlarge and change

complicates issues


stresses skills of synthesis

multiple perspectives

temporary suspension of belief

everyone part of the problem

mutual learning

open minded















listen for flaws

affirms own views

simplifies issues


stresses skills of analysis


invest wholeheartedly in own belief

one solution wins


final answer


Posted on May 9, 2012, in Coaching, Meditation etc., positive psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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