Do You Have a Company Culture of Debate or Dialogue?

26 February 2021 | 4 min read


I have noticed, working with and in organisations for way more than 2 decades now, what difference it makes to the business and work´s atmosphere whether an organisation has more a dialogue or more a debate culture.

Debating has always been very popular, cultivated, and even praised in intellectual circles worldwide. I see the point in sharpening the discourse and challenging each other intellectually to deepen the exploration of a particular subject in a dialectical way. I see the richness of expanding our scope of thinking in a “these”, “antithesis” and “synthesis” logic. I do remember how I enjoyed this kind of university exercise!

I can also see why it might be sometimes useful to have one person stay above the crowd who seems to know better or have some natural selection process based on the survival of the fittest principles.

But I also see the risks in organisations when this approach is predominant, especially when it is misunderstood and loses its exploratory character to become the instrument of strong egos.

Exploration becomes then a conflict. The win-win becomes a win-lose. The focus on the idea of one person becomes the demotivation of the others. I see how brilliant people can be intimidated by powerful personalities (or egos) with certainly the strongest arguments and great eloquence, but maybe or maybe not always with the best approach or the most creative idea. And then, there is the waste of precious collective intelligence.

A debate culture can be useful and rewarding but it can have a toxic side effect in organisations if we don´t pay attention.

I remember the Speakers´corner public debate place when I was living in London. I always found it very entertaining as I find all the political debates in the democratic process interesting and even entertaining. But there has always been a voice inside me that felt uncomfortable with it.

It can’t be the whole story. What if there was another way to talk to each other? A way that is more productive and more rewarding for everybody.

Maybe I am just an idealist, but I strongly believe that for organisations to really flourish in the long run, you need to find a way to use everybody´s intelligence inclusively and safely. And for me, this is what you find in a culture of dialogue.

A dialogue culture is an environment where it is safe to speak. The psychological safety that it conveys creates a space for listening, inspiration, mutual support and collective creativity. Dialogue focuses on how to bring out the best in people for the benefit of all, with the greater result and more well-being.

But how do you know the difference between a debate and a dialogue?

  1. Pay attention to the feeling. Debate and dialogue feel different. If you feel the competition and lots of discomfort in the conversation, you are probably debating. If you have a feeling of belonging and being inspired, you are probably in a dialogue.
  2. A debate closes the scope of potential. A dialogue opens the field of potential.
  3. A debate focuses on separation and uses opposition to highlight differences; it is exclusive. Dialogue tends towards connection and uses inclusion to build on differences.
  4. Debate sees diversity (of culture, communication style, personalities, language, gender etc.. ) as a challenge. Dialogue sees diversity as a richness.
  5. Debate highlights individual performance. Dialogue highlights collective performance.
  6. Debating is like playing chess or tennis. There must be a winner and a loser at the end. Dialoging is like playing rugby with your own team; it is about winning together.
  7. In a debate, you speak when you are already confident. In a dialogue, you get more confident the more you speak.
  8. In a debate, we look for each other´s weak points. In a dialogue, we look for each other´s strengths.
  9. Sometimes a debate is disguised in a heated discussion. Sometimes the dialogue is disguised in a friendly conversation.
  10. Debate develops the art of talking. Dialogue enhances the art of listening.

And how do you foster a culture of dialogue if this is what you want and what you need?
Here are just a few ideas. There are probably many more:

  • Explore where the debate culture might have become “normal” in the organisation and search for the reason. There might be a good reason behind it. It is good to know.
  • Be aware of the communication culture you now want and make it explicit. Talk about it and say why you think it is useful. Maybe more useful than the old way.
  • Keep in mind what culture you want to establish and stop the conversation gently but firmly when it goes in the other direction.
  • Pay attention to the feeling. Your feeling is your guide. If it feels good, you are probably on the right track.
  • Give people who have introvert habits and everybody else more space to think. Allow for moments of silence in the conversation.
  • Cultivate the art of listening.
  • Bring back, everywhere it is possible, the good habit of Synthesis that usually comes after the polarity in the practice of dialectic.
  • Use facilitation techniques (there are plenty) but please, don´t rely solely on techniques. Your posture, your presence, and your common sense are the energy that should drive any method you may want to use.
  • Practice as often as possible until it becomes a new habit and a new culture.

How do you foster a culture of dialogue in your organisation (you probably have noticed by now that this is my preferred approach)? What experience have you had with it that you would like to share?

Enjoy the exploration!

With Love, Drissia / /

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Written by Drissia Schroeder-Hohenwarth

Transformative Coach for Leaders, Teams and Organisations with a fascination for the endless potential of the mind.

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