Forms of conversation
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Forms of conversation
Bernard le Roux
There is a tendency to refer to all forms of conversation as dialogue. This could create misunderstanding. So, we make a distinction between different forms of conversation without valuing one above the other. These are:
informing, consulting, discussing, debating and dialogue.
Each of these forms of conversation can be useful in a particular situation. For example, dialogue is not more noble than consultation. Those of you who have seen Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of influence might recognise some of the categories. We prefer to keep levels of influence separate from the type of conversation and think more in terms of the nature of the conversation itself. Our thinking here is inspired by William Isaacs.
Gathering a group to inform them of some new plan, vision or some other kind of decision can hardly be called a conversation. It can be viewed as a form of monologue or one-way communication. Such gatherings often include time for questions. The aim is to inform others and the attitude behind this kind of meeting sounds like this: “We would like you to know or understand something”. The flow of information is from the decision-maker to the audience or participants and questions are generally for clarification. This kind of meeting is also often combined with the next conversation type: consulting.
In Sweden, public meetings aimed at informing are often referred to as “public dialogue meetings”. When the issue is infected or contentious, the questions during question time are seldom questions, but rather statements of protest. I remember being given an impossible assignment to moderate such a meeting. After a long protest by an angry participant, I asked him what his question was. He answered: “Okay, here it is: are you guys crazy?”
This is a conversation where somebody – often somebody in a power position – wants to know what others think. It could be a boss who calls in an employee or a team and asks them for their opinion on a certain decision. In the public sphere, these meetings are common and involve the authority asking citizen stakeholders for their input in a decision. The flow of information is from the participants to the decision-maker. It is an act of listening rather than a dialogue. It can be very useful if ideas need to be gathered or new perspectives on a problem are explored.
This form of conversation is also sometimes referred to as “dialogue”. The decision-maker says: “I will have a dialogue with the affected parties and then make my decision” but actually means “I will listen to the affected parties and then make my decision”. Whether or not the decision-maker listens to those he is consulting is another question altogether. All too often decision-makers use consultations as a way of saying that stakeholders were included in the decision: a form of window dressing or decoration.
Even where information and consultation are combined, the conversation still is not necessarily a dialogue.
However, any conversation can develop into a dialogue and that possibility needs to be considered in advance when determining the objective of the meeting. In some cases, authorities wish only to inform or consult and do not want dialogue to occur. Large gatherings are also not conducive to a deeper form of dialogue, and it is, therefore, good to communicate clearly about the nature and intention of the meeting.
Discussion and Debate
These two forms of conversation are related. They have in common that two parties speak to each other from different positions and try to convince the other that their position is right, better, or more correct. Discussion is a lighter and more informal version of the often more formal debate. Whilst there is a flow of meaning in both directions, the main aim of such a conversation is to convince or to prove the superiority of one’s argument.
The discussion or debate is a kind of battle of words. There is generally no attempt at meeting half way or finding common ground, but rather a sense of trying to get the other party to see that their argument does not hold. When politicians debate with each other, they do so to convince voters of the correctness of their political position. These forms of conversation should not be confused with dialogue.
Dialogue occurs when the parties relinquish their position – even only temporarily – with the purpose of viewing the issue from the other’s vantage point. Instead of holding onto one’s point of view and arguing for it against the other, one moves (symbolically) over to the side of the other so as to better understand how they see (and even feel about) a given issue.
This “shift” may occur during a conversation, or it might be present from the start. It may also happen that a dialogue degenerates into position-taking and to perspectives becoming fixed. As soon as positions become fixed the conversation shifts from being dialogue into discussion or debate.
We generally distinguish between two different forms of dialogue.
- Exploratory dialogue is a way of delving deeper into an issue to understand causes and effects and to explore underlying emotions. It generally precedes the next form of dialogue.
- Generative dialogue is a conversation in which the potential in a particular situation is explored. Sometimes, a generative dialogue emerges from an exploratory dialogue – as a natural progression. Remaining with an issue with the intention of understanding it more deeply may well result in the potential for change and transformation arising of itself.
One may argue that it is unnecessary to distinguish and name these two forms of dialogue. In the text “A Process Logic” we however find it useful to see this as a progression in conversations or even longer dialogue or collaboration processes. A shift in emphasis occurs as one moves from exploration to “listening for” or seeking potential together.
Questions for reflection
• Is dialogue possible on Facebook or Whatsapp? When does it shift from dialogue to debate? How can we turn debate into dialogue on social media?
• Which of the forms of conversation are you most likely to facilitate? Do you feel that the form suits the purpose of the conversation?
• How might you deal with strong emotions that are expressed at a meeting you are facilitating or moderating? Have the responses you have used or seen others using helpful? In which way?