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Is "debate" or "conversation" the most useful form of public discourse?



by Alan Stewart

Someone once quoted "a venerable philosopher" as saying, "It
is through the clash of differing opinions that the light of truth shines."

I suggest that this is one of the most dangerous blind spots of western culture.

This is that the term 'debate' in common parlance has subtle and profound
consequences that are generally underestimated. While debate brings rigor to
analysis, it is essentially confrontational. Talking of debate can be
misleading and counterproductive - part of the problem - when there is a
need to build ideas and to seek creative solutions interdependently.

For by its very nature a debate is a contest, a game, with winners and
losers defined by who is right and who is wrong. Inviting people to
contribute to a debate is to set up adversarial positions which are attacked
and defended. When this happens the aggressive and antagonist models of
interaction which apply in most 'advanced' democracies are inevitably set in
train. This often means no agreement or consensus, no positive 'next moves',
and consequently no progress. And no 'light of truth!'

Inevitably the use of the term 'debate' carries with it the seeds of loss of
energy and goodwill and spirit to the whole system. Witness the process of
so many election 'races' in the US!

The alternative?  To converse, rather than debate.

When people gather to converse there is a totally different spirit
released - a spirit of listening with attention and of latent creativity.
Now the purpose is to build ideas together, acknowledging and honoring
difference of opinion.

When we argue or debate, we actually seek to block the other's contribution
and limit potential solutions or suggestions, limiting world consciousness.
Every time we converse, talk openly with another human being, a
third-joint-level of consciousness is created, from the best of both of us.

The word 'converse' is not widely used in everyday parlance - yet! It
derives from the Latin con versare - to turn or to dance together. Two well
established processes in which participants do converse help people to move
to common ground through care-full listening and a sense of 'We're in this together.'
Open Space Technology (see and World Café (
both engender respect among all who participate, release passion and
responsibility, and lead to widespread ownership of outcomes. Both are
likely rediscoveries of what happened around ancient campfires.

Persuasion and agreement are irrelevant when people converse, as are right
and wrong, and the more the diversity of opinion the greater the likely
emergence of imaginative solutions. For conversing is the fount of
creativity, respect, trust and goodwill, all of which are prerequisites to
peoples adapting harmoniously to change.

Participants in a conversation come to appreciate that all have something to
contribute to building a more accurate picture of reality and building a
good solution. In this context people who disagree with us need to be very
carefully listened to because their critiques help us see things we might
otherwise miss. Keeping the spirit of mutuality and respect alive as we
converse about our different views, then, is the way of allowing all the
differences -- which are valuable to creating the best thinking -- to come
to the surface and be carefully considered. When the people who disagree are
finally satisfied, then we know we have something that everyone can
participate in building.

In my experience people come to a conversation with an open mind and with a
sense of wanting it to succeed. Knowing this, I believe that democratic
practice at all levels will come to have conversing as its underpinning, not

Pie in the sky? I invite you to see for yourself how very differently people
respond to a forum on a conflicted issue when it is called a conversation rather
than debate.

'Much truth could be revealed and many smoke screens cleared through a
publicly accessible forum on the goals of society' - so long as this forum is based on



"Conversation as the Energiser of New Ways of Being and New Ways of Doing."
In Reworking Tomorrow. The Slim Book. 1998.

"Clues on Conversations." Reworking Tomorrow Magazine. Spring 1999. p 7.

"Conversation rather than debate in public discourse: How to bring non
adversarial approaches into everyday practice." Synopsis of paper presented
at conference on 'Narratives for a New Millennium.' Adelaide, Australia.
February 2000. Published in Reworking Tomorrow Magazine Autumn 2000 pp 9-10.

Alan Stewart
Tel (61 8) 8370 0592 Fax (61 8) 8370 0593
PO Box 6250, Halifax St, Adelaide SA 5000 Australia

See also Educators for Social Responsibility's
comparison between debate and dialogue.