Conversation is an umbrella term referring to the many ways people talk with each other:
Conversation con•ver•sa•tion [kon-ver-sey–shuhn] noun
The interchange of thoughts, information etc. by spoken words; oral communication; talk.
A deliberately transactional and neutral definition such as the above doesn’t quite cover the subtleties and different purposes of conversation however.
Three different conversations, three purposes
Imagine a sliding scale of conversation from adversarial and confrontational to a form of communication focused on mutual understanding. At one end we find debate, at the other dialogue, and somewhere in the middle we can see discussion.
Conversation type 1: debate
What comes to mind when you think of the word debate? Jeering MPs in the House of Commons? Memories of school debates and being asked to defend an impossible standpoint?
Debate can be described as a contention in argument or a dispute. The conversationalists in a debate take a position with a view to defend it. It is an adversarial conversation, and opponents make representations to support their argument, aiming to come out on top at the expense of the other.
Conversation type 2: discussion
At first glance discussion looks strikingly similar to a debate: it is a consideration by argument. All parties have a position and offer comments to convince others of its merits. However, there is an important difference. Where the aim of a debate is to win it, the goal of a discussion is to explore and find a solution.
Conversation type 3: dialogue
At the other end of the conversation scale we find dialogue. Dialogue is described by the famous psychologist Edgar Schein as:
a basic process for building common understanding, in that it allows one to see the hidden meanings of words, first by seeing such hidden meanings in our own communication.
This type of conversation does not start with the defense of our own standpoint, but with a readiness to examine it and how exactly we converse. Schein continues:
By letting disagreement go, meanings become clearer, and the group gradually builds a shared set of meanings that make much higher levels of mutual understanding and creative thinking possible. […] In this process, we do not convince each other, but build a common experience base that allows us to learn collectively.
Edgar Schein, On Dialogue, Culture and Organizational Learning, 1993
What Schein is getting at is that by being prepared to let go of our closely held positions we can create a safe space to learn together and find solutions to our problems. To build trust first we have to be aware of our own assumptions and how these shape the way we consider others’ standpoints. The next step is to bravely share what these assumptions are, so that in this conversation we can start going beyond debate and discussion and find sustainable solutions.
Upgrade your conversations
Now, what can you do with all this lovely theory?
Next time when you are talking with someone, listen for the purpose of the conversation for them. Perhaps they will not be moved from their position whatever you have to offer in argument, and the purpose is to ‘beat’ you. If this is not a useful conversation for you, end it, or try to upgrade it.
If the other is more interested in your argument, you have a discussion on your hands. Talk the language of solutions, and you may end up with more than a scoreboard.
If you are ready to take it a step further, share some of your own assumptions and see where the conversation takes you next. Genuine collaboration is a great starting point for innovation.