Deciding between dialogue and debate

Alternative approaches to processing the differences that arise between people.

lan Hartley is pastor of the Red Deer Seventh-day Adventist Church, Alberta, Canada.

There are two broad divisions in communication style dialogue and debate. Radio and television stations often focus on one of the two. Congregations and cultures also seem to gravitate toward debate or dialogue. The predominant communication style in an organization will, to a large extent, determine the quality of relationships experienced.

What is dialogue and debate?

To dialogue is to listen to the other, to draw the other out, to try and understand another's point of view. Dialogue presumes an interest in what the other has to say. It is thus a sensitive experience in which the listener has the opportunity of walking through an often unknown forest of ideas.

Of course the word "dialogue" implies the speaker and listener exchange roles from time to time. It is a mutual journey, a cooperative venture, a partnership, a marriage of two minds or souls. In true dialogue, it is as if the universe is no longer a vast, cold, empty space but a warm, friendly, inviting place to be. Dialogue is premised on cooperation and mutual respect.

Debate, on the other hand, is concerned with getting my facts, my point of view, my way of seeing transferred into your head. It is not just the presentation of these ideas or views that occurs in debate because this presentation may occur in dialogue too.

What is unique to debate is the force with which the presentation is made. It is assumed in debate that the most forceful presentation wins the day. This means the presenter with the best logic, eloquence, or power of persuasion has the truth.


Dialogue is about relationship, about understanding other people. Dialogue is at the heart of friendship. It is the language of intimacy, the language of lovers. Dialogue affirms and empowers, it seeks to build under standing of the other.

All lasting relationships depend on dialogue for maintenance and extension. Successful families and societies are grounded in dialogue. Dialogue adds value to all involved. It creates a win/win situation. In the postscientific or postmodern society, people work with facts all day long at work and seek meaning outside of facts in relationships, in dialogue.

Business people know that dialogue improves customer relationships. They also know that these relationships are much more important than merely being right. For good business the customer is always right!

There is the classic story of the customer who bought a pair of jeans which turned out to be too short and so he shortened them into cutoffs. The customer then decided the cut offs were not what he wanted and so took the three pieces of "jeans" back for a refund. The store refunded the full price and won a customer forever.


Debate implies confrontation and is energy intensive. To debate is at least to question if not to insult a position the other has taken, and we know it takes 7-12 compliments or affirmations to negate one insult if the relationship is to be preserved.

Debate is adversarial by nature, an attempt to separate truth from error. Most judicial systems depend on debate even though it creates a win/lose situation. Many parliamentary systems are grounded on debate, debate between government and opposition.

There are negative outcomes which can result from a preoccupation with being right. I know of congregational leaders who have had heart attacks at church board meetings or shortly after a precipitated heated debate. I know of two missionaries who came to blows on Communion Sabbath about an issue none of the witnesses of the confrontation can remember now. In South Africa the early evangelists for Adventism used to hire the town hall and advertise a debate over which was the correct day on which to worship. They won most of the debates, as well as only a few converts and a town full of ene mies.

Today, in many quarters, it seems one only has to mention wine and the Bible, the ordination of women, or what constitutes sacred music, and a good debate is in progress. Debaters seem to believe they will be proved right when Jesus comes, and the oth ers will be proved wrong. I remember debates which I have won, while at the same time I have lost what really mattered, the relationships I needed to keep.

We must debate from time to time, truth is as stake, but we need to remember that if we only debate, the results are rejection and isolation. This is the price we must pay for cold debate.

The language of debate is: "You should . . .," "If you would . . .," "It is time you ..."

The differences

It is helpful to list the differences between debate and dialogue:

Debate happens when:

  • I focus on facts or truth.
  • I feel or am responsible for telling truth.
  • I feel it is important to understand truth.
  • I communicate to convince.
  • I argue back and forth on the same point trying to make the point clearer.
  • I am concerned with my views.

Dialogue happens when:

  • I focus on relationships and people
  • I feel or am responsible for loving you.
  • I must try to understand you.
  • I communicate to care for you.
  • I affirm you and care for you, back and forth, for a long time, so my love is clear.
  • I am concerned with your views.

Having said all this, we must also concede that there are some advan tages to debate. Often the energy mustered for debate overcomes apathy and lethargy. However, if no dialogue is established in addition or consequent to the debate, soul communication is missed and we are left either triumphant or depressed. Include debate as part of the dialogue, but only as a part.

Today and tomorrow we must communicate with each other. We can communicate with purpose and we must do so. Life includes the weather, who is ill and who has a new baby, but life is really about how we care for each other and seek to encourage one another on the journey of living.

Debate and dialogue in the Bible

Healthy interpersonal relation ships require at least the desire to understand the feelings and experiences of the other person. The priests in the Old Testament had their ears anointed with blood (Exod. 29:20). They were to develop listening skills and those skills were to have an intimate connection with the blood of Jesus. This was a serious commitment to understanding those who came to speak to them.

Jesus debated with some who would have this way of communication. Perhaps they knew no other way. In His spellbinding conversation with Nicodemus there is debate but it is only an introduction to the most profound dialogue ever recorded.

Jesus' favorite way of communicating was with stories. Stories are just that, accounts of how we experience life, and they are a way for intimate dialogue. In dialogue I unravel my story for you, but in doing so I also unravel my story for myself. When you tell me your story, your story becomes reality for you. This is the power of words in dialogue. Here is the reason we must tell the story of our relationship with Jesus.

In telling our experience of His presence in our lives we confirm and extend the reality and the power of this divine human relationship. There can be no silent Christians any more than there can be silent marriages or silent families. We are created for communication and we find our meaning and fulfillment in dialogue.

Jesus in dialogue with a congregation

Here is an example of Jesus in dialogue with a congregation. He is telling His story and also our story. "He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.'

"Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.' All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. 'Isn't this Joseph's son?' they asked" (Luke 4:16-22, NIV, italics supplied).

As a citizen of the kingdom of God, desire the delight of dialogue above debate. In this way the Spirit of the Lord is upon us too, for His glory and our joy.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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lan Hartley is pastor of the Red Deer Seventh-day Adventist Church, Alberta, Canada.

May 2002

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