Magazine article Talent Development

The MESS of Discussion and the MAGIC of Dialogue: Discussion and Dialogue Are Not the Same; Understanding That Will Improve How You Communicate with Others

Magazine article Talent Development

The MESS of Discussion and the MAGIC of Dialogue: Discussion and Dialogue Are Not the Same; Understanding That Will Improve How You Communicate with Others

Article excerpt

There is a great deal of misconception about the nature and meaning of the two words in the title of this article. Both are forms of communication, both are relatively common words, and both start with the letter D. While Thesaurus.com does list the two words as synonyms, simply seeing them that way is part of the misconception. Before we can explore the mess of discussion and the magic of dialogue, we must understand the important differences between the two words.

What is discussion?

Let's start with some dictionary definitions.

Merriam-Webster's first definition is "consideration of a question in open and usually informal debate."

Dictionary.com defines it as "an act or instance of discussing; consideration or examination by argument, comment, etc., especially to explore solutions; informal debate."

Both point to the idea of discussion equaling debate.

When you look at the word origin, you find that the word comes from Middle English and the combination of two words: dis- meaning "apart" and quatere meaning "to shake." Quatere also is the origin word for quash, and a significant part of the words percussion and concussion.

While there is certainly a time and place for a lively or healthy debate, I'm guessing you don't want most of your communications to quash others or their ideas, nor do you want them to feel like percussion or a concussion to either one of you.

What is dialogue?

Now let's define dialogue from the same two sources:

From Merriam-Webster: a conversation between two or more persons; an exchange of ideas and opinions; a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution.

And from Dictionary.com: conversation between two or more persons; an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.

The word origin is two Greek words: dia, meaning "through" and logos, meaning "words or meaning." Dialogue, then, could be translated as a flow of meaning. Notice the strong focus here in the definitions on the idea of resolution, without the overtone of debate.

William Issacs, in his book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, takes this one step further: "In the most ancient meaning of the word, logos meant 'to gather together,' and suggested an intimate awareness of the relationships among things in the natural world. In that sense, logos might best be rendered in English as 'relationship.'"

Without getting too deep or too soft, let's think of dialogue as a process that allows us to "think together."

Why the difference matters

Why am I reaching back to Greek and Middle English in a contemporary article for leaders and talent development professionals? Because too much of our communication, especially oral communication, isn't working nearly as well as it could.

If you are like me, the "aha" that comes from seeing the underlying meanings of the two words coupled with the reflection on which of these two communication methods we use most frequently is jarring and profoundly helpful.

We are discussing our way into a mess, when dialogue might hold the answers to better decisions, stronger relationships, clearer communication, and better results.

The mess of discussion

Turn on any news channel on your TV. Almost always when there is a split screen--and, even more disheartening, sometimes in the studio--we see discussion at its worst. People who try to quash each other, talk over each other, and pound the other person into submission take debate to new lows, reinforcing through repetition this dangerous form of communication.

Discussion, when seen through that lens, is clearly a mess. And while you may say that the conversations you have at work don't operate like that, how many conversations at work feel a lot like a percussion drum line:

I talk, you talk. … 
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