For many, this word has a uniformly negative connotation of conflict involving hostility and animosity - in part, perhaps, due to the debate examples that seem to increasingly (more and more uniformly) reflect these qualities. Indeed, it’s common to hear this word used in reference to any engagement between individuals in sharp disagreements where they don’t listen to each other seriously.  

In reality, there are meaningful distinctions between different kinds of engagement between disagreeing parties. Whereas dialogue refers to conversation with a primary aim to seek understanding and deliberation a conversation with a primary aim of problem-solving, debate refers to a formal procedure whereby parties aim to win agreement from observers by rational arguments and evidence with rhetorical skill.    

From another perspective, all forms of communication include some element of persuasion to change--be it as simple as ‘notice and respect me as a person’ or ‘take time to understand me and my beliefs.’  Debate explicitly aims for persuading rational opinions--head work.  Rather than a negative thing, the tradition of healthy and vibrant debate is arguably (!) a necessary tool for coming to practical decisions in any pluralistic society.

However, there is another form of persuasive communication that aims to change the heart as well as the mind (see CONTESTATION).  



-Have you ever participated in a debate you enjoyed - or found productive?  


Randall Paul

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