In comparison to debate (with primary aspirations towards winning rational arguments to achieve consensus or majority vote) and deliberation (with primary aspirations towards solving problems through consensus by examining all perspectives) and conflict resolution (with primary aspirations towards cessation of disagreement and achieving reconciliation), dialogue has a unique aim.  Rather than trying to convince or proselytize or resolve a conflict, the (primary) goal of dialogue is to understand more deeply other perspectives. 

Rather than being “opponents who seek to expose the weaknesses in each other’s arguments,” dialogue participants engage in a conversation that starts with the assumption, as Thomas Schwandt describes it, “that the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding."  "The initial task," he adds, "is to grasp the other’s position in the strongest possible light.”

Many see attempts at dialogue as weak or soft or worthless - ‘what’s the point’?  Others see them as dangerous (risks for deceit) or disingenuous (attempts at conversion). While it’s true that dialogue holds the risks of learning something more, practitioners of dialogue find it a robust and trustworthy method of exploring and deepening both insight and relationship.  

Perhaps the biggest difference in meaning involves what ‘counts’ as dialogue (even the Syrian President calls for “dialogue” these days).  Within the field of dialogue and deliberation (in a sense an expert stance) genuine dialogue must entail the bilateral, free and un-manipulated engagement of at least two persons, two unique perspectives and ultimately two distinct agendas. The moment a space becomes, in actuality, a site for unilateral, instrumental and manipulated engagement, it arguably ceases to be “dialogue.”  As Paulo Freire (1970) said, “Dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants” (p. 70).  This clarity is often lost on journalists, political leaders, etc.

Dialog Tips: 

Reflective Structured Dialogue: A Dialogic Approach to Peacebuilding (2015) 76-page dialogue guide from Public Conversations Project (Essential Partners)


Jacob Hess, Randall Paul

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