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Socrates taught us about dialogue 2,000 years ago.. In an organizational context, a productive conversation is one where all views are sought out, the reasoning behind these views is made explicit so it can be examined, people truly listen to what others are saying and are open to considering points of view other than their own, and the group moves toward a conclusion which all can support.

Dialogue is the tool par excellence of collaborative intelligence. On the other hand, debate is the tool of individual intelligence. When people engage in debate, they rarely develop their own or the group’s thinking and find it very hard to reach a conclusion they can all support. The following table points out some key distinctions between dialogue and debate:

Assumes that there is one answer and that you have it Assumes many people have parts of the answer
Tries to prove others wrong Tries to work with others to find common understanding
Listens to find flaws and make counter-arguments Listens to understand and find areas of agreement
Defends assumptions as truth Reveals assumptions for examination
Seeks closure around own view Seeks to discover options


Dialogue develops collaborative intelligence because it helps us to fully understand an issue or proposed course of action and builds the commitment of others toward what is decided. People who have been involved in a dialogue feel that they have been heard and valued:

  • They have had a chance to lay their agenda on the table.
  • Just as importantly, they have had a chance to think deeply about the issue, uncovering their underlying assumptions, beliefs, and values and testing to see what data their thinking rests upon.
  • They have had a chance to advocate for a point of view and lay it open to the thoughtful yet supportive scrutiny of others.
  • They have the comfort of knowing that their thinking about an important topic has been done as carefully as possible.

Every time we use dialogue we develop the collaborative intelligence of groups because we:

  • (1) Explore an issue or proposed course of action together;
  • (2) Test our thinking publically;
  • (3) Understand the thinking of others, especially others whose ideas and support we need; and
  • (4) Build common understanding of an issue with a group to increase the chances that the group can work collaboratively to address it.

What would be possible in your team if you would change the conversation from debate to dialogue?