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Dialogue and debate: two ways of communicating

In this article, Paddy Upton discusses the difference between debate and dialogue.
Infographic o fthe Debate vs dialogue perspectives see the related files for an accessible PDF version.
© Deakin University

Key statement: You can fight to win and one of you wins, or you can work together to win and both of you win.

In order to advance from storming to norming, conflict needs to be successfully navigated: from ‘you vs me’ to ‘us vs the problem’.

A useful way of framing this is to differentiate between ‘debate’ and ‘dialogue’, illustrated above.

The way you communicate with your team will determine the ways athletes communicate with each other and with you as the coach, and will help establish the culture of the team.

While there are more than two ways to communicate, many coaches have either a debate or dialogue mindset.

Debate mindset

A debate mindset tends to see communication as a one-way process. The coach tells athletes what they know and defends their own point of view. The aim of debate is to win and so debaters will work towards convincing others of their point or argument and tend not to budge in their thinking.

Dialogue mindset

A dialogue mindset sees communication as a two-way process: listening to others and seeking to understand others’ ideas and perspectives is just as important as talking about their own.

The coach who takes a dialogic approach doesn’t see communication as win-lose and so doesn’t feel the need to defend their own ideas or perspectives, rather they are keen to learn from others and curious about others way of thinking and being in the world.

Practical steps

Consider explicitly naming up the debate and dialogue mindsets and at the beginning of team meetings write this up whenever the team needs to address a sensitive topic.

Knowing find out
Win-lose share
Unequal equal
Power respect
Prove a point listen
Justify inquire
Persuade, tell, sell learn through disclosure
Distinctions and differences connections and relationships
Break problems into parts see whole that encompasses the parts
Choose one meaning amongst many create shared meaning among many

Ask team members to monitor the conversation and do what they can to ensure it remains in ‘dialogue’ mode, which gives the best chance of successfully navigating conflict. This happens naturally in ‘performing’ teams.

Your task

Do you tend to have a debate or dialogue mindset? Where specifically might you be stuck in a debate mindset and what would the corresponding and more effective dialogue mindset be?

As coach, in communication with your team, where is your immediate growth point?

See also

If you’re interested in learning more about types of conversation, these resources might be of interest:


Belden-Charles, G. (2018). The 3Ds: Debate, discussion, dialogue. Minnesota Women’s Press. Retrieved March 26, 2018 from
Angel, DW 2016, ‘The Four Types of Conversations: Debate, Dialogue, Discourse, and Diatribe’, Medium, accessed March 122, 2018, from
Straker D., (n.d), ‘Types of Conversation’,, accessed March 14, 2018, from
© Deakin University
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