Discussion vs. Dialogue

As a facilitator, how do you intentionally select between the two  First, we need to understand the difference between them.  Below are two, of many, views on dialogue and discussion.

What do I Know?

What is Dialogue?

David Bohm wrote in his book, On Dialogue, dialogue “will make possible a flow of meaning…out of which may emerge some new understanding…which may not have been in the starting point at all.”  He goes on: “A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue with himself.”

Dialogue requires:

  1. A complete shift in mindset from telling others what you think, to inquiring of them what they think.
  2. A deeper level of listening and a more active approach to demonstrating that you are listening to others.
  3. An ability to penetrate into another’s assumptions and mental maps to uncover the framework that governs their behavior.

What is Discussion?

“Discussion,” Bohm says, “has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion” and “really means to break things up.”  The Latin origin of discuss is “discutere” – to dash or shake apart. Hence, to discuss is to shake apart what others say.

In his freakishly amazing book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge says this of discussion:

In a discussion, opposing views are presented and defended and the team searches for the best view to help make a team decision.  In a discussion, people want their own views to be accepted by the group.  The emphasis is on winning rather than on learning.

In a discussion we break things down, fragment the whole, analyze the pieces, and seek to convince others of our insights. You recognize discussion by its competitive nature. If you are only listening in order to prepare your own counter-arguments, you are involved in a discussion.

Why Should I Care?

If, as a facilitator, you want to help your groups create breakthroughs, deepen learning and make amazing discoveries, you must understand the difference, use them both at the appropriate times and recognize when each is happening so you can make adjustments.

Discussion, or even debate, is often the default method of communicating in groups.  Each side will lob its viewpoint across the table. The other will then repeat its counter-position. You have a sense of positions being smacked back and forth like a puck in a hockey game.

Bottom line, if you are going to be an effective facilitator, you must plan for what you want at each stage of your group dynamic and in each stage of your debrief.

Great, How Can I Use Dialogue and Discussion?

Based upon the two, dialogue appears to be ‘better’ than discussion and as a default, it is.

However, at times, it is very helpful to have the group intentionally break down, break apart and bring out every point before you move into dialogue.  For example, in the beginning of a debrief after an experiential activity, discussion can be very helpful but you, as the facilitator, must move into a dialogue and can do this through the right probing and questioning.

Recognizing Discussion and Dialogue


  • Constant analysis of each other’s point of view.
  • Pointing out errors in what a previous person has said.
  • You see the patience and good will diminishing in the group.
  • Constant interruption of each other.
  • “I don’t think you understand / are listening to what I am saying.”
  • People only listening in order to prepare their own counter-arguments.  You can actually see this – people many times look away and fidget before they speak again, simply waiting their turn.


  • Everyone is involved.
  • People are listening deeply.
  • Few interruptions.
  • The conversation becomes animated.
  • You become eager to add to what someone else has said; but you are listening more than talking.
  • You sense an almost palpable excitement.
  • The conversation is suffused with laughter.
  • The multiple perspectives create a sense of aliveness and possibility.
  • Different viewpoints interest you instead of annoy you.

Using Both Discussion and Dialogue Intentionally in Debriefing

Discussion is a process of analyzing and breaking up and “will not get us far beyond our various points of view.”

In dialogue, people freely and creatively explore issues, listen deeply to each other and suspend their own views in search of the truth.

Build upon the Previous Idea, “Let’s Dialogue”

The primary purpose of dialogue is to enlarge ideas, not to diminish them.  It’s not about winning acceptance of a viewpoint, but exploring every option, setting aside assumptions being willing to accept another’s point of view.

People in dialogue have access to a larger pool of knowledge than any one person enjoys.

A Jazz Improvisation Metaphor

A jazz improvisation is a good metaphor for dialogue. Each musician must build on what the others are already doing. The jazz musician can’t just begin playing his favorite riff. She must listen to what others are playing build on it. The result is something unique — no one person controls the musical direction and the sum is greater than the parts. They improvise and initiate, but always in synchronicity with others.



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