Difference Between Dialogue, Discussion, & Debate

Many of us know, but might not actualize, the fact that discussion, dialogue, and debate are three different modes of communication. This is significant because in our attempts to hold course discussions, we might be encouraging debate while hoping for dialogue. It is important that you are clear with yourself, and then with your students, which of these you are intending an activity to produce. Sustained Dialogue Institute (based on the work of Kardin and Sevig, Kachwaha, and Nissan) developed an overview of the difference between Debate, Discussion, and Dialogue. 

It is important to note, that there is space for all of these methods of conversation/communication in the classroom – but you have to be intentional. It can be disastrous if a method takes hold during an activity that you did not intend, or worse – all three methods take place. For example, imagine that some of your students are trying to build community through dialogue, while other students are working towards scholarly neutrality and still others think that the group is having a debate. It is important for your students that you are intentional and transparent on what method of conversation/communication to occur in your respective activities.

Here is a bit about each method:


  • Competitive – focus on succeeding and winning, proving others’ logic “wrong”
  • Focus on “right” and “wrong” through evidence
  • Looking for weaknesses, searching for flaws in others’ logic – critique their position
  • Listening is used to form counterarguments
  • Focus on conflict and difference as an advantage
  • Disregard relationships
  • Using silence to gain an advantage


  • Conceptual and/or conversational – present ideas, often in “clean” or “sophisticated” ways
  • Aim to share information – seeking to staying “neutral” in conclusions
  • Seek answers and solutions
  • Give answers, often those in accordance with academic standards – “What do our readings say?”
  • Listening is used to find places of disagreement or to gather rational pieces of argument
  • Avoid areas of strong conflict and difference
  • Retain relationships
  • Avoid silence


  • Collaborative, towards a sense of community understanding
  • Aim to re-evaluate and acknowledge assumptions and biases
  • Bring out areas of ambivalence
  • Look for shared meaning¬†
  • Discover collective meaning; re-examine and destabilized long-held ideas
  • Listening without judgement and with a view to understand
  • Building relationships
  • Honor silence