We are living through a revolution. Historically, pivotal transitions and shifts in global awareness and understanding are accompanied by a large outpouring of divisive arguments and hate speech both on the internet and in daily conversations.
As difficult conversations become more and more public — which we believe is a great sign of progress — real dialogue is necessary and rare. As cancel culture becomes more and more normalized, the “us vs. them” mentality that arises during crisis takes deeper hold.
The only way to act with integrity in the face of a difficult conversation is to approach it as a dialogue. Instead, most of what we are seeing on social media and the news is an example of a discussion or a debate.
So, what’s the difference, and why does it matter?
The root of the word debate is found in the Old French “dis-battere” which translates to “to fight”. In a debate, participants come prepared to argue a position or defend their position from being defeated. There is a clear winner and loser, usually decided by an audience or judges who use metrics such as persuasiveness and charisma. Debates are inherently “me vs. you”, and the goal of a debate is to be right, and to win.
A discussion is the action or process of talking about something in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas. A discussion is often had in classrooms, or in situations where something specific is being analyzed from a seemingly objective point of view. Participants come to a discussion with the goal to share their view or opinion on something, and usually already have a fixed or pre-determined view on the subject they are ready to express.
A dialogue is a discussion between two or more people or groups, especially one directed towards exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem. Participants come to a dialogue ready to listen, and the goal is to find resolution and common ground. During a dialogue, participants share their personal experiences and approach the conversation willing to be changed by what they learn.
If we really want to build a more equitable future for all living beings — regardless of their color, class, country, creed or culture — then we need to learn how to have dialogue with people whose views or experiences contradict our own, trigger us, or that we disagree with.
If our goal is to restore justice in the face of injustice, we need to behave justly ourselves, and be the example. We will not achieve this goal by punishing one another and elevating our own righteousness. We can only achieve it by being willing to see where the other is coming from, and seeing eye to eye.
We can’t cancel each other.
As the proverb wisely goes,
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Katya Stepanov is the co-founder + CEO of Inheritance Project. Katya is a facilitator, speaker, writer, director, actor, and immersive experience designer who trains and works with leaders, individuals and organizations to build understanding across cultural divides and guide authentic social change. She has designed and facilitated team building events for over 60 companies across sectors including Linked In, HBO, NBC, Lockheed Martin, J&J, and Spotify. Her mission is to connect people across divides through collaboration and storytelling, and create containers for transformation and belonging.