“One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever”
-Linda Lambert


Conversation may be the most important skill for leadership success. Some would argue that Leadership is a conversation. If that’s the case, and I think it is, then it would behoove us to understand just what conversation is.

Is it discussion, dialogue, or is it debate? There are clear differences for each, and they all have value as conversation. However, knowing when, where and how to use each is the key to making them most effective. Let’s start by defining them:

Discussion – the process of exchanging information e.g., facts, feelings, data, ideas, suggestions, etc. The purpose of discussion is to surface information. In practice, discussion sounds like: Can you tell me more? Where can we get more data? What suggestions do you have?

Dialogue – the process of learning, understanding, and sharing information, directed toward the exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem. Dialogue sounds like: discussion, plus … Is it true? How do you know it’s true? Help me understand what leads you to believe that’s true? Does everyone understand? What are we missing here? We need to hear from everyone.

Debate – a structured process on a particular topic in which opposing arguments are presented and advocated for. Debate sounds like: dialogue, plus … Here are the facts, findings, conclusions and alternatives that support this proposal. Is this information clear? What other conclusions can we draw? Are there better alternatives? Can you see how this will work? This is why we believe this decision is best. Are we missing anything? What is your point of view? Do you understand my point of view?

As you can see, all are useful and overlap, and some may be effective in one situation but not another. Also, experience reveals that each have pros and cons, with people frequently defaulting to a favorite process based on their personal working style and the culture of their group. For example, easy going styles and cultures often prefer discussion, team-based orientations might prefer dialogue, and hard-charging innovators may prefer debate. The savvy leader knows that the more difficult a problem or strategy decision is, the more important it is to integrate all three approaches. Leaving out key information and insights – or people – due to a myopic focus on a “favorite” process, could be disastrous for decision making.

Integrating these approaches is hard work – leadership work. It requires careful listening and inquiry, challenging assumptions, acknowledging biases – and helping others do the same! However, when done well, leaders can “connect all the dots”, draw the right conclusions, and make better decisions … and that’s going deep!

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