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  • Shari Melto

Climate Change Cafe

Debate or Dialogue?

The practice of dialogue is as old as humankind itself. For thousands of years, indigenous people have gathered in a council circle to "think together" about the challenges facing their community. But thinking together seems to have been all but lost in our culture. William Issacs, the founder of the Dialogue Project at MIT, makes the case that dialogue needs to be reinvented for the 21st century. “Neither the enormous challenges human beings face today nor the wonderful promise of the future on whose threshold we seem to be poised can be reached unless human beings learn to think together in a new way." Issacs believes that dialogue is the foundation for democracy, even more, fundamental than voting. "In a sense, we are running a famous social experiment today. We are experimenting with whether or not a society can hold itself together without the core process that has always bound communities..." the process of thinking together.

Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard, co-founders of the Dialogue Group, are also convinced that dialogue will be increasingly important in coming decades. "Dialogue is a powerful communication process and then transforms those who engage in it. You never see the world quite the same way again once you have allowed yourself to listen, really listen, to people different than yourself...If dialogue is adopted and practiced broadly, it will change the underlying culture to one that is more partnership and collaboratively based."

Some people consider dialogue just more talking together. In fact, it is very different – it is thinking together and learning from each other. Rather than just sharing opinions, dialogue invites people to “inter-think” with the goal of finding common ground and harnessing their collective intelligence.

Dialogue is often confused with discussion/debate. These approaches are like oil and water and lead to various results. However, both can be effective, depending on the desired outcome. The discussion is a convergent way of thinking – it breaks the whole down into many parts and tends toward "win/lose" by putting a few ideas against each other, narrowing down to one "right" answer. Debate is most useful when the best options have already been fleshed out through dialogue.

Dialogue, on the other hand, is a different way of thinking – it explores multiple best perspectives, opinions, and answers to find common ground and generate new ideas. The objective of dialogue is to come to a greater understanding of each other's point of view. There are no "winners" or "losers."

Source: Dialogue by Ellinor and Gerard, p. 21

In her book, The Argument Culture, Deborah Tannen makes a compelling case that our society needs to move from debate to dialogue to counterbalance the “...warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish as if it were a fight." The prevailing belief in our argument culture seems to be that “opposition is the best way to get anything done. The best way to discuss the idea is to set up a debate...and the best way to show you're thinking is to criticize." “Debate,” Tannen says, “has served us well in many ways but in recent years has become so exaggerated that it is getting in the way of solving our problems.”

The fact is, debate just isn't as useful when tackling "wicked" problems, like climate change, global poverty, and social justice. "Wicked" problems are longstanding, complex and challenging to define. They are caused by multiple factors and often lack agreed upon solutions. Instead of debating between two points of view, we need to broaden our perspectives, include as many other voices as possible, especially those who are affected by these problems and end up with more efficient results.

Unfortunately, in various forms of teacher-led discussions, individual thinking and argument prevail in most classrooms. Not much attention has been given to understanding the group problem-solving function and social value of "inter-thinking" tools like dialogue. Too often, thinking together has traditionally been ignored or even repressed. Mercer and Littleton, in their book, Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking report that even though "studies show the value of collaborative learning... educational practice has implicitly argued against it. Talk between learners in the classroom has been discouraged and treated as disruptive and subversive.” Typical group work is mere "cooperation" or quickly deteriorates into "argument" unless dialogue skills have been developed.

Ron Patrick, a psychologist, working with schools and mental health systems around the country searches for ways to bring dialogue into the classroom and the community.” How can we take our young, our children, the people who are going to be leaders and help them, teach them skills around listening and dialogue that will allow them to make better decisions than we’ve made...”

Overcoming our argument culture and developing dialogue skills will be a daunting task. But we have an obligation to prepare students for an unpredictable future and help them to develop the skills they need – not just the "hard" skills like science, math, and debate, but also the "soft" skills like empathy, dialogue, and conflict resolution... And we must also encourage them to reach out to others with opposing points of view and others who are often excluded.

In his encyclical letter, Our Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis urgently appeals for "...a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone. Young people…wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better tomorrow without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded."

As educators and parents, we want to build a better future for our children and our children's children. The Climate Cafe is designed to help students develop cognitive and interpersonal skills they will need to help shape their future. Dialogue skills that are learned and practiced in the classroom can then be expanded into the community through a Climate Cafe. Each Cafe provides students with another opportunity to stand toe-to-toe with adults and explore issues that matter. "Thinking together" can help to revolutionize how students learn and work together in the 21st century.


Shari Melto spent more than 20 years with global consulting firms in the fields of talent management and organization development. She was Director of Learning & Development at McKinsey, and Director of Staffing & Recruiting at both Booz and Hewitt. With the support of a MacArthur grant, she partnered with Arts Boards in Chicago to strengthen their organizations. Shari believes that we have a moral obligation to ensure a healthy, sustainable future for our children and our earth -- and working with GOMI provides a unique opportunity to do both.

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