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A Need for Dialogue

Updated: Mar 3

Two years ago I organized and facilitated a series of small focus groups in New York City with alumni from the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. Almost all the participants had taken a management communication course while at Cornell and landed coveted positions with companies like Accenture, Ernst & Young, and Google.

Participants shared their experiences using the skills they learned in their communication classes and many volunteered that it was the most useful course they took while enrolled at Cornell. Some of the recent alumni said that they have not yet had to present to an audience while projecting slides, but that the process of developing an argument and a presentation preparation process has been helpful to them.

In recent follow up conversations with some of the focus group participants, another key lesson from the focus group was reinforced. These young professionals are giving short, informal presentations followed by extensive periods of dialogue. Relationship building, storytelling, question asking, and holding space for diverse perspectives are essential skills that these individuals are learning on the job.

Coincidentally, I recently completed a program called “Building Connections with Dialogue” organized by Cornell’s Intergroup Dialogue Project team where we practiced personal storytelling, empathetic listening, and interpersonal inquiry. In the first session of the class, we explored the differences between debate, discussion, and dialogue. I’ve summarized some of the key differences in the table below as they relate to the skills my former students have suggested are important in their work.

The goal of debate is to defeat the other’s position.

The goal of discussion is to persuade others.

The goal of dialogue is to listen to and understand the other person.

Your task as a leader in whatever space you are in is to determine which communication approach - debate, discussion, or dialogue - is needed in a given situation. As you look at this table, consider the following questions:

  • How are you employing relationship building, storytelling, question asking, and listening skills in your life?

  • Do you have a default approach to communication?

  • Which of the three approaches presents the greatest opportunity for growth for you right now?

My management communication courses, with an emphasis on persuasion, predominantly reinforce the practices of discussion. However, I’m committed to including dialogue practices into my courses and continuing to write about them on this site. Use the following tags to see what I have written about on the topics of relationship building, storytelling, question asking, and listening.

If you are a former student and you are interested in participating in one of my focus groups, you can put your name on my list here.


Flick, D. L. (1998). From debate to dialogue: Using the understanding process to transform our conversations. Boulder, CO: Orchid Publications.

Kardia, D., & Sevig, T. (1997). Differentiating dialogue from discussion. Ann Arbor,Michigan: Program on Intergroup Relations.


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