The Three D’s: Discussion, Debate, and Dialogue

What’s the difference between discussion, debate, and deliberation (the 3-D’s)? After arriving at Middlebury College last night, I spent most of the day being trained to be a Deliberative Dialogue (DD) leader for freshmen orientation. DD is a community problem-solving process that focuses on finding the common ground through dialogue. DD is in Freshmen Orientation because it equips students with the tools to solve conflicts in a rich and engaging way, balancing honesty and respect.

Deliberative Dialogue implies that it involves deliberation. Discussion is an informal talk that is often chracterized by a lack of focus or motion for action. A debate is a very formal setting where sides are taken and issues turn black and white while also managing to degrade into name calling. Deliberation is a structured setting where people way the issues individually and challenge their own assumptions before possibly coming to some kind of conclusion via common ground.

I particularly like DD as an orientation item because it forces students to be a little bit uncomfortable with the subject matter (topics this year are: race and ethnicity, gender roles, and immigration), moving past the simple pleasantries of “What did you do this summer?” and “Where are you from?” The discussion can be quite fruitful perhaps mostly for the process rather than the content. It’s about showing students an intelligent way to at least talk about conflict.

What I dislike about DD is that conlusions can be really broad and cheesy. There is, of course, very little “common ground” that everyone (not just a majority) can agree on, especially when it comes to hot-button issues. Also, it’s all talk and no action. It’s great to deliberate the merits of the immigration issue but what difference does it make when most students will return to their humdrum lives never to think about immigration again after the session.

Everyone should take part in a Deliberative Dialogue sometime in school but it is definitely not cure-all for conflict on college campuses.