(1) “Dialogue. It’s different than debate or discussion.”

Break Away Co-Executive Director Samantha Giacobozzi posted this statement in the wake of #Ferguson. Simple wisdom amidst the onslaught of opinion pieces about the (in)sanity or (in)validity of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown. Here it was – a case extreme enough to shake the nation’s consciousness about the role of race in the criminal justice system, and all we can do is scream at each other. Or worse, bow out of the conversation completely.

In our training sessions with alternative break leaders on Reflection, we talk about the difference between dialogue, debate, and discussion – all modes of conversation with very different goals and intended outcomes:

We’ve all taken part in discussion in college courses and meetings in the workplace. You’re sharing facts and brainstorming ideas, but the conversation is largely cerebral. There’s little to no focus on feelings or personal experiences, and rarely do we make space for a dissenting or unpopular opinion.

Even outside of the National Forensic League, we’ve all had conversations turn into debate. This heated exchange of one soon-to-be-proven-right and another soon-to-be-proven-wrong opinion can feel like verbal sparring. Debates don’t always end in fistfights or tears, but they tend to become overly personal and presume a correct opinion.

Dialogue is a conversation across difference. It’s intended to be an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue with the goal of reaching understanding – not necessarily agreement. What would it feel like to engage in true dialogue with someone whose opinions differ greatly from your own? Rather than “liking” and “sharing” articles you knew you would agree with even before you finished reading.

So pause. Listen. Ask questions. And try to understand.