Whenever I have meetings with colleagues, clients or other people, we often talk about communication. “I would like to talk more among ourselves!” or “Man! I’m tired of these discussions!” or “Last night I had an interesting conversation with him, but…” I can imagine that all of us are familiar with such expressions or even use them in various situations, in connection with or in front of all categories of people. They seem to come out of our need to share a certain state of mind or an idea or out of the individual need to simply be listened.
However, although belonging to the same category –communication, each of the three terms – conversation, discussion, and dialogue – appear to be used in different circumstances and, consequently, have different meanings. I will try to sketch the defining features of these three forms of verbal communication, and hence, their use.
I think that the common level – at least because it keeps the largest part of a normal communication – is represented by conversation. Some say it comes from the Latin “con-versare” – meaning “sitting together”. Generally speaking, conversation is shallow and nor exhaustive at all (except, unfortunately, quite often as a time eater!). It is polite, suave and convivial like a nice cup of coffee, and refers to every day topics; we communicate our opinion without getting involved too much or giving an ultimate importance to the other people’s opinions. It is an exchange of information or data that pays not much attention to consequences, it lacks confrontation, and it does not intend to receive a real feed-back. Sometimes, conversation may hide a minor interest for a certain subject, usually the hot topic of the day, anyhow, something with rather less importance. Under these circumstances, conversation flows (more or less skillfully) naturally towards and around the respective topics, without controversies or debates (everyone’s opinion is preexistent), pretty much in order to hear – just for the record – the other’s opinions. Conversation has rules and a discipline agreed by everybody involved in it: we can jump, at will, from one subject to another; we may express different or contradictory opinions, but everybody would pass nonchalant or with humor, over any inconsistency; we don’t attach much value to it, we have it merely for getting simple information or – simply put – to spend the time pleasantly. From a procedural point of view, although slightly formal, it is not pleasant or advisable if all participants speak at the same time…!
Discussion (from the Latin “discutere”, formed by “dis”- that shows separation and “scuotere”- meaning „agitation”) brings along a higher level of interest and implication of the participants. The subjects may vary from ones that have little importance (or so it seems, initially!) to major topics (or so it seems, in the end!). In any context, discussion requires a more personal approach, often contradictory. The participants have arguments, the views are passionately argued and the tactic and strategic aspects of martial arts are frequently deployed (even in their physical manifestations – not so often, hopefully – especially by the end of the debates …!!). Consequently, the argument is not always correct, since the most important issue is to win the confrontation, to demonstrate that one’s opinion/attitude/perspective is better, more adequate than the others’. The fact that everyone can actually learn something from the others is of secondary importance, even negligible. The most important thing is to be right, to be distinguished by our superior, infallible knowledge, to feed our pride on victory. The most important supporter (and supplier) of that attitude is reality itself, proven by day by day life experience: human mind can demonstrate anything, absolutely anything!
In a limited way, I might say that dialogue is a conversation of best quality – civilized, open, honest, tolerant, respectful, clear, and clarifying. The dialogue simply reaches the essence of communication. Etymologically, it comes from the Greek words “dia”- meaning “through” or “with” and “logos” – meaning “speech”. In a dialogue (as opposed to conversation) there is a confrontation (I refer to the primary meaning: the Latin words “con” – „with” and “frons” – „forehead”, meaning that the perspectives of the participants are placed face to face, in order to be verified and compared. In a dialogue, the participants have equal rights and the approach implies mutual respect. There is no competition: each person participates altruistically with whatever they have. Everybody aims to develop their knowledge or confirm their position. Ideally, the dialogue ends when all the participants reach a shared common position; there is a kind of equalization of perspectives on the topic of discussion. We often find ourselves in a situation where the dialogue partners do not reach the same level of comprehension; it is the moment when we are all open to accepting viewpoints that we are not familiar to, or that are painful to be accepted; it is the moment when we show respect to the others, their abilities, endowments, and their feelings.
In a dialog, the normal result is that each of us learns something positive. Even if we do not necessarily contribute with anything new, we are satisfied that, at least up to a point, we have the acceptance of the others. And quite often, the surprise is that by our simple participation and exposure of our own perspectives, we find out new and authentic aspects on the topic and finally, on ourselves. The dialogue space, its manifestation frame is always open and honest and the individual contributions are sincere. I do not believe there can be a dialogue with cheaters (not even among themselves!). Because one cannot build anything durable on a fake infrastructure, no matter how well-intended we are.
Time spent in a dialogue is agreeable, we feel that something important and valuable is taking place. The fact that we receive attention and consideration, respect and understanding, makes us feel comfortable, therefore communication easily reaches deeper layers of understanding.
Fundamentally, coaching means also communication. Conversation, with its superficial and lack of involvement level is not enough. Discussion, with its features of dominance and individualism is counterproductive. The way to efficient coaching gets really wider only when we manage to create a favorable environment for dialogue.