L&D/PI: Contentious Debate or Curious Dialogue?

Debate or Dialogue?

When engaged in a Communications Exchange with someone else, or a group, are you intending to Debate or to Dialogue?


Note: I’ve been reading Dean Spitzer’s excellent book: Transforming Performance Management – and I was struck by his many comments about Dialogue versus Discussion. Which I have adapted to Dialogue versus Debate.

Dean defines Dialogue as  Sharing Collective Meaning.

Other definitions include:

Debate is contention in argument; strife, dissension, quarrelling, controversy; especially a formal discussion of subjects before a public assembly or legislature, in Parliament or in any deliberative assembly. (Adapted from Wikipedia)
Dialogue is a written composition in which two or more characters are represented as conversing, a conversation between two or more persons; a similar exchange between a person and something else (such as a computer) b : an exchange of ideas and opinions. (Adapted from Merriam-Webster)

So – Is Your Goal “To Win” or “To Create a Win-Win?”

Adapted from my 2007 Post – here.

The singular most powerful insight I have ever gained in my evolution as a facilitator – and communicator – was due to my exposure to a “communications behavioral model” from both a “Win-Win Negotiating” and a “SPIN®” sales training course from Huthwaite, Inc. that I was most fortunate to be involved with in 1981 while at Motorola Training & Education Center (MTEC—the forerunner of Motorola University).


Neil Rackham and others (John Carlisle and I spent some quality time in a 14th century Priory in England while he delivered a Negotiations workshop as part of my “coming up to speed” for MY PROJECT) had built earlier versions of their training that focused on a dozen plus “behavioral traits” as demonstrated verbally.

I was “certified” by Neil in time for the Pilot Test of the 3-day Win-Win Negotiations session for sales people, purchasing agents and some governmental negotiators (where they were selling one or two “sophisticated black boxes” for big bucks).

Without going into their entire model, I gleaned four key verbal communication behavior types. I almost always self-categorize my own verbal expressions into these four, even as I say them. And I typically “see” others’ verbal expressions falling into these categories, even as they speak!

The Four Types of Communications Behaviors

1. Giving Information
2. Seeking Information
3. Testing Understanding/Summarizing
4. Defend/Attack

Again, these 4 (actually 6 given the combos) were derived from the 11 Behaviors of SPIN and the 13 of Win-Win Negotiations.

Giving Information

The “Giving Information” (GI) communication behavior is very straightforward, but important. You are giving information, which is not good if you are supposed to be finding things out!


You may need to first give some information before you “find things out,” but you should soon be shifting gears into the next type.

Seeking Information

The “Seeking Information” (SI) communication behavior also is simple. It’s typically in question form, either open or closed, depending on what you’re looking to accomplish.


Knowing or feeling your balance in your use of these first two types is important in assessing your successes and failures as a communicator, but nothing beats the next communication behaviors.

Testing Understanding/Summarizing

The “Testing Understanding/Summarizing” (TU/S) behavior is actually a combination of two, but I often combine them to simplify their use. However, they are different.


TU is when you make statements or ask questions for the purpose of testing out what you think you’ve just heard or what you think you know. Most of us know this as “active listening.”

One of the better ways to do a TU is to paraphrase what was said. Putting it into another set of words, rather than simply parroting it back just as you heard it, allows the sender to better check your receipt of their message. If you parrot it back, all we know is that you remember the words. The further your paraphrasing takes the original words away from the words you use, the easier it is to test for understanding.

It is also best to be somewhat declarative of what you’re doing when you TU. I often announce/declare, “I am testing here,” and then make a statement or ask a question. Then listen for the response, and always read the clues and cues of nonverbal facial and body language. You can also say, “Let me see if I’ve got this. You’re saying that x, y, and then z. Is that right?” Work on your own set of TU phrases. Play with it!

S is where you are simply summarizing. Again, it’s best to provide your own clues and cues to your group. Say, “Let me try to summarize this,” and then do it. Again, if your words stray from the original (but not too far), then it’s easier for the group to react.

This S stuff is very much like a TU, just done in a different mode. You are looking for feedback from the group that you are either right on, just off, or way off. Again, don’t let your ego get in the way! I tell groups that as a facilitator, I can’t be afraid to be wrong because it’ll slow us down. In fact, I’m often wrong. So get used to it! Your job here today is also to correct me and keep me on the straight and narrow path!

TU/S is critical to ensure that we understand the meanings behind the words that others are using. As a colleague of mine once remarked,

“It not just semantics, it’s always semantics!”

TU/S helps us receivers get into the intent of the message sender to check it out. It can be a very powerful tool for a facilitator. However, Socrates used this way back when, so be careful! Watch out for hemlock.


The “Defend/Attack” (D/A) behavior is also a combo. The D is typically in response to a real or perceived A. No matter how it starts, it usually degenerates into a D/A spiral that won’t end until someone interrupts the spiral. The best interruption is a TU/S behavior—something on the order of, “So you’re saying that this proactive facilitator stuff is just a bunch of hooey, and that the author must be a real jerk to perpetuate this garbage by committing it to paper and then disseminating it to the public?” (This is what, a TU or an S?)


Usually a short string of TU’s and S’s are sufficient to diffuse the situation and end a D/A spiral. All that the irate usually want is to be heard (really understood). Get the conversation back to more civilized ground and reduce the heat.

In my mind, the power of TU/S cannot be underestimated. Try it yourself. Try it on the kids. Try it with your significant other. But stay away from gang fights!

Using GI and SI and TU/S and D/A

Once I learned these, I began to “see” all of my own verbal utterings as falling into one of these categories.


I learned to first GI, maybe a little or a bunch, and then to soon TU. Do they get it? For example, “I want us to list all of the outputs for this Area of Performance and then identify all of the key measures of performance for each. Are we all clear on what I mean by performance outputs?”

Or, “We need to identify the typical performance gaps, if any, for this output.”

Or, in response to the group’s input/response, I use a TU for my benefit. “So the typical gap is that they are almost always late in turning in the monthly report?”

I also TU in response to their utterings. “Let me test this out. You’re saying that there are indeed typical gaps, but they don’t sync up with any of the key measures we have currently listed.”

I learned to SI and then S. “What gap do you think there is, and what key output measure would reflect that gap?” I would respond to their response with, “So we seem to be saying that it would be both a time to complete as well as a timeliness measure.”

I learned that the best way to break a D/A spiral was to first TU/S and then either GI or SI. “So you think that Global T&D dropped the ball and didn’t get the vendor into the effort soon enough, driving up your costs due to all of the overtime that was incurred trying to catch up?”

I learned that the more I TU/S the more it benefited the group, because they are sometimes hesitant to appear stupid (really ignorant or slow, but that’s another story). Again, I can’t afford to let my own ego get in the way of potentially appearing stupid, slow, etc. I’ve learned that the really smart people in the room will quickly figure me out and that I won’t appear stupid at all, no matter how hard I might appear to be trying with all of this TU behavior.

This is great stuff. It made me more comfortable to have these communication behavioral tools at my disposal when I first started, and I believe it has made a big difference in my approach and style. It has made me a much better facilitator.

Curious Dialogue

If you are curious about creating shared understanding – shared collective meaning – then I believe that these Communications Behaviors could be key to how you operate.

Rather than appear to be engaged in a Contentious Debate in an attempt to win, to convince – try a Curious Dialogue approach.

Of course, it’s a Socratic approach – so beware any Hemlock.

Another Past Post on This

From 2011…

You Can Never Really Communicate – You Can Only Mis-Communicate More or Less

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One comment on “L&D/PI: Contentious Debate or Curious Dialogue?

  1. Pingback: T&D/PI: Testing Understanding | EPPIC - Pursuing Performance

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