The Challenge of Generating Dialogue in the 21st Century

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow


Or how to help people talk good with each other


When asked, I bet most people would agree that participating in a dialogue is good. But what is dialogue, anyway? Does anybody know anymore? It sure seems like we forgot, collectively, particularly on the internet.

At Project Contribute, or ProCon, we’ve just had our first meeting of the year, planning on how to make debating cool again, when it was brought to our attention by Tahira Amir Sultan Khan from the Through the Golden Door Foundation that to them, “debate” has some bad connotations.

According to the Golden Door’s model, human communication exists on a scale between maximum separation and maximum cohesion. On this scale, the most separated form of communication is monologue, followed by debate, followed by discussion, followed by conversation, followed by dialogue, followed by something they call “generative dialogue”.

When we thought about that with Luke, we realized that we don’t actually disagree with this model at all. In fact, what we call “debate”, as it would be facilitated by the ProCon platform that we’re developing, is supposed to result in something that could be described as generative dialogue.

In my previous ProCon article, I have already explained how we intend to abandon the polarized form of classical debate and move toward multipolar debates that enable long chains of constructive reinforcements of ideas. Very much with the goal of generating solutions to problems.

But I suppose it would be a good idea to clarify all of the terms. The great thing about the Golden Door’s model, that many people perhaps can’t fully appreciate because it isn’t taught at most schools, is that the different terms for people speaking actually refer to very different formats of speech.

Starting with the monologue, most people probably do understand that this means individuals speaking by themselves without directly responding to or addressing each other. This doesn’t necessarily have to be done from a place of complete personal separation, but monologues do lack interaction.

A form of competition based exclusively on monologues, using argumentation and not just serving as an outlet for artistic expression, is typically called extemporaneous speaking in the Anglosphere. All of the monologues can share a topic, but are prepared ahead of time.

During such an event, the participants can still socialize and network with each other, leading private conversations or public discussions, but the monologue format itself is mostly about the element of performance. At its most interactive, monologues can be responses, but only at a distance.

For all of these reasons, the generative or constructive power of monologue is relatively minor. A monologue can inspire or move an individual, in isolation, until they actually talk about it directly to some other people. At most, it could be a start of an idea that could eventually lead to actions.

Talking to some other people directly is the shared feature of all of the other terms — debate, discussion, conversation, and dialogue — and that’s why people tend to treat them as interchangeable. In practice, however, there are important differences in why and how the people are talking.

Apart from the cohesion versus separation dimension, the different formats of people talking to each other can also be divided along the lines of how formal versus informal they are. Or, more precisely, based on how personal versus impersonal or structured versus unstructured they are.

Starting with the next most separated format, competitive debate, this is the most formal type of communication — debates tend to be highly impersonal and highly structured. Usually, there are two sides, each tasked with defending an affirmative or negative position on a given motion.

The participants of this type of debate don’t need to have any personal relationship (they can even be adversaries), they don’t have to argue their personally held opinions or beliefs, and they’re specifically supposed to attack any weakness of the opponent’s position while ceding no ground.

In real life, this format is necessary in truly adversarial circumstances, like at court as a platform for the accused to defend themselves. It’s also commonly used in highly competitive situations, like before elections between candidates. Public policy debates can adopt this format as well.

Given that in adversarial or competitive situations, people may not want to play nice, the order and length of speeches is set and enforced by neutral judges or moderators, typically along with a whole book of rules of engagement. But all this is arguably debate at its absolute worst.

As long as a debate is undertaken between speakers who aren’t adversaries or true, high-stakes competitors, what tends to happen is an exercise in formal logic that can help the participants break down and better understand arguments and ideas. This is called philosophical or academic debate. Which is still impersonal and structured, but constructive.

This is why we at ProCon keep insisting that what we’re trying to do is to improve debating in some fashion. To facilitate true progress, we believe that cohesion alone isn’t enough. There needs to be a mechanism by which ideas are rigorously tested in some form of competition, as well as a mechanism by which disputes are resolved. From our point of view, the challenge here is to ensure that debates don’t devolve into fights.

At the same time, however, we do recognize that debating has issues, even at its best, and that something more than it is probably required. Something that’s in some ways more personal, more spontaneous, more cohesive, and more generative. Let’s explore how the other terms fit in.

Along the lines of these criteria, discussion is different from debate in that it is equally impersonal, but less structured. Instead of a specifically worded motion, there tends to be a broad, vaguely defined topic. The speakers don’t necessarily have to defend a specific side of any issue, or hold any consistent position. Time allotted to speakers may vary.

These settings and conditions often result in discussions being more about entertainment than accomplishing anything. Better speakers may usurp more time and audience attention, while there may be no point overall to the whole exercise, other than for the participants to present themselves in public or have a good time. By chance, some discussions can be productive.

Conversely, conversation is more personal and less structured than both debate and discussion. It tends to be private and involve fewer people. Most conversations occur between two people or in small groups of people who already are in some kind of lasting relationship. They could be friends, family, or colleagues, and most often, they’d just be passing time.

Individually, great speakers can lead great private or even public conversations, spontaneously, but the absolute lack of structural constraints makes the vast majority of conversations intellectually pointless. Much like monologues, great conversations can be personally inspiring or moving, but not even that can be guaranteed at scale.

Finally, dialogue is more personal than debate or discussion, but not as much as conversation, and while it isn’t a strict requirement, it often has some structure. Unlike discussion and conversation, dialogue tends to have some goal. This means that while the structure can be custom or flexible, it should ideally be designed to enable the participants to most effectively accomplish that goal. Well, it’s definitely starting to sound like what we’re aiming for at ProCon actually should be classified as dialogue.

In summary, the main problems with traditional forms of communication as we see them are as follows. In impersonal debates and discussions, in which participants don’t have to argue for personally held positions and aren’t required to engage in any kind of meaningful mutual relationships, there’s no sense of community, or working toward a set of shared goals.

In conversation and discussion, the largely unstructured forms of communication, regardless of how personal or impersonal they are, their lack of structure prevents them from building up to anything with any reliability. Something of value can be retroactively salvaged from them, sure, but it can’t really be developed in real time during the exchange.

In short, a true, generative dialogue is therefore what happens between people who argue for their real, sincerely held positions; who are expected to develop lasting, meaningful personal relationships with each other by doing so, thus forming a community with shared goals; and who argue with each other in a sufficiently structured way so that by doing so, they’re actively, progressively working toward forming and achieving shared goals.

This is exactly what we wish to design the ProCon platform to enable. Online, globally, at scale. At present, we still believe that freeing debate from its bipolar, adversarial constraints is the beginning of the path toward accomplishing that. But who knows, we have a lot of testing and development ahead of us, and we’re definitely open to new ideas.

What do you think? How would you generate dialogue? Let us know.