Dialogue creates a foundation for debate, negotiation, and consensus

The normal state of a democratic society always includes disagreements. These can actually be thought of as the cause of democracy functioning well. Citizens who are equal and free among each other will most likely not end up with completely identical views on which things are the most valuable and in which ways these values should be pursued.

Some value safety and stability, others yearn for variety and novelty. To some citizens tangible wealth is more important than the spiritual ideologies some others pursue. Comprehensive world views, too, can be built in many ways: some emphasize scientific facts, others respect religious views, while some pick a diverse set of beliefs from here as the main sources.

Something threatening is happening to our ability to talk about our respective disagreements between us. We have ended up in a situation where we can follow other people and their sayings through the internet and social media. However, we usually do not get to know people coming from different ways of life. Thus, we imagine we know well what others think, but in reality we hardly ever meet them to understand their experiences better.

At worst, this setting evokes the urge to entirely silence individuals and groups whose views are far from ours. Inflamed and repressed discussion environment is an auspicious ground for powers debilitating democracy. Many citizens begin to avoid conversations on difficult topics, the formed void gets hijacked by the loudest speakers. Ultimately this kind of progression feeds individuals and groups who support hierarchy and authority instead of equality and individual freedom.

It has been thought that in a modern democracy, citizens’ different views benefit society. Tensions stemming from disagreements feed lively discussion, help to make new creative inventions and, at best, lead to learning together.

A skillful handling of disagreements and tensions requires that citizens master different types of democratic discussions well. The most important ones from these are debate, negotiation, search for consensus and dialogue. Every type has its’ own mission in citizens’ equal cohabitation. They are needed in communities of every size: families, neighborhoods, workplaces, free time hobbies  as well as in political institutions.

No discussion type fits in every situation. A skill to change the type of discussion when needed is required in many situations.


The most known type of discussion in a democratic society seems to be debate. The central starting point of debate is that different sides of the discussion aim to prove with arguments that their opinion is better than the opponent’s views. Thus, debating aims at the investigation of the best arguments.

Debate can be thought to have succeeded if all the parties have been able to present their own arguments clearly and comprehensively. An excellent conclusion has been reached when arguments presented by some party have proven to be better than other parties’ in everyone’s opinion.


In many situations citizens must find a solution that satisfies all the parties. This is when negotiation is needed. In negotiation, an agreement is sought to be achieved, and that often requires a sketching of different options and coordination of different matters.

In a successful negotiation, different parties know each other’s values and needs well, based on which each negotiator can present different options for everyone to consider. In best negotiations completely new chances to combine different parties’ demands, even tense among each other, are found.

Search for consensus

Many communities tightly living together – like families, workplaces, hobby groups and ideological associations – want to pursue consensus (unanimity). Finding consensus is easier when the participants of the discussion have similar values and they are ready to haggle their own comfort and freedom for the harmony of the community. On a broader societal level, consensus is not needed regarding nearly all matters.

However, there are a few matters where pursuing consensus is necessary in a democratic society. These matters touch on how democracy’s basic values freedom, equality and and justice built upon them are understood in society. If a reasonable consensus can be reached from these things, even stark disagreements concerning other things can safely be allowed.


All three aforementioned discussion types – debate, negotiation, and search for consensus – require that citizens participating understand each other enough to succeed. The best arguments cannot be found if the debaters speak over each other. Negotiations drift to a dead end when the parties’ real values and needs are not understood. Consensus can only arise when deep central understanding prevails. Thus, all important discussion types of a democratic society require discussion aiming for understanding, so dialogue, as basis and support.

In a dialogical conversation, participants aim for a multi-level understanding: of the things dealt with, other people, and oneself. Democracy’s basic values, so every individual’s equality and all individual’s maximal freedoms are cherished in dialogue. This means that in dialogue, each participant’s experiences are fundamentally equally valuable, and everyone is free to participate in the discussion as they please.

Dialogical discussion setting is extremely difficult when the topics discussed are difficult, and people’s views are far away from each other’s. For this reason, dialogue should continuously be exercised and practiced in all kinds of communities.

Dialogical discussions do not only create the foundation to other discussion types. At best, they can also be extremely creative moments of learning together. At the same time, they give participants a concrete experience of what equality and freedom mean in practice. Dialogue is the heart of democratic communities.

Think about it.

Or read more about dialogue.