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Types of Conversation

Researchers have identified three types of conversation - debate, dialogue and design. Each is classified according to a different purpose: to transact, transform or transcend, respectively. The diagram maps the type to the purpose.

  1. Debates and discussions are transacting in nature. In a debate, the purpose of the group is to search for truth through logical argument. The instructor may consider the Socratic method, a dialectic method of inquiry. The practice involves asking a series of questions surrounding a central issue and answering questions of the others involved. Generally, this involves the defence of one point of view against another and is oppositional. One way to ‘win’ is to make the opponents contradict themselves in some way that proves the inquirer’s own point. Discussion is also transactional in nature, it is about one person negotiating with others, with the purpose of convincing others by advocating for individual positions and ultimately arrive at some decisions.
  2. Dialogue is transforming in nature, where individuals share through meaning. Its purpose is to exchange deeply-held views and create collaborative and shared learning, out of which may potentially emerge some new understanding. How is dialogue different from say, discussion, debate? In the latter, views are presented and defended, with the aim to converge on a conclusion and determine which view is ‘right’. In dialogue, different views are presented as a means of discovering a new view. In dialogue, there is no outcome required, the exploration diverges to encompass, not limit, the complexity. Dialogue moves the group from individual advocacy to a community / collective consciousness. 
  3. Design is transcending in nature, its focus is on creating something new (a piece of music, artwork, a survey instrument). Design, unlike planning, is about creating something new. Individuals suspend their personal assumptions and judgments of others’ viewpoints and it requires individuals to work through the conversation, to jump out of their existing mindsets.


SMU Context

Each type of conversation supports student-student and instructor-student communications; and each is unique and interesting in its own way. Instructors are encouraged to explore the diversity in conversation with their students, as part of their active and experiential learning experience.  

  • If the objective of learning requires low-order cognitive skills (such as to remember facts), then the instructional strategy is straightforward  – ask questions, hold basic conversations, and elicit responses from students, so that the instructor can assess if students have achieved the low-order cognitive skills.
  • If, however, the objective of learning requires higher-order cognitive skills (such as to apply, analyse, evaluate or create), then the instructional strategy is more complex - ask critical questions, challenge assumptions, elicit alternative reponses and articulate decisions, so that the instructor can assess if students have achieved the higher-order cognitive skills.  


  1. Bohm, D. (1989). On Dialogue, Routledge
  2. Bohm, D., Factor, D. & Garrett, P. (1991). Dialogue: A Proposal.
  3. Banathy, B. (1996). Designing Social Systems In a Changing World. New York: Plenum

Last updated on 24 Apr 2017 .