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Discussion and Dialogue

by Maria Simpson
March 2016

From Maria Simpson's Two-Minute Leadership Trainings.

Maria Simpson

It seems there might be some confusion about the differences between discussion and dialogue, and between mediation and facilitation, so let’s try to clarify the different goals of each process, because they each require different skills and tactics.
A dialogue is generally defined as an exploration of an idea, a concept, or a goal by a group of people that is aimed at gathering information, not necessarily coming to a decision of any kind. The number of people engaged in dialogue can range from two (What is your most favorite thing to do?) to many (How can we draw on the richness of our community next year?). I guess if you’re talking to yourself you might also be having an internal dialogue, but that’s not today’s focus.
Dialogue is an effective method of exploring highly sensitive community issues. In Los Angeles we have a very effective program called “Days of Dialogue,” where representatives of different groups meet to explore tensions in the community. This approach is a way for people to meet and get to know each other, perhaps share a meal, and then explore the issues. Often small group work may be included or exercises used to start people thinking about questions that unite them rather than separate them. The process is a way of building trust and relationships to make future decision-making easier.
While dialogue may not have any expectation of a particular outcome or decision being made, discussion has a specific aim, and that is usually a decision about a course of action or an option. The discussions have occurred, information has been gathered and clarified, and it is now necessary to make a decision, to choose an option. The goal of the conversation shifts and so does the process.
Both dialogue and discussion are often facilitated by a person who manages the process. In discussion, the facilitator maintains the focus and moves the conversation toward a decision or other conclusion. Fewer conversational tangents are allowed in discussion, and time frames are more limited. Dialogue has done the preliminary work of exploring and building trust, and now the discussion has to focus on reaching a conclusion.
Facilitation and mediation require overlapping skills and techniques, so the processes are not mutually exclusive. Facilitators guide a dialogue, not toward a resolution, but toward increased understanding and trust. And yes, this approach is part of mediation as well when there is time for it, but the goal of mediation is, in general, to help people reach their own resolution to a disagreement. There might not be much time for exploration in mediation or incentive to explore since the parties have already explored unsuccessfully. Mediators ask "unifying questions," questions that find agreement not difference, and explore theses areas of agreement and mutual interests that can lead to resolution.
Both facilitators and mediators work to keep the conversation civil and respectful, so they both need excellent listening and reframing skills, and that means excellent conflict resolution skills. In addition, the mediator often coaches people in how to negotiate or present their positions.
I heard what I hope was shorthand for referring to facilitation recently: facilitating a team. People are not facilitated or mediated. Meetings are facilitated; conflicts are mediated; the outcome is facilitated or mediated, but not the people. People are led, and really good leaders know how to mediate and facilitate. People stay independent, and we help them reach their goals.


Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation.

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