• Categories: All, Role of the board
  • Published: Feb 17, 2023
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We continually stress the importance of the board’s ultimate responsibility for the performance of the organisation. Consider this alongside the limited time a board’s members have together, and it is clear that high-quality engagement with each other and their management team cannot be left to chance. We increasingly refer to the process of group discourse that is known as ‘dialogue’, somewhat different from the ‘debating’ style many boards have traditionally adopted.

In this article we explore these two contrasting styles. We encourage all directors and boards to evaluate these alternatives and to think more explicitly about the way they engage with each other.

What happens when things go well?

We sometimes hear board members and senior executives say after a board meeting, with unabashed enthusiasm, something like: “Today we had a really good debate”. When we explore further what they might have experienced, it was one of those occasions when the subject matter was worthwhile—it truly related to the board's direction-giving and stewardship responsibilities.

Individual contributions were thoughtful, well timed and respectful of other participants. Each person felt their voice had been heard and their thoughts valued. It was safe to ‘open up’ and say what was really on their mind and what they did say added value to what others had already said. The exploration of an important issue was deep, intelligent and produced a collective understanding that was illuminating and stimulating for everyone. Conclusions reached were likely to reflect new insights and a sense of opportunities to be grasped. It is very likely there was a collective ‘aha!’ as things suddenly made sense and the way forward became obvious. The shared experience was collegial, with a real sense of ‘connection’. There was a sense of real teamwork taking place with unquestionable commitment to action what was decided.

Peoples’ experiences are not always as positive

Unfortunately, however, this type of positive experience is relatively rare. Many board members express a sense of dissatisfaction with their board meetings. The subject matter fails to inspire and is inconsequential in terms of the true purpose of the organisation. There is no sense that the board is getting to grips with and making progress on important issues, with discourse typically dominated by a small number of people. Remaining directors struggle to make their mark and may eventually ‘tune out’. Some board members may feel alienated, or even marginalised. Decisions in such circumstances are often railroaded through and are unclear, if not disjointed. Commitment to the decision is low and subsequent action is frequently problematic.

In the worst cases, directors’ relationships with each other and their executive team progressively deteriorate, reflecting a low-trust environment in which the ‘game’ seems to be ego or personal agenda-driven points scoring. Division, discord and dissatisfaction are rife. So, board membership turnover is high, and recruiting replacements is difficult. Executive performance and job satisfaction also suffer. Internal and external stakeholders, sensing these problems, experience a lack of confidence, which surfaces in ways that place further pressure on the board and its executives.

While the development of board ineffectiveness and dysfunctionality of this nature has many different causes, the way directors engage with each other around the board table is among the most important.

Debate—purportedly producing the ‘light of truth’

When boards meet, the term most often used to describe what they do is ‘debate’. We tend to use this word quite loosely. Its specific meanings include:

  • an argument or controversy (noun)
  • to discuss a question by considering opposed arguments (verb intrans). 

Inviting people to contribute to a debate is to set up adversarial positions that are attacked and defended. A debate by its very nature is a contest—a game—with winners (who are ‘right’) and losers (who are ‘wrong’). While debate may bring some contestability to the evaluation of alternative propositions, it is essentially a confrontational process invoking aggressive and antagonistic models of interaction.

In any boardroom, both thorough analysis of an organisation’s operating environment and performance, and rigorous evaluation of proposals for decision are essential. However, creating an environment in which some directors are unable, or afraid, to contribute their best thinking and work effectively with their colleagues in collective responsibility, is a fundamental barrier to effective governance. 

Most readers will have experienced governance-related situations where a debate process was used to try and deal with important issues. Some board members are good at debate and relish this type of contest with each other. Perhaps it is second nature to them because of the way they have been educated in their profession or vocation (eg, lawyers, trade unionists and other advocates). However, when debaters on the board are going at each other, other board members are forced to become little more than spectators. This is especially true if the usual protagonists are the chair and other ‘senior’ members of the board. Newer or less experienced board members often feel that it is inappropriate to push back when apparently strong and fixed views are expressed by those they perceive as having higher status, particularly when a diversity of cultures is represented. Some cultures deliberate on important matters in quite a different style. For example, some are inherently more deferential towards authority figures. Regardless of culture or ethnicity, naturally quieter or less assertive members of a board find it quite difficult, in a debate, to ‘get a word in edgeways’.

While a venerable philosopher has apparently [1] said “It is through the clash of differing opinions that the light of truth shines”, the outcome of an adversarial debate seldom features enlightenment. ‘Facts’ are either used as weapons or studiously avoided according to what might strengthen or weaken a preferred position. In some boardroom debates, particularly in highly politicised contexts, intellectual honesty is often conspicuous by its absence.

As in Parliament, many boards operate on the basis of politics, persuasion and even coercion. We have been told by some board members that they find the underlying aggressiveness and ‘win/lose/right/wrong’ nature of a debate off-putting, even offensive. The process is geared to attacking people as much as their positions, and does not promote the type of connection, cooperation and collaboration implicit in the collective responsibility of a board. It is easy to see how distrust, scepticism, and misunderstanding can arise. The likelihood of reaching a broad-based agreement and commitment to a positive next move is greatly reduced. A common result of a debate is a loss of energy and goodwill.  The ‘light of truth’ may be conspicuously absent!

The alternative is dialogue—creating ‘a shared pool of meaning’

The approach we commend is commonly known as ‘dialogue’—a process that can be learned and about which there is an increasing range of accessible information. [2] The more a board practises this, the more capable it will become at it.

The development of this concept of dialogue is often credited to the late David Bohm. Bohm, a quantum physicist, postulated that thought is largely a collective phenomenon, made possible only through culture and communication. “Human conversations arise out of and influence an ocean of cultural and transpersonal meanings in which we live our lives.” [3]

Unlike the fluidity suggested by this oceanic metaphor, boardroom conversations often seem more like a game of tennis—directors and executives hit their solid ideas and well-defended positions back and forth trying to manoeuvre each other into a position of weakness to enable a winning shot. If not strictly debates, such exchanges might have been labelled ‘discussions’ by Bohm.  The word ‘discussion’, he noted, derives from the same root word as ‘percussion’ and ‘concussion’, a root that has the connotations of striking, shaking and hitting.

Dialogue, in contrast, involves adding directors’ personal thinking (and feeling) to that of others to create a shared pool of meaning that continually flows and evolves, carrying the board into new, deeper levels of understanding that none of its members could have foreseen when they began. Bohm observed that, through dialogue, “a new kind of mind begins to come into being…based on the development of common meaning…People are no longer primarily in opposition, nor can they be said to be interacting, rather they are participating in this pool of common meaning, which is capable of constant development and change.”

Dialogue, therefore, is essentially a collective learning process that aims to increase collective understanding. From greater understanding comes improved decision making because, as Bohm maintained, such a process increases a group’s ‘collective intelligence’. A likely—and welcome—byproduct is increased harmony between board members. 

In a boardroom context, dialogue involves directors working together to question and reflect on the assumptions underlying their individual and collective beliefs. The process enables a board to become more aware of any blind spots or areas of incoherency or inconsistency in its thinking. 

The fundamental differences between dialogue and debate

The term ‘debate’ is used loosely and ‘dialogue’ is a new concept to many people. So, the following—based on a publication by the Co-Intelligence Institute [4]—may be useful in highlighting the basic differences between these two styles of discourse. 



  • collaborative: two or more sides work together toward common understanding.
  • oppositional: two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong
  • finding common ground is the goal
  • winning is the goal
  • one listens to the other side(s) to understand, find meaning, and find agreement
  • to the extent one listens to the other side at all, it is to find flaws and to counter its arguments
  • enlarges and possibly changes a participant's point of view
  • affirms a participant's own (starting) point of view
  • reveals assumptions for re-evaluation
  • defends assumptions as self-evident, inviolable truth
  • causes introspection on one's own position
  • focuses on the critique of other positions
  • assumes the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions
  • defends one's own solution as the best and excludes other options
  • creates an open-minded attitude: an openness to being wrong and an openness to change
  • fosters a closed-minded attitude, a determination to be right
  • one submits one's best thinking, knowing that other people's reflections will help improve it rather than destroy it
  • one submits one's best thinking and defends it against challenge
  • calls for the temporary suspension of one's beliefs
  • calls for investing wholeheartedly, even blindly, in one's beliefs
  • one searches for common ground and basic agreements
  • one searches for glaring differences
  • one searches for strengths in the other positions
  • one searches for flaws and weaknesses in the other positions
  • involves a real concern for the other person and seeks to not alienate or offend
  • involves countering the other position without focusing on feelings or relationships; may belittle or deprecate the other person to gain advantage
  • assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together they can put them into a workable solution
  • assumes that there is a right answer and that someone has it
  • remains open-ended
  • implies a conclusion


This list of contrasting characteristics can be seen as a substitute for a comparison between effective governance on one hand (see the ‘dialogue list’) and ineffective governance on the other (the ‘debate list’). For example: take the first contrasting statement (‘dialogue is collaborative’) and convert it. It might appear as something like: ‘good governance is a collective decision making process that produces a shared commitment to a particular course of action’. The obverse might be: ‘poor governance is disjointed decision making that produces fragmented, uncoordinated action.’

How to approach a dialogue—establishing desired norms of engagement

The following guidelines are central to dialogue in its most basic form. As directors:

  1. we agree to talk (and we do) about what is important to us as individuals
  2. we listen carefully to each other. Our explicit goal is to see how thoroughly we can understand each of our fellow directors’ views and experiences.
  3. we say what we think is true for us without saying (or even implying) that any of our colleagues with a different viewpoint is therefore wrong
  4. we thirst for what we can learn together through this joint exploration process (that we could not have learned on our own)
  5. no matter what we think we know or how enthusiastic we might be about something, we restrain any tendency we might have to dominate or monopolise the conversation.
  6. we commit to ensuring that our colleagues each have a chance to speak and to contribute to the ‘unfolding of meaning’.

Dialogue or debate—which is best for effective governance?

When there is a need to extract the best thinking from a board, to productively explore ideas and learn together and to build a high level of commitment to creative solutions and their effective implementation, debate is likely to be inappropriate, even counterproductive. Dialogue offers a much better pathway, both philosophically and practically. Many directors and boards, however, will not find this easy initially. Dialogue requires both individual and group awareness and a commitment to its use. It needs effective facilitation of the process, and it requires perseverance in developing the capability.

In terms of good governance, the results will repay the effort many times over. If you have any doubt about this, go back to the start of this article (What happens when things go well?). What we described was not ‘a really good debate’ but was, in fact, ‘a really good dialogue’. The alternative also described above (Peoples’ experience is not always so positive) cannot really be considered an option.

An ability to engage consistently and effectively in a ‘strategic dialogue’ about the things most central to organisational achievement is a central feature in distinguishing boards that provide successful leadership from those that just muddle along, adding little of real value to their organisations. The same dialogue skills that can be applied to such good effect within the boardroom are also those that are most likely to improve a board’s relationships with key stakeholders.



  1. Alan Stewart. Is “debate” or “conversation” the most useful form of public discourse? Source: http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-converse1.html (Downloaded 12 February 2006)
  2. For a useful introduction to the concept of dialogue see Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard (1998) Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation. New York, John Wily & Sons: William Issacs (1999) Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York, Currency; and Daniel Yankelovich (1999) The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation. New York, Simon & Schuster.
  3. The Co-Intelligence Institute. Source: http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-dialogue.html#dialogue-debate (Downloaded 12 February 2006)
  4. The Co-Intelligence Institute. Op cit.