The Seductive Promise of Dialogue


my representation of the key elements of David Bohm’s Dialogue methodology, using some of the Group Works  facilitation cards

The origin of the word dialogue has nothing to do with “two”, or even with “conversation”, but means simply “through reasoning or language”. Many works called “dialogues” are simply intellectual discourses, though many are styled as conversations between an ‘enlightened’ protagonist and other characters, straw men/women, or even between the author and his/her readers. The currently popular Q&A-style interviews could be considered dialogues in this sense. So could much of this blog, even when it finds me talking to myself out loud.

Many philosophers have written about the nature of dialogue and what it reveals about our self-awareness, our nature, and our culture, how we collectively ‘make meaning’, and the essence of relationship and existence itself.

But the current craze around dialogue mostly has to do with the use of the term by David Bohm, who developed a ‘dialogue’ methodology that he used for group deliberation, and honed throughout his life. He was careful about being prescriptive about this methodology, since he apparently believed there was no one way to ‘dialogue’ that worked best for everyone, and since he also believed that the only way to learn to do it effectively was through extensive practice over a lifetime, which would essentially entail modifications of the practice as one learned. So his writing tends to focus on principles and examples rather than explicit practices and processes to use.

We humans like things simple and prescriptive, however, and some of David’s followers have not been as reticent as he was to prescribe specific processes and structures for dialogue.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”, GB Shaw famously said. We humans tend to filter and misinterpret what other say so that it fits precisely with our preconceived ideas of the truth. We are not, it seems, at least in our current stage of evolution, particularly well equipped for learning. Paul Simon’s song The Boxer has a line that goes: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

One of David Bohm’s intentions with his work on and use of dialogue was the attempt to wrestle with this very human tendency, and the misunderstandings and lost opportunities for learning and insight that this tendency inevitably produces.

I’ve read several works on Bohmian dialogue, including David’s own booklet On Dialogue, and confess to struggling to integrate them all. David wrote:

Shared meaning is really the cement that holds society together, and you could say that the present society has very poor quality cement … The society at large has a very incoherent set of meanings. In fact, this set of ‘shared meanings’ is so incoherent that it is hard to say that they have any real meaning at all.

David argues, in almost non-dual terms, that much of our problem in communication is that we identify ourselves with our thoughts, ideas and beliefs. They are, he argues, just our conditioning, placeholders for what we have been conditioned to think and hence do; there should be no need for us to be so attached to our thoughts as to need to defend them, since:

if [your] opinion is right, it doesn’t need a reaction. And if it is wrong, why should you defend it? If you are identified with it, however, you do defend it. It is as if you yourself are under attack when your opinion is challenged. Opinions thus tend to be experienced as “truths,” even though they may only be your own assumptions and your own background. You got them from your teacher, your family, or by reading, or in yet some other way. Then for one reason or another you are identified with them, and you defend them… Thought is the problem.

Dialogue, he argues, requires and enables us to set aside our conditioned thoughts and beliefs and open ourselves to appreciating others’ and developing collective understanding. This is especially important to do in the political arena, but also in religion and even in science. We are trapped by our conditioned assumptions, beliefs, and opinions, and unable to see ‘outside’ them unless we use something like dialogue.

It takes, he argues, a group of 15-40 people, seated in a circle, to be sufficiently representative of the wide diversity of assumptions, beliefs, ideas, knowledge and opinions of even the smallest community of interest or practice in a particular subject matter area. Groups smaller than that can be too quick to accommodate each other if they sense basic agreement, which means little or no true understanding of the diversity of assumptions, beliefs etc in the room and hence no shift in perspective towards a truly collective one.

Dialogue groups have to meet without purpose or intention, he says, like aboriginal tribes once did:

Now, from time to time that tribe met like this in a circle. They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate. There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more – the older ones – but everybody could talk. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well. Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.

Dialogue, in essence, is all about the journey, then, not the destination. 

Every dialogue, he said, must begin with a negotiation. What is to be said “all has to be worked out”, intuitively and collectively. It emerges, and cannot be pre-set or forced.

In her wonderful synopsis, Maria Popova says:

Words,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her abiding meditation on the magic of real human communication, “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But what happens in a cultural ecosystem where the hearer has gone extinct and the speaker gone rampant? Where do transformation and understanding go?

What made, for instance, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s superb 1970 dialogue about race and identity so powerful and so enduringly insightful is precisely the fact that it was a dialogue — not the ping-pong of opinions and co-reactivity that passes for dialogue today, but a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered response. That commitment is the reason why they were able to address questions we continue to confront with tenfold more depth and nuance than we are capable of today. And the dearth of this commitment in our present culture is the reason why we continue to find ourselves sundered by confrontation and paralyzed by the divisiveness of “us vs. them” narratives. “To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Alexander in contemplating power and possibility. Krista Tippett calls such engagement generous listening. And yet so much of our communication today is defined by a rather ungenerous unwillingness to listen coupled with a compulsion to speak.

The process of thinking is, David says, a “tacit” process. As Dave Snowden has put it: “We know more than we think, we can think more than what we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.” The gaps are quantitative as well as qualitative, and much (content, context and meaning) can get lost in the struggle to translate the tacit knowledge to the explicit statement. Therein perhaps lies much if not most human misunderstanding.

So if there is no universally-agreed-upon process or structure for this form of dialogue, what at least are the underlying principles and practices that govern it when it is effectively done?

Chris Innes, in his book Healing Corrections, about how Bohmian Dialogue is being tried to create “healing environments” that transform the culture of our incarceration systems, describes some of them. He says there are four key practices that must be learned and practiced:

  1. Speaking in your own, authentic voice. This is a re-learnable art. It is not the voice we usually use in our conversations.
  2. Listening, actively and deeply, with one’s whole body and attention.
  3. Respecting other people and their views, and accepting they are doing their best and are genuine in their intentions.
  4. Suspending judgements, and suspending claims to the validity our own assumptions and beliefs.

The methods used in most organizations to “solve problems” and “make decisions” do not lend themselves to dialogue, since the purpose of dialogue is different: it is to achieve a shared understanding and appreciation of the issues. From that shared meaning and perspective, one can then, if needed, move to problem-solving and decision-making. Or, more often, the appropriate decisions and solutions may simply be obvious from this new shared perspective and understanding.

Importantly, dialogue encourages and enables a shift of power dynamics in the group, the emergence of a sense of shared vision, and a shift from “fragmented” personal stories towards a collective story.

In a multi-author book on dialogue entitled The Conditions for Thriving Conversations, Mario Cayer lays out what he sees as the five ‘dimensions’ of Bohmian dialogue and their attributes and prerequisites, as follows:

  1. Dialogue as social conversation, without agenda or purpose: listening, respect, empathy, care, receptivity, appreciating the others’ experience and perspective, reciprocity
  2. Dialogue as collective inquiry about participants’ underlying motivations, feelings, assumptions and beliefs: openness, courage, artful questioning, raising “collective consciousness”, unlearning in order to learn
  3. Dialogue as creation of shared meaning and common culture: flow and exchange of meaning, diversity of viewpoints, willingness to be transformed, suspension of judgement, conversation as collective therapy
  4. Dialogue as participatory process, a “playing with” each other: empowerment, lack of hierarchy, new ways of seeing, embeddedness in the whole, with more absorbing what is heard and less conceptualization around it
  5. Dialogue as collective meditation, as ‘being’ together not ‘doing’: attention, acceptance, liberation from self and a shift of perspective to that of the coherent whole

So what do we do with all this? How do we develop practices and processes for dialogue that will lead to the emergence of enough deep collective understanding that everyone ‘just knows just what to do’?

How do we move from the enormous promise of dialogue, and its appealing underlying principles, to something we can all employ in every conversation we are involved in, including perhaps even conversations/dialogues with ourselves? How can we allow and enable dialogue to unfold without a predetermined purpose, intention, or even theme to get the group focused, in our attention-starved, frenzied, action-oriented modern society?

I think it makes sense, if we believe there is something useful to get from dialogue, to begin with two steps: 

  1. Working personally on the four key practices (speaking in our authentic voice, deep active listening, respecting others and the legitimacy of their perspectives, and suspending judgements and our own assumptions, beliefs and opinions), and then 
  2. Exercising these practices in a group whose participants are all likewise working on these four key practices, until we have achieved competence in the five dimensions of dialogue and the attributes of each.

I sense that Daniel Schmactenberger has been studying this for a long time, and is acting as a sort of model of what disciplined dialogue practice might offer us. In any of his podcasts and videos, and even in his reflective writing, it’s fascinating and inspiring to observe how he exemplifies the four practices of dialogue. But I suspect not many people have both the exceptional intellectual capacity and the patience to learn these new practices and put them into everyday use unassisted.

Even if dialogue was, as David asserts, the natural, emergent means of communication and collective intelligence of “uncivilized” tribal cultures, it is hard to imagine it becoming so again on any scale in our socially broken, industrial civilization culture.

I wonder whether those willing to go through this self-learning and self-training would mostly be those who have already been conditioned to be intellectually curious and reflective, which might include large numbers of philosophers and scientists and even readers of this blog, but a very small proportion of our entire society. This self-selecting group might then become very good at emerging insights and even achieving a collective understanding and shared culture among themselves (which could be great fun, and hard but satisfying work). But they will be unlikely to convince the vast majority (including most of the rich and powerful) to even consider using dialogue. So what good would it do? 

Perhaps some of the participants might invent goods and services that might make the world a better place. Perhaps where there is a significant concentration of skilled dialogue participants in one community, it could lead to valuable shifts and important new initiatives and discoveries in those communities. But I suspect on the whole it would just distance these participants even more from the people who are actually making most of the decisions that are, in toto, destroying our world. And it would probably distance them as well from the great numbers of people approving these ghastly decisions with their votes, behaviours and pocketbooks.

Still, maybe it’s worth it, just to know what might have been possible. If it’s far too late to prevent civilization’s near-term collapse, and if our conditioning has rendered any significant change in the trajectory of the human experiment impossible, it would still be interesting to know what a healthy, connected human society, re-skilled in the inherent capacity of dialogue, might be capable of. It might even be some small consolation if we could gift this knowledge to the relocalized communities left after civilization’s fall, in the hope they can make better use of it than we could.

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