On dialogue

For several years I have been very interested in a group practice that I feel has great potential for application in business. It is a method of decision-making that is sometimes described as dialogue. It is as old as the hills and variants thereof can be found in the Quaker business method, Native American Indian practices and elsewhere. tribal elders

Although such practices have been around pretty much as long as there have been humans, we have rather lost the habit in the modern world. I have been exploring dialogue for a few years now and I find that trying to describe it with words can be challenging. The rational mind struggles with it, rather like trying to describe the colour blue to a blind person, or describing how I keep my balance when I ride a bike. These things make perfect sense to me but I can’t put them into words.

I want to share an account of a workshop I ran a few years ago exploring David Bohm’s notion of dialogue. Bohm was one of the most brilliant physicists of the last century, making significant contributions to quantum theory and the theory of relativity. He was also an activist, concerned about the impact of human behaviour on society and on life on earth. Thanks in part to conversations with the great Indian mystic Krishnamuthi, he became interested in the whole process of thinking. As Bohm pointed out: “We haven’t really paid much attention to thought as a process. We have engaged in thoughts, but we have only really paid attention to the content, not to the process.”

Bohm was particularly interested in the concepts of fragmentation and wholeness. He noted that the rational mind tends to divide things up and that we then forget that things make no sense on their own unless we can also see them as an undivided whole. He shared with Krishnamurthi the conviction that thinking is a process we all participate in and that it is possible to go beyond the logical mind to access a “shared mind”, where deep insights can be gained. The technique he recommended for doing this he called “Dialogue”. Bohm looked at the roots of the word and noted it was comprised of “dia” – through and “logos” – meaning. Thus he described dialogue as “meaning flowing through us”. Dialogue is an ancient practice for humans, one that is still practised by tribes in Africa and elsewhere. In the civilised world we have largely dropped the habit, but that doesn’t mean we have forgotten how do it. It is, I believe, something we are all capable of participating in. We just need some encouragement.

As I see it, dialogue is a way of accessing higher wisdom. You can have a dialogue with yourself, or with nature, or perhaps most powerfully, with a group of people, the more diverse, the better. To engage in dialogue requires us to listen, really listen. This is not so easy, as Krishnamurthi pointed out: “We are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate we hardly listen at all to what is being said.”

However people can be encouraged to enter into a more open and receptive state, allowing them to enter into dialogue. In creating the weekend my co-facilitator, Jane, and I aimed to incorporate a number of “tricks” to open people up and break through their conventional patterns of thinking and behaving. For example, we didn’t start the weekend with formal introductions, which can be a chance for people to puff up their egos. The first thing we did was make bread together, paying great attention to the texture of the dough between our fingers, and how it changed as we kneaded it. Another exercise we did involved listening to nature. We walked in silence outdoors, then split up and found a quiet spot each to tune into our surroundings for 15 minutes.

These exercises were interspersed with hour-long sessions of dialogue. Seated in a circle, after some introductory slides related to the theme of dialogue, we let the conversation lead where it would, not following any pre-set agenda. It worked – on the first day the conversation flowed quite easily and naturally. No strain. This effortlessness in itself caused some of us to question the experience. By the end of the first evening, after all this good talking, had we got anywhere, we asked ourselves? Was this really dialogue? As one participant put it “I feel like a fish in water – I can’t tell how different this is from my usual experience of being with people”. Some expressed a desire for more conflict – perhaps we were all being too “nice”. I felt some doubts too and suggested that maybe we had had enough dialogue and should move on the following day to doing things, namely trying to fix a problem that one participant was wrestling with. In the end Jane and I decided to trust the structure we had agreed in advance. But I went to bed feeling uncertain – had I brought these people together just for a nice chat?

It seems that a certain amount of confusion and even chaos is normal at this secondary stage of a dialogue process. This can be seen as a last attempt by the rational mind to keep control. Often the group never moves beyond this stage. To do so requires perseverance and patience, and a degree of trust in the process. William Isaacs, author of “Dialogue and the art of thinking together”, suggests that to move beyond this stage requires “…a shift of identity, one that says “Though my positions may be right and well thought through, they are still not who I am. I can make space for other positions without jeopardising my own inner stability.” ”

The next morning, four of us rose early to walk the labyrinth in the grounds of the centre. It was a gorgeous morning, the air was still and crisp, the sun shone, the frost twinkled on the grass, the birds twittered in the trees. Walking the labyrinth in silence was a beautiful, elevating experience. “I thought I would miss going to church this morning”, said one of us, “but I didn’t because I did the labyrinth.” We then all came together to eat breakfast in silence. Surprising how noisy the sound of cutlery, cups and bowls banging can be when they are not drowned out by words!

The change of tone in the session after breakfast was immediately apparent. There was a quietness in the air, a calm energy, vibrant and alert. Jane put some cards out, face down – on each was a single word such as love, passion, peace. The idea was that anyone who felt moved to do so should pick up a card and see if it triggered anything in them that they would like to share with the group. This is another trick for stepping past the rational mind and it was a fascinating exercise. There was definitely something mysterious about the way the right cards seemed to turn up in the hands of the right people at the right time. For example, one person picked up the one blank card. He then confessed that he had known in advance what he was going to say! Following this process allowed everyone in the group to let go of any need to direct the conversation – it just flowed.

We were no longer simply exchanging information or ideas or opinions that we already knew. Instead we were accessing new insights, a phase of rich learning. The best I can do to describe it is to say that it felt like there were two conversations going on simultaneously, one at the obvious, relatively superficial level with words, and another at a much deeper level, where connections were being made and deep lessons absorbed.

Someone pointed out that after the transition phase humanity is going through, it is likely that the world will be far more uncertain, chaotic and emergent than the one we know. I suddenly realised that deep inside I have assumed, naively, that things will eventually settle down into a world that is similar to the current one, only better – people will be nicer to each other and the planet, there will be less inequality, we will have more time for each other etc. Her comment struck me powerfully not only because I recognised its truth but also because it exposed my deeply held assumption, which couldn’t survive the light of day. Old certainties started to become fuzzy. I had the distinct feeling that the world had become less solid, more blurred at the edges. I felt like a tree that had been shaken to its roots and that nothing would ever be the same again.

We stopped for lunch, and the energy shifted again. One person left the group and the rest of us split naturally into small groups while we ate, finding ourselves deeply engaged in meaningful conversations. After lunch we had time for what was effectively a coaching session as the group talked through a major challenge that one participant was facing. What I noticed was that the focus was not on solving the problem for him, but rather on helping him clarify his own thinking.

Finally, we had a closing session where each person shared what they had gained from the weekend. This was a very special time – the energy in the room was clear and bright, as the sunshine streaming through the windows illuminated the space. I felt bathed in peace. Somehow we had reached a point where mere words were superfluous.

We finished the last session with a perfect silence of 15 or 20 seconds, simply appreciating the warm feelings in our hearts. Each of us was reluctant to break the circle. It felt as if between us we had given birth to a living presence, something that we couldn’t feel or touch but was tangible nevertheless, made up of all of us. It was there and moments later it was gone as we all prepared to head homeward.

I learned, from this experience and others, that dialogue is a really powerful way for people to interact together, to exchange views without judgement or attachment, to think and learn together for the benefit of all. It is something that can really shift people out of their ordinary ways of being, and could have a potentially transformative effect if used regularly in a business or any other context where groups of people come together. So much of what passes for conversation is really a type of battle, where the participants fight to be heard, to persuade the other to accept their own point of view, to “win” the discussion. Dialogue provides a safe space where people can explore complex and difficult issues without fear, opening them up to new possibilities.

I also learned that you cannot make dialogue happen, in the same way that you cannot make yourself go to sleep. To create a true dialogue, you have to create the conditions that are conducive to dialogue, and wait, and trust…

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