Conversation is thinking in its natural state.
Thinking is the conversation within us....
Words began in human beings in the process
of transforming gregariousness into co-operation.
Not all communication is dialogue. Dialogue is shared exploration
towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility. Any
communication that fits this definition, the Co-Intelligence Institute
considers dialogue. Communication that doesn't fit this definition,
we don't call dialogue.
(Note: Some of our colleagues believe that what we call
dialogue should be called conversation. See for
example, Is "debate" or
"conversation" the most useful form of public discourse?
by Alan Stewart.)
Dialogue can at times be truly magical, dissolving the boundaries
between us and the world and opening up wellsprings of realization
and resonant power. In those rare, deeply healing moments of dialogue
in its most ideal form, we may experience the wholeness of who
we are (beyond our isolated ego), listening and speaking to the
wholeness of who we are (deep within and beyond the group around
us). At those times it is almost as if wholeness
is speaking and listening to itself through us, individually and
collectively. Words become unnecessary; knowing is instantaneous,
and meaning flows like a great river within and among us.
These are moments of grace, whose frequency increases as we practice
listening more deeply and exploring more openly with each other.
Here are some guidelines for dialogue in its most basic form
- We talk about what's really important to us.
- We really listen to each other. We see how thoroughly we
can understand each other's views and experience.
- We say what's true for us without making each other wrong.
- We see what we can learn together by exploring things together.
- We avoid monopolizing the conversation. We make sure everyone
has a chance to speak.
The late quantum physicist David Bohm observed that both quantum
mechanics and mystical traditions suggest that our beliefs shape
the realities we evoke. He further 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, and this process he called dialogue.
Most conversations, of course, lack the fluid, deeply connected
quality suggested by this oceanic metaphor. They are more like
ping-pong games, with participants hitting their very solid ideas
and well-defended positions back and forth. Such conversations
are properly called discussions. "Discussion," Bohm
noted, derives from the same root word as "percussion"
and "concussion," a root that connotes striking, shaking
Dialogue, in contrast, involves joining our thinking and feeling
into a shared pool of meaning which continually flows and evolves,
carrying us all into new, deeper levels of understanding none
of us could have foreseen. Through dialogue "a new kind of
mind begins to come into being," observed Bohm, "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."
Bohm's approach to dialogue involved participants working together
to understand the assumptions underlying their individual and
collective beliefs. Collective reflection on these assumptions
could reveal blind spots and incoherences from which participants
could then free themselves, leading to greater collective understanding
and harmony. Bohm maintained that such collective learning increases
our collective intelligence. (For links to sites, groups, and
listservs working with Bohm's approach to dialogue, click
here.) (For Bohm's introduction to group dialogue, click
Other ways of understanding dialogue
My friend and fellow communications theorist, Ken Lebensold,
expands Bohm's alternatives to three types of communication:
Type A: Antagonistic communication, meaning conversations
that can't seem to move beyond conflict (this is analogous to
Type B: Banal communication, meaning conversations which
feel oppressive, boring, or depressing, This might happen because
participants are trying to avoid conflict, intimacy, or surprises,
or it might just be habit. (Common examples are extreme politeness,
tightly-controlled meetings, and alienated marriages.)
Type C: Creative communication, meaning conversations that
engage people's diversity creatively to generate greater shared
understanding (which is analogous to Bohm's sense of "dialogue").
Consultant John Adams suggested a very simple way to describe
dialogue, inspired by fellow consultant Harrison Owen: "Dialogue
is people truly listening to people truly speaking." When
we all truly speak and truly listen, we can't help but generate
greater shared understanding.
An unspoken dimension of such guidelines for individual behavior
is that they enable us to engage a deeper, larger intelligence
than our own. Some say this is a universal intelligence of which
we are tiny parts. Others say it is a collective intelligence
generated by the synergy among us. I say it may be either or both,
depending on the circumstances. Both are forms of co-intelligence
accessible primarily to those who practice true listening and
Again, dialogue is shared exploration towards greater understanding,
connection or possibility. When such communication happens without
structure or discipline, we call it "open dialogue."
Our cultural conditioning makes it unlikely that most "open
conversations" will actually end up as "open dialogue."
The usual outcome is that some group members end up arguing or
"head tripping" while others sit passively by. What
can we do to avoid such outcomes? It is hard to get dialogue rolling
in a world which has little understanding or experience of it.
Few people are competent, aware and wise enough to evoke real
dialogue in the midst of a heated argument, for example. Those
who are, are awesome to witness, but hard to emulate.
In the presence of a number of such souls, dialogue can come easily.
In groups of practiced dialoguers, a novice will often find herself
eagerly and effortlessly participating in the open, authentic,
shared exploration unfolding around her.
But few of us have constant access to true open dialogue. More
often we can get access to real dialogue only through some structured
process like a listening circle.
But sometimes people (including ourselves) don't want the constraints
of a listening circle. Or we're in a circumstance where such practices
are inappropriate. We need guidelines and tools we can use to
bring the spirit of dialogue to our everyday conversations and
meetings. This section will provide some ideas and methods that
are widely applicable.
Guidelines for Open Dialogue
The more all participants are aware of the nature of dialogue
and committed to bringing it about, the better the chance it will
happen. Towards that end, the following comparison of dialogue
and debate offers one of the most useful summaries of dialogue
that we've seen. (It was adapted by the Study Circle Resource
Center from a paper prepared by Shelley Berman, which in turn
was based on discussions of the Dialogue Group of the Boston Chapter
of Educators for Social Responsibility.)
Even on first reading, it can change one's perspective. The specifics,
however, can be hard to keep in mind. So the more often people
read (and discuss) the list, the more effective it will be. Perhaps
someone will put the items on this list into fortune cookies for
group use. Until then, you could write each one on a card and
give every participant in a meeting one card to keep in mind,
on behalf of the whole group.
- Dialogue is collaborative:
two or more sides work together toward common understanding.
Debate is oppositional: two sides oppose each other and attempt
to prove each other wrong.
- In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal. In
debate, winning is the goal.
- In dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) in order
to understand, find meaning, and find agreement. In debate,
one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter
- Dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant's
point of view. Debate affirms a participant's own point of
- Dialogue reveals assumptions for reevaluation. Debate
defends assumptions as truth.
- Dialogue causes introspection on one's own position.
Debate causes critique of the other position.
- Dialogue opens the possibility of reaching a better solution
than any of the original solutions. Debate defends one's
own positions as the best solution and excludes other solutions.
- Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude: an openness
to being wrong and an openness to change. Debate creates
a closed-minded attitude, a determination to be right.
- In dialogue, one submits one's best thinking, knowing
that other people's reflections will help improve it rather than
destroy it. In debate, one submits one's best thinking and
defends it against challenge to show that it is right.
- Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending one's beliefs.
Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one's beliefs.
- In dialogue, one searches for basic agreements. In
debate, one searches for glaring differences.
- In dialogue, one searches for strengths in the other positions.
In debate, one searches for flaws and weaknesses in the other
- Dialogue involves a real concern for the other person
and seeks to not alienate or offend. Debate involves a countering
of the other position without focusing on feelings or relationship
and often belittles or deprecates the other person.
- Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of the answer
and that together they can put them into a workable solution.
Debate assumes that there is a right answer and that someone
- Dialogue remains open-ended. Debate implies a conclusion.
Tools for Open Dialogue
"Popcorn" and other variations of circles
In listening circles,
people's turns are decided by the passing of an object around
the circle. The sequence is totally predictable. This is highly
Sometimes a group wants to use an object to guide their discussion
but they don't want to go around in a circle. They want more spontaneity.
So the object is returned to the center after each turn and picked
up by whoever wishes to speak next. This is sometimes called "popcorn"
because the object pops in and out of the center. Since it is
a bit less structured, it is considered more "open"
than a formal listening circle.
The group can decide that no one speaks two times until everyone
has spoken once. This version of popcorn still feels much like
a listening circle. However, if the group lets the object pass
to anyone, regardless of how often they've spoken, there is a
major loss of circle atmosphere. This loose form of popcorn feels
like an ordinary conversation, except that people don't interrupt
each other, there's time and space between speakers, and it's
clear who has the floor -- major accomplishments nonetheless.
In some circles the focus is on individual people. These individuals
may be sharing their stories or receiving some kind of help from
the whole group. In these circumstances it can be useful to let
other people question the speaker for a while after he's finished,
before the group's attention moves, with the object, to the next
Chime and stone
Two more modifications of open conversation can help it have
some of the benefits of dialogue without the constraints of a
formal circle. These modifications are embodied in a chime (or
a gong) and a stone (or other listening circle object) placed
where all participants can easily reach them.
If at any time one of the participants feels the group needs to
center itself or move to a "heart space," they reach
into the middle and strike the chime or gong. All talking stops
immediately until the sound fades. Often the silence extends for
a minute or more. When conversation begins again, it usually has
a more centered, reflective quality.
The purpose of the stone is different. When someone picks it up,
they get the next turn after whoever is currently talking. This
enables participation by less dominant, more reflective people
who aren't inclined to compete for turns in fast-moving, often
A penny for your thoughts
Another way to deal with this last problem -- the difficulty
of some participants to get a word in edgewise -- is to give everyone
an equal number (for example, four) pennies, one of which they
put into a bowl in the middle whenever they speak. When they run
out of pennies, they can't speak again until everyone else has
run out. (In a small group you don't need pennies; just agree
that each person won't speak again until everyone else has.)
An interesting variation on this is to make the pennies represent
time -- say, one minute. A hat is passed to a speaker who puts
in two pennies, and a timer is set for two minutes. When it goes
off, he has to stop talking or put in another penny. People who
want to hear from someone can give them one or more pennies, to
give them more time. Sometimes a wild market in pennies can get
going, with people wheeling and dealing. One participant at a
conference took up a collection from the men to get a boxful of
pennies for the women -- an interesting approach to affirmative
If you think people might cheat, you can use poker chips or other
unusual objects instead of pennies.
An open dialogue can be helped by facilitation. An experienced
facilitator can be brought in or the role can be held by one or
more -- or all -- of the participants. The simplest form of facilitation
entails ensuring that all involved have a chance to speak and
that the meeting starts and ends on time.
Some facilitators discuss broad dialogue guidelines with participants
and get them to agree to try applying them. Often guidelines such
as the ones at the start of this article are posted on a wall
where they can be referred to during the dialogue.
The facilitator says that he or she will be trying to shepherd
the conversation along the guidelines described. Then the facilitator
lets people talk, giving them gentle reminders as necessary.
Of course, to the extent all participants are brief, mindful,
and curious about what each other has to say, little formal facilitation
or gimmicks are necessary to ensure healthy dialogue.
(more on facilitation)
Maintaining a shared center
It is as important to "maintain a shared center"
in an open dialogue as in more formal listening circles. When
just a few people are talking -- especially when they are engaged
in a back-and-forth discussion rather than being fully present
in the group space and speaking from their hearts -- the shared
center tends to get lost and the group's attention and energy
dissipates. Other group members find themselves drifting off or
withdrawing, becoming spectators instead of participants. Many
groups encourage anyone who notices this dynamic in themselves
or in others to call it to the group's attention. Then the
whole group can take a moment to explore why this is happening
or re-orient to its shared center in some other way. An individual
who speaks in a particularly profound and inclusive way can also
bring the circle back to center. In any co-intelligent dialogue,
maintaining the shared center is usually at least as important
as whatever subject is being considered.
- Dialogue: Rediscovering the Transforming Power of Conversation
by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard (J. Wiley and Sons, 1998).
A Proposal By David Bohm, Donald Factor, and Peter Garrett
- the pamphlet that started the dialogue movement
- The Joy of Conversation by Jaida N'ha Sandra
(Utne, 1997). The Utne Reader-sponsored guide to
co-creative salons of all types. http://www.utne.com
and transformational conversations