Using Dialogue for Crossing Boundaries
Unpublished draft, August 1999
What is Dialogue and why is it useful? This is a question I have been grappling with for some years now. I have realised that many people from different walks of life have come to the conclusion that a certain special quality of conversation (labelled Dialogue) between people can be attained, which has a transformative effect, enabling profound insights and changes in attitude. Such conversations are most difficult and perhaps most important when people on different sides of the fence are experiencing the divisive effects of change (eg. between managers and workers, sales and production, HR and operations, customers and employees). Clearly it would be important for leaders, coaches, facilitators and consultants interested in change to understand how to achieve conversations of this kind.
This article is intended to capture what I have been learning over recent years about what Dialogue is and how to create the conditions for it to take place.
Dialogue is defined in my dictionary as a conversation between two or more people, which sounds unremarkable, but sometimes we use the word in a special and more mysterious way, conveying a special experience of contact, meaning, synergy, alignment between people. I have felt drawn to this second idea of Dialogue, sensing that it must be important, even perhaps a crucial ingredient for anyone interested in managing change.
In SmithKline Beecham (1994-5)
The earliest time I remember thinking of Dialogue in this second, special way was in 1994. Tony Coyle and I had written an article called "Consulting with the Flow", and I now feel this was attempting to describe an experience of Dialogue that had been occurring between us in the midst of a corporate change programme. Our work together was characterised by a special alignment. It felt like we were almost able to read one another's minds. We were inhabiting one another's thought process, producing new and creative thought, and each being somehow changed in ourselves by this thinking between us.
Tony told me about a book he had previously read by David Bohm, a leading physicist, and bought me four or five books by Bohm to read, including "Unfolding Meaning - a weekend of dialogue with David Bohm" based on a weekend of group conversation in a Cotswolds Hotel in May 1984 .
Shortly after this in April 1995, Tom Kaney, the HR/OD Director from SmithKline Beecham in the US invited me to join a group of the company's "coach/trainers" at the Runnymede Hotel, Egham, near Heathrow, for a 24 hour get together, as a kind of thank you, stock-taking and teambuilding for people who had worked hard , each in their own way, to deliver the company Simply Better Way programme. He titled it a "Champions of Change" meeting and hired Garth Spiers as facilitator and intended for us to spend a day in "dialogue".
Twelve of us met over dinner in the
At one point we took turns to write our emerging thoughts on flipchart. Here is an extract from the flipcharts:
During initial dialogue
During this conversation I became disorientated, losing my sense of time and location. There was an intensity to this, and it felt like we were building up thinking and shared understanding together, in the centre of the circle. I was very excited by this but recognised not everyone in the group felt comfortable and there was an eagerness for the day to produce some actions. We noted next steps on the flipchart, but the results were pretty loose:
We decided that each of us should reflect on the day and send a note to the others during the next few days. Here are some of the comments:
After this session a smaller group met up on two further occasions. Only 3 people turned up on the second occasion, work pressures were blamed but I think we were confused about the role of dialogue. It felt low priority to people and a bit of a luxury. A planned 6 month reunion in October was cancelled with a note from Tom Kaney as follows:
Dear (almost) dead poets society
Having been the one who started this process, I'm sorry to see it trail off but accept that it had its place, time and value for us and has served a good purpose. To return to my original vision for it, it was to bring us together to further develop our sense of community as we continue to facilitate many profound cultural changes in the company….
..all the best to each of you as you continue the journey. Let's continue to find ways to stay connected and build on the foundation of community and team spirit.
I was left with the feeling that Dialogue is a very vulnerable baby, and in today's corporate environment it would need a great deal of protection to stay alive. Perhaps what we lacked was a pressing need, such as a deep seated conflict, to which we could apply the power of Dialogue. And maybe I was interested in the softer form of Dialogue which helped us to access creativity in the space between people.
Around this time, in the winter of 94/95, I had identified in my learning diary that Dialogue was the essence of my work. By this I meant my work consists of having conversations with clients that help them find what really matters deeply to them, surfacing the values which guide their actions and their lives. I felt that dialogues had the effect of building relationships, producing value for a client and, importantly for a consultant, generating work. I my book Diary of a Change Agent I referred often to generative conversations, which are probably just another term for Dialogue.
A seminar for change agents (1997-8)
During the early part of 1997, some
months after Diary of a Change Agent was published, I received an Email from a
London-based consultant called Robin Wood, saying "why don't we hold
seminar on Dialogue. If you're interested give me a call". This lead to a
series of generative conversations with Robin, at his offices beside
During the time Robin showed me a Dialogue Poem he had written:
Dialogue lives in the empty cracks
And open spaces around us
Growing in the silence of reflection
The loosening of assumptions
The shifting of mindsands
In life's tidal flow
Unlocking new ways of seeing
On the cusp
Life lived at the edge
In our peripheral visions
A shared experience generating
Waves of understanding
And resonance in the flow
Together engaged in a coherent field of light
We act from an instant
Apprehension of the totality
The integral function on our fragmented world
Plexus in the body politic
Weaving a web of understanding
Shining like an aura around us
The cleansing brushfire in our brains
Expanding our awareness into the sea of possibility
Dr Robin L Wood, Genesys
The conversations with Robin were highly
enjoyable, and seemed to range far and wide through human evolution, the human
brain, complexity and the new sciences, jazz and improvisation, corporate life
The seminar called "Dialogue for Change Agents" was positioned as a chance to explore what it takes to deliver real, sustainable change, working at the frontiers of your leadership and facilitation practice. It was attended by 9 or so participants, and was successful in its own way but it felt inconclusive to me. We had completed some interesting talks and exercises, and some members of the group wanted to meet up again for a further session, and I was prepared to continue, but a number of us including me felt we had not achieved the hoped for experience of dialogue. I suppose this shows how illusive dialogue can be.
Making connections from Senge, to Bohm and Isaacs
During my research leading up to the "Dialogue for Change Agents" seminar I noticed in Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline, a reference to Werner Heisenberg, the physicist famous for the uncertainty principle, who stated that "science is rooted in conversations", and referred to certain conversations which had had a lasting effect on his thinking and gave birth to the theories for which he eventually became famous.
David Bohm is also referred to in Senge's book as someone who was developing a theory and method of dialogue, through which a group "becomes open to the flow of a larger intelligence". Dialogue was said to be a method revered by the ancient Greeks and practised by many primitive societies including Native Americans but lost to the modern world.
From time to time the tribe gathered in a circle. They just 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 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 or decide things.
David Bohm, On Dialogue
Bohm argued that the purpose of science was not the "accumulation of knowledge" but the "creation of mental maps" that guide our perception. Bohm argued that in contrast to the ping-pong of conventional discussion, a group in dialogue experiences a "free flow of meaning in the sense of a stream that passes between two banks", and accesses "a pool of common meaning" which cannot be accessed individually. The purpose of dialogue is to go beyond an individual's understanding, and to achieve insights that simply could not be achieved individually. A group is able to explore complex, difficult issues from many points of view, suspending assumptions and communicating assumptions freely.
Amongst Peter Senge's clan at MIT is a
man called William Isaacs who has developed a special interest in Dialogue. I
notice that he was present amongst participants at the Cotswolds hotel on that
weekend with David Bohm in 1984/5 (reported in Bohm's book Unfolding Meaning).
He has worked in deeply conflicted situations, for example with steel workers
who were in an industrial dispute with their management, and in the
Jaworski and Shell
During 1997 I read a book by Joe Jaworski
called "Synchronicity - The Inner Path of Leadership". In this
inspirational book Jaworski, former head of group scenario planning in Shell,
describes a meeting he had with David Bohm in
Meeting Peter Garrett (1998)
During 1998 I attended a seminar, called
Changing Ourselves, Changing Organisations at
I realised during the day that the session leader, Peter Garrett, was the business partner of Bill Isaacs, of MIT and a month or two later met up him in a restaurant in Stratford on Avon to try to understand his piece in this Dialogue jigsaw.
It transpired that Peter knew David Bohm, had worked with him for nine years and had organised the Cotswold Hotel weekend reported in Bohm's book Unfolding Meaning! His involvement with David Bohm began when he was organising a large conference on "Human Unity" at Warwick University. Peter as organiser was able to ring up people of his choice to be speakers. Today he might have phoned Nelson Mandela, but then he chose Thor Heyerdahl and Llaurens Van Der Post. He also chose to approach David Bohm as someone important in the world of physics and science, whose photo in the brochure at the time could have helped enrol more people and reduce the risk of making a loss.
In the end David Bohm replied too late to get his picture in the brochure, so the publicity benefits were lost but he did run an excellent 40 minute session on wholeness with the simple message that in physics and in society at large there is a FRAGMENTATION of thought which produces pain. 40 minutes was hardly long enough to do justice to this so huge a topic so Peter booked the hotel in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire and arranged for 40 people to attend a weekend with David Bohm, and the rest is history… They wrote a paper together called "Dialogue - a Proposal " (http://www.cs.ubc.ca/nest/imager/contributions/scharein/various/Dialogue.html ). Peter explained it like this.
Bohm's fragmentation idea and the role of dialogue in crossing boundaries
Fragmentation is a result of the way people think, about ourselves and about each other. The way we think is tacit not explicit – it is not the content of our thoughts. How do you think? We don’t know. It is like asking How do you ride a bicycle. We don’t know how. But fragmentation suggests we are not doing our thinking very well. Dialogue exposes how we think and can overcome the fragmentation.
We have COLLECTIVE THOUGHT PATTERNS – but individuals are not aware of them. This is like Jung's archetypes, but we are referring to thinking within factions and subcultures within organisations. People become part of factions without realising and without deliberately joining. In factions we find ourselves similar to others inside and different from others outside. It is through finding ourselves part of a group, tribe or faction we VALIDATE OUR IDENTITY i.e. we confirm that we exist, that we're significant and find out who we are through our contact with others. With a tangible object we can see whether it exists or not, we can touch it, but it is not so easy to see our own identity.
When we’re working with individuals on difficult change issues, they might be intellectually and even emotionally convinced of the need for change, but validation is also needed. They need confirmation that they are thinking straight and that others are thinking along similar lines. Validation is important for the way we think and act subsequently. But factions apart from providing much needed validation, have a downside: they often end up thinking unreasonable thoughts about "outsiders", and this is the root of prejudice and racism.
The early dialogue work with David Bohm involved working in groups that were large enough to be "messy", larger than a single faction, to expose collective thought patterns. Peter Garrett organised groups of 40-70 people in England, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and elsewhere. These groups explored the idea of fragmentation and sought to expose the way we think.
From these groups a lot of theoretical stuff emerges. Quickly people found themselves stating "shoulds", e.g. "I think we should do this, should not do that…", and they started suggesting techniques such as NLP. Our reply would be "What is it that makes you want to suggest NLP etc?" This led to some QUITE EXTREME SITUATIONS, for example in Sweden on one occasion "there was much discomfort, and the group inquired into the discomfort, which became quite painful. A woman in her 50s left, found a piano, pushed it back into the room on her own and started playing! If you inquire instead of providing solutions it can be very challenging because it exposes our thinking".
Theory was developing from this work, partly from David Bohm's previous work on "Wholeness and the Implicate Order" (see book), which said that EVERYTHING IS INTERRELATED at an unmanifest, hidden level. Manifest includes all the things we can see, touch, but think of them as "ripples on the ocean": ripples are manifest, but the ocean is the important part. Everything is deeply interrelated, there are no independent actions. This is close to Native American ideas about humans being part of nature. Think of spring coming: it is manifest as snow drops appearing, but you do not stop spring by picking all the snowdrops! Old science looked for cause and effect linkages between manifest items, and missed the point of the underlying wholeness.
These ideas played themselves out in the dialogue group. When the lady started playing the piano, it was not an independent act, we were all party to it.
A second theoretical influence was Bohm's conversations with Krishnamurti which extended over 20 years or more. (see book – The Ending of Time). Krishnamurti did not find many people he could converse with in this way so it was for him an unusual 2 way exchange. Peters says it was a "passionate inquiry" style.
A third strand was from psychologist Patrick De Mare (his book "Koinonia – from hatred through dialogue to culture in the large group"), who was involved with therapeutic groups.
Peter Garrett's work after David Bohm's death
Peter himself contributed greatly to the early dialogue work with Bohm and others. He brought 15+ years of experience with groups and communities. Most of the people surrounding David Bohm were academics. Peter was interested in making a difference beyond theory, finding practical meaning, and sought to keep theory and practice intimately related to one another.
Peter was constantly asking "Does this really work?", "Does it work with people who are not academics?". This has led him to work in prisons, organisations and participation in action research at Bath.
He finds a lot of organisational thinking quite individualistic ("tune up your car and drive it at the obstacles"). Some stuff is really quite deadly… "our competitors should wake up and curse the day we were born!" = very fragmentary, evil almost. The idea that competitors are not part of the same system is absurd, and results in deep fragmentation. Just like certain prisoners, some senior managers seem sociopathic: they take decisions without a proper social basis to them. Negotiations tend to be one-sided, on the basis of advantage.
The Inclusive Approach advocated by Tomorrow's Company raises the question of how wide you draw the circle. For example, Peter is involved with an environmental movement called "The Natural Step" which states four conditions for environmental sustainability including "not to remove from the earth material at a faster rate than you replenish". Monsanto are engaging with this, but they also have a huge genetic initiative. The challenge is how large do you draw the circle, how to you get the whole system involved, how do you engage with the chain of relationships to bring about systemic change? Perhaps this is where Peter's work in prisons is key.
Dialogue work in prisons
Prisons are full of people who are excluding others: prisoners exclude prison officers and vice versa, violent prisoners exclude sex offenders, certain sex offenders (e.g. rapists) exclude other types of sex offenders (e.g. child offenders). Peter recently ran a two day session with 23 prisoners, 2 prison officers, the head of through care and the governor in high security prison. He is currently running regular dialogue sessions in two prisons. The sessions work on the principle of including everyone and everything all the time. Whilst people do not always turn up, the door is always open. He has never asked anyone to leave. They have had the best and the worst of sessions as a result!
The drawing of the circle wide enough is the way out of fragmentation. In the end Dialogue has to include the whole system. Peter would like to begin to involve Prison Service HQ and the Home Office in these sessions.
Peter realised you can only go a certain distance with theory detached from practice, or you end up in cloud cuckoo land. This can be a real problem. Holistic theory-making is a lot of the problem – it ends up excluding other people. It is easy for writers to be advocating but not experiencing what they’re writing. Academics who write in an inaccessible language are playing some kind of fragmentary game.
Theory and practice should go hand in hand – cycles of theory and practice are intertwined.
Dialogue in Shell
Through Dia-Logos, the company in which Bill Isaacs and Peter Garrett are partners, they run a programme called Leadership for Collective Intelligence. It is a 10 month long course on Dialogue. People come in teams from their organisations. There is a week residential every month. On the first programme was a team from Shell including a person who was to consult to and mentor the leadership team in Shell's US organisation. This team introduced a series of small skills and practice to cultivate dialogue and eventually, over a period of time started to have agenda free dialogues. The CEO's reaction was "When I first took over, we tried to change the organisation and failed, nothing happened. When we started working on ourselves things really started to happen." This also contributed to a loosening of the whole identity of Shell. They are now co-operating with many companies in a community, through which instead of a single monolithic identity they are developing multiple identities. They are forming joint ventures with people who were their most serious competitors. They seem to realise there is not a single view but as many views as they have people in the room.
How Peter came to this work
Peter said he has sometimes wondered and worked on the question of why, at this point in his life he is drawn to work in maximum security prisons! He realises his earlier life experience might have contributed.
Peter's early life fell into two parts:
Peter realises many people's lives are either more like 1 or 2, either a deep sense of belonging to a natural ecology or an engagement in thought, either more practical or more academic. The first part includes being streetwise and Peter notices evidence of street wisdom in prisons, with prisoners running rings round academics.
He remembers being in Rhodesia as a child, swimming, a granite waterfall, cracking his head on a rock, being face down in a pool of water, then saved by a friend. On another occasion he remembers seriously burning his feet. The theme here is surviving traumatic incidents during childhood. Later in life, on reflection Peter has noticed a pattern in which he induces serious situations and seeks to survive, to remain conscious under pressure, not becoming introvert or disappearing. His work in prisons is a good example of the pattern: he wants to stay conscious, include all the elements there, maintain engagement despite apparent threats to his identity. His drive is towards including "what’s going on", "what is", and "what should be" as part of "what is", as being coherent, necessary, relevant, not rejecting and therefore causing fragmentation.
Healing the rift
In a way Peter's early life was rifted, not reconciled elsewhere, so Peter had to find a way to reconcile the rift in himself, realised it was important to allow unreconciled parts of himself all to be available, all elements to contribute to the health of the whole. He realised this is generally not how management teams operate.
To me this sounds like principles of individual therapy being just as relevant to groups, organisations and society. The only way Peter knows of in a group to make all the parts available to contribute to the health of the whole is through INQUIRY, into "what is", not "what should be". This allows all elements to be present, authentic and respected. This is important as an individual, for all elements in your life to be included, as part of a journey = a "dialogic way of being", both being as an individual and as a group.
Some people say they have a problem in a meeting because they need to move into dialogic mode but can't. Peter says you can be dialogic in any situation – you have to surface the inquiry people have. Patrick De Mare said this. It is to do with how society is structured, rewarded and held together. (See Images of Organisation by Gareth Morgan).
Society is structured by a civilising process, which induces guilt and shame for breaking a tacitly agreed set of social rules. This produces feelings of repugnance, being uncomfortable with and disgusted by people who break the rules. Repugnance sustains the guilt and shame. For example, spitting used to be commonplace 4 centuries ago…but sometime perhaps a century ago it changed to something you don’t do in public (with slightly different rules in France or China). Now it is still acceptable if you miss a goal in football – then spitting signals repugnance, or shame and reinforces somehow the rule.
There are tacit rules around eye contact. In Prison for two hours per week people in dialogue groups have extensive eye contact, which has a big impact: it is changing their social rules, freeing them up.
The vote was the end of true democracy….
Then we came to decision-making in society. Decision has the same root as incision, decide, suicide, genocide, meaning to cut or murder choices. For hundreds of thousands of years the human population was organised in hunter-gatherer groups, 20-30 people, no hierarchy except for different status of elder and younger members, no decisions. They needed only to work two to three hours a day to sustain themselves. They did their thinking by sitting round a fire together, or under the shade of baobab trees in Rhodesia, they would talk for hours. Talking was the main means of thinking. Today we look back to the hunter-gatherer's life as being harsh, but we seem to need 40 hours per week or more to sustain ourselves and we seem to have insufficient time to talk and think. Perhaps work takes longer when it is forced.
Hunter-gathers talked in a way that everyone knew their past. Through talking they developed a "common" sense, not a decision-making procedure. If you wanted to go hunting, you told stories about past hunts, about the animals you want to hunt, about what the eating would be like – through this talking they were getting into the nature and the spirit of the animal, and the relationship between the animal and them. This produced respect for the animal. It was caused everyone to know what to do: someone would gather wood for the fire etc. No one was directing.
"Common" sense is a different way of structuring society. The last remnants of this in Europe were at The Thing, a big rock marking an ancient gathering place in Iceland. Problems of scale of society today mean that it is not an option to revert to this. But perhaps it is still important for people to have a chance to say what they have to say, to be heard by people who take decisions on their behalves…maybe to have a place where this happens, like The Thing.
South African Peace and Truth Commission was a modern day example of dealing with pain and trauma, using an ancient principle: anyone can listen as people are called to tell their stories.
There are two very different approaches to society:
A power differential is perhaps inevitable today, and has to be taken into account, for example a governor in a prison has power over prison officers and prisoners. It is a real challenge to achieve respect across a power differential. Dialogue perhaps helps people with less power to discover respect.
Introducing dialogue in organisations
In organisations we can’t help but deal with our whole society. Dialogue can seem quite subversive to the current structures and cultures in organisations. " Yes this is hugely counter-cultural and counter-societal and it needs not to be imposed.You have to open a situation, keep it voluntary, let people determine the pace e.g. in prisons it is voluntary, people go at their own speed, sometimes a person will come for 10-12 weeks and never say a word, (whereas others are being assertive) and I support them…I do break this rule if a person raises a subject say three times without opening it up. Then I assume they want to talk about it and I open it saying 'you mentioned your mother three times, what happened?'".
The civilising process with its tacitly agreed rules will vary in each organisation. Dialogue happens as people move from polite (adherence to rules), to impolite (breaking down the fixed rules), behaving impolitely, analogous to spitting on the floor! Dialogue starts with chaos and inquiry: you question why people are feeling, thinking, speaking and behaving the way they are, such as "Why do you shout at me?", "What is the thought or feeling that gives rise to this?".
People in authority positions, such as prison governors, feel very responsible and they use control, but they’re not nasty bad guys. If they lack confidence in using dialogue, they will push the game back to where the rules were, from chaotic to polite.
What is needed in this chaos is a way of inquiring that starts to make some deeper sense out of the chaos. So the facilitator needs first to be facilitating a polite group to become impolite, then when it is chaotic to inquire to see what all this is like, and that starts a collective inquiry – no decisions are needed!
(I had no further contact with Peter Garrett after for almost a year, but sent him a copy of this paper in draft and we spoke on the telephone to clarify one or two points).
Concluding with Bill Stockton and the Mobius Strip (1999)
This has turned out to be a pretty long journey to understanding dialogue. Last month a course I attended at Oxford Psychologists with Susan Brock on Excellence in Communication produced an expected gem which I'll end on, for now at least. Susan lives near someone called Bill Stockton who has produced a model of dialogue that he calls the Mobius Model.
The name comes from a Mobius Strip. To understand this imagine a strip of paper twisted in the middle then the two ends joined. If you draw a pencil line along the strip you will discover it is now a one sided, infinity loop. Bill uses this to illustrate his central point that all the time each of us has two conversations going on: one inside us, and one on the outside. The greater the gap or a difference between the inside and the outside one, then the more disengaged we are from the situation around us. Dialogue is when there is both conversations are in sync, congruent, and as a result we are fully present and engaged in the situation around us.
Bill describe two main out of sync conversations, the first of which is being stuck in blaming others about the past, involving anger, frustration and leading to feelings that "we are different than them", ultimately to entrenched "them and us" position-taking. The other out of sync conversation is worrying about the future, involving fear, avoidance and a sense of helplessness.
He shows how to develop a conversation that leads to congruence and committed action as a result. He offers series of stages into a conversation that creates committed action:
This seems to be a practical tool to assist in having the conversation that crosses boundaries.
Interim conclusions about dialogue
This inquiry has been fascinating for me, and I hope of some value to the reader (if any have made it this far!). Of course this is still incomplete. I wanted for example to link this to Maslow's work on self-actualisation, to Mihalyi Czik's work on the experience of happiness and flow, and to go more deeply into the way a group can spontaneously self-organise without the force of leadership.
My experience through recent consulting work in banks and central government is that listening for mutual understanding is absolutely the first step, and the deeper the differences, the higher the stakes, then the more time needs to be spent at this trust building stage.
Clearly Dialogue is neither as simple nor as all powerful as we might like it to be, or there would not be wars and disputes. The impact of dialogue is based more upon the intention and honesty of the people present that on any specific technique. I do feel that as the context for survival in our organisations is shifting and we are re-examining key relationships, what is called for is a way of deepening the key stakeholder relationships to be generative, co-creative, shared destiny and win-win. Dialogue contains some important pointers.