Background and Meaning of Dialogue

The word "dialogue" originates from the Greek (dialogos) for "conversation or discourse," which is itself made up of the components Sia (dia, meaning "through, inter") and (logos, meaning "speech, oration"). Logos can also be understood to mean "word" or "meaning of words," which leads to our understanding of "dia-logos" as "through words" or "that which comes to flow through words."

Senge (1990) describes the following core disciplines for building a learning organization: personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning, pointing out that the capacity for dialogue and thinking together is fundamental for team learning:

The discipline of team learning starts with "dialogue," the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine "thinking together." To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually. (p. 10)

He also notes the connection between dialogue, team learning and the learning organization:

The discipline of dialogue also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning. The patterns of defensiveness are often deeply engrained in how a team operates. If unrecognized, they undermine learning. If recognized and surfaced creatively, they can actually accelerate learning. Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. This is where "the rubber meets the road"; unless teams can learn, the organization cannot learn. (p. 10)

The importance of dialogue for learning processes in organizations is also emphasized by William N. Isaacs (1999), who applied the concept of dialogue to companies as director of "The Dialogue Project" at MIT. He worked with David Bohm 1985 and others in dialogue sessions on shared thinking as an investigative process in the United Kingdom. A professor of theoretical physics, Bohm spent much of his later years researching the nature of dialogue. He describes his experience and observations on the development of a group dialogue using the following example: the weekend began with the expectation that there would be a series of lectures and informative discussions with emphasis on content. It gradually emerged that something more important was actually involved—the awakening of the process of dialogue itself as a free flow of meaning among all the participants.... A new kind of mind thus begins to come into being which is based on the development of a common meaning that is constantly transforming in the process of the dialogue. 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. (p. 175)

This example highlights the fact that dialogue is a way of working in a group that is not based on the presentation of results, but places value and emphasis on the process of shared thinking.

Different Perspectives on Dialogue

Isaacs (1999) views dialogue as a discipline of collective inquiry and thinking and as a process that can be used to transform the quality of conversation and the thinking behind it:

Our experience with the discipline of dialogue suggests that there is a new horizon opening up for the field of management and organizational learning.... First, dialogue ... involves learning about context and the nature of the processes by which people form their paradigms, and thus take action. Second, this field suggests a new range of skills for managers that involve learning how to set up environments or "fields" in which learning can take place.... Third, this discipline stresses the power of collective observation of patterns of collective thought that typically speed by us or influence our behavior without our noticing.... Finally, dialogue is an emerging and potentially powerful mode of inquiry and collective learning for teams. It balances more structured problem-solving approaches with the exploration of fundamental habits of attention and assumption behind traditional problems of thinking. (Isaacs, 1999, pp. 38-39)

This brings us to the potential offered by dialogue for learning in organizations. According to Isaacs (1999), dialogue holds a capacity for managers to realize their thinking patterns and habits while giving them the chance to look deeper into processes and structures of communication and understanding. He is not the only one who is convinced of its potential for deeper learning in management and organizations; Edgar Schein (1993), the acclaimed MIT professor and expert on organizational culture and process consultation, has also studied dialogue:

I hope to show that dialogue is indeed not only different from many of the techniques that have been proposed before, but also that it has considerable promise as a problem-formulation and problem-solving philosophy and technology. I will also argue that dialogue is necessary as a vehicle for understanding cultures and subcultures, and that organizational learning will ultimately depend upon such cultural understanding. Dialogue thus becomes a central element of organizational transformation. (p. 40)

Schein identifies a further benefit of dialogue for conflict management:

Dialogue ... is a basic process for building common understanding, in that it allows one to see the hidden meanings of words, first by seeing such hidden meanings in our own communication. By letting disagreement go, meanings become clearer, and the group gradually builds a shared set of meanings that make much higher levels of mutual understanding and creative thinking possible. (p. 40)

He also refers to Lewin's work on social space back in 1939 and wonders if the latter might be the pioneer of dialogue, since he was the one who researched the meaning of social space—a highly relevant aspect when it comes to understanding dialogue.

I am persuaded that there is a social space which has all the essential properties of a real empirical space and deserves as much attention by students of geometry and mathematics as the physical space, although it is not a physical one. The perception of social space and the experimental and conceptual investigation of the dynamics and laws of the processes in social space are of fundamental theoretical and practical importance. (p. 7)

Dialogue in Practice

In the 1990s, there was much interest in the learning ability of organizations. Dialogue plays a prominent role here: people come together in special communication settings to create a shared social space in which creative, collective intelligence can develop. In such spaces, people can detach themselves from the patterns of behavior that dominate their everyday lives and reflect on their own mental models. To create these spaces, the participants in the dialogue must be able to:

1. Show respect

2. Listen to others

3. Voice opinions

4. Suspend prejudices

Dialogue: 4 key principles

Figure 11.1. Dialogue: 4 key principles.

This way a protective area of trust—a so-called container—is created and provides the participants with the necessary environment to develop these capabilities to the fullest as they share, address and explore their issues. Mechtild Beucke-Galm, a consultant experienced in applying dialogue to organizations, describes it as working in a setting in which somebody presents an idea, someone else picks up on it, and someone else again adds something or brings in an additional perspective. It is not important that everyone speaks or who says what, what matters is that the key issues are discussed.

Much can be said about the setting for dialogue sessions, but we only have space here to focus on a few key characteristics. Specific agreements and instruments—like a "talking stone"—can help to support the shared thought process. The talking stone is placed in the middle of the circle, and whoever wants to say something picks it up. The process of getting up, fetching the stone from the middle of the circle and returning it after speaking, serves to slow down proceedings. Only the person holding the stone may speak. The stone lets the dialogue develop its own rhythm by preventing one input being followed immediately by the next and placing more value on the periods when nobody speaks. It gives participants the chance to assimilate what has just been said, take a deep breath and be more open and attentive to the next input.

Beucke-Galm (2009, pp. 4-5) notes that dialogue lives through the continuous presence, attentiveness and openness of the participants, which lets them experience reality in the here and now, discuss emotions and practical issues, listen to what is being said between the lines and integrate all that is going on around them. She sees dialogue as a different form of communication culture to "traditional" meetings or typical work-related discussions: it is a shared investigation of issues, relationships, values and inner pictures. The intention is not to create or maintain harmony, but to openly embrace and address issues.

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