by Alice Foley, facilitator of Plowshare’s Dialogue Initiative

The word Dialogue comes from the Greek word dialogos.  Logus means the word, and dia means through. The image this brings up is of a stream of meaning flowing among, through, and between us. This makes possible a flow of ideas in a whole group, out of which can emerge new understanding – something new that may not have been present in the starting point. This shared meaning is the glue that holds people and societies together.

Contrast Dialogue with discussion, which has the same root as percussion and concussion. Discussion means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view, and where everybody is presenting a different one. It will not get us very far. Discussion is almost like a ping-pong ball game, where people are batting ideas back and forth with the objective of winning. We might occasionally accept part of another person’s view in order to strengthen our own, but we fundamentally want our view to prevail.

One purpose of a Dialogue is to go beyond any one individual's understanding. We are not trying to win in Dialogue – we all win if we are doing it right. In Dialogue, individuals gain insights that could not be achieved individually. A new kind of thinking develops, based on common meaning that allows the freedom to explore a topic from many points of view. Individuals suspend their assumptions. At any moment, the Dialogue may appear to be of limited relevance – that they have strayed from the beginning topic. The result, however, is a free exploration that brings to the surface the full depth of people's experience, and yet can move beyond their individual views. Acquiring the capacity for Dialogue does not happen through a training process; taking a linear set of steps is not effective in Dialogue.  

Bohm identifies three basic conditions that are necessary for engaging in Dialogue:

All Participants Must Suspend Their Assumptions.

        This doesn't mean throwing out our assumptions, opinions, and beliefs – suppressing them or avoiding their expenses. This means that you hold them hanging in front of you, constantly accessible to questioning and observation. It does not mean that having opinions is bad or that we throw away our belief system and eliminate subjectivism. This cannot be done if we are unaware of our assumption, or that our views are based on assumptions rather than incontrovertible fact.

       The opposite of suspending assumptions is when an individual digs in his or her heels and decides this is the way it is – then the flow of Dialogue is blocked. However, it is this attitude that can be used as a tool to identify assumptions. To use this situation as a part of the Dialogue, look for their assumptions that brought them about. They can then be suspended for all to view.

All Participants Regard One Another As Colleagues

       This may sound simple, but it can make a profound difference. There is a certain vulnerability to holding assumptions in suspension. Treating one another as colleagues acknowledges the mutual risk and establishes the sense of safety in facing the risk.

          Hierarchy is antithetical to Dialogue. If one is used to having his/her view prevail because of seniority, then that privilege must be surrendered temporarily. If one person is used to withholding her/his views because of being more junior, then that security of nondisclosure must also be surrendered. 

          Colleagueship does not mean that you need to agree or share the same view. On the contrary, the real power of seeing each other as colleagues comes into play when there are differences. It is easy to be collegial when everyone agrees. When there are significant differences it is more difficult, but payoff is also much greater. Choosing to view adversaries as colleagues with different views has the greatest benefit.

         Dialogue is playful. It requires the willingness to play with new ideas, to examine them and test them. As soon as we become overly concerned with who said what, or not saying something, the playfulness will evaporate.        

There Must Be A Facilitator Who Holds the Context of Dialogue

         In the absence of a facilitator, our habits of thought continually pull us toward discussion and away from Dialogue. This is especially true in the early stages of developing Dialogue as a team discipline. We believe in our own views and want them to prevail, and we are worried about suspending our assumptions publicly. We may even be uncertain if it is psychologically safe to suspend all assumptions. The facilitator helps maintain an open, neutral, focused Dialogue.

          As teams develop experience and skill in Dialogue, the role of the facilitator becomes less crucial and he/she can gradually become just one of the participants. In societies where Dialogue is an ongoing discipline, there usually are no appointed facilitators.  Dialogue emerges from the leaderless group once the team members have developed their skill and understanding.

Experience is the Only True Form of Education – All the Preparation in the World Can Only Teach Us How to Prepare. (Paul Williams, Das Energy)