The Art of Dialogue according to David Bohm
On the foundations of meaningful communication
July 31, 2019
Leadership & Philosophy
The term dialogue comes from the ancient Greek dialogos and literally means dia– “through” logos– “word”. The word allows us to connect with and understand one another, to step into a relationship and interact. The origin of dialogue is connected to the search for meaning and insight. This search may initially appear quite removed from day-to-day working life. But conversations are the foundation of all collective work, and the quality of our conversations is a decisive factor in achieving sustainable success, all the way from decision making to problem solving and innovation to conflict- and crisis management.
David Bohm, an American physicist and philosopher, intensively studied the philosophical foundations of dialogue. His thoughts were developed and expanded in the Dialogue Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an specific method to be implemented in an organizational context.
Dialogue according to David Bohm
Bohm’s concept of dialogue developed in his intensive exchange with the Indian thinker Jiddu Krischnamurti. Krischnamurti and Bohm assume that social and personal problems stem from our conditioned and unexamined thought processes and our preconceived assumptions. Bohm is concerned with creating a framework though dialogue in which precisely these assumptions and processes can be observed and discussed – in order to unmask them as assumptions that we can let go of or replace with other assumptions. This frees up space for new perspectives and thought processes that can lead to sustainable changes in our behavior.
In order for dialogical potential to develop optimally, a framework with certain ground rules is required. It is essential that no decisions are made or specific goals set during the dialogue itself. There is no discussion or plan of action, not even an agenda, because they already include defining assumptions: assumptions about what to talk about, what result is desirable, which argument is more convincing or which course of action is more useful. These assumptions limit the dialogue with prescribed subjects and styles of thought.
However, the goal of the dialogue – insofar as there can be a goal in a dialogue – is to examine a subject in all openness in order to reach a deeper understanding of the thought processes that guide our behavior. This leads to new insights and new possibilities for success.
The Dialogic Mindset
The essential condition for a dialogue in Bohm’s sense is an attitude of openness and mindful perception without judgment. The attention in a dialogue must be on the observation and communication of what is happening in the group and within oneself when things are expressed and views made known. This mindset allows us to recognize our own assumptions without judgment and to question rather than defend them. This clears the way for what is new and different, individually and in groups.
Exploring Assumptions: What is Necessary?
Bohm expands such dialogical explorations using the example of necessity. When we judge something as necessary, there is no more room for negotiation. So as soon as different opinions about what is absolutely necessary are made known, a polarization occurs that is difficult to overcome. This is a situation often found in organizations, for example when it’s time to distribute limited money and resources. These conflicts can reach dramatic dimensions when human lives are sacrificed for reasons that are assumed to be necessary, as happens in situations of war. Here the usual path of discussion fails and a conflict develops.
In dialogue, there is the possibility of rising above this conflict by questioning the assumptions: is this or that issue really absolutely necessary? What does absolutely necessary mean? Are there perhaps other necessities too? In this way, we can start to see that we limit ourselves with ideas about what is absolutely necessary and thereby stay mired in conflict. This questioning can lead to the freedom to consider other hierarchies of what is necessary. Real change and transformation become possible.
The MIT Dialogue Project: Practical Application in Organizations
William Isaacs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took up Bohm’s approach and initiated the MIT Dialogue Project for practical use in organizations in 1990. Isaacs and his team developed a process in which the necessary trust in the power of dialogue could be developed over the course of several group conversations. The most important additional element turned out to be the role of the facilitator. Facilitation ensures that the dialogical framework (“container”) is held together in time and place and creates safety for the group – an essential condition for openness among individuals.
The dialogue method was tested and developed further in large companies, in conflict management and even in serious crises. Deep rifts were overcome and new paths forged together. Isaacs reports, among other things, about a steel mill steeped in tradition, in which hardened fronts between management and production had been obstructing progress for years. For the first time in generations, the dialogues allowed for collective plans of action to develop in order to solve constantly recurring problems, so that investors were willing to make new investments in the steel mill.
The essential result of the initiative for the dialogue project was the lasting change within the conversational culture in the organizations in question. The practice of dialogue leads to a more refined perception that cannot be reversed. One can recognize blockages in thinking and address them more quickly. Once the art of collective thinking has gained traction, it radiates into the whole environment sustainably. More trust develops within a group and information can flow more freely. This leads, in a totally natural way, to more constructive working relationships and better decisions—a win for everyone.
Learn more about the four dialogic skills and about implementing a culture of dialogue in organizations.
David Bohm. On Dialogue. New York, 2014.
William Isaacs. Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communicating in Business and in Life. New York, 1999.