Engaging In Deepening Conversation

When I worked with NETWORK in the late 70’s we created a highly participative management structure. What was significant was our belief in the equality of each person and that the value of one’s work emanated from that belief. We chose to make that real by everyone receiving the same salary regardless of degrees, positions or years of experience. That helped to create a very cooperative workplace. In addition we were very attentive to how we made decisions. We operated out of the belief that everyone had something to contribute to the major decisions that affected the life of the organization. The result was that when we came around the table people freely gave of their ideas and together we took the ideas and amplified, changed, developed, until we agreed to something that was far greater than any one person could have conceived. The ownership of the program, position, etc. was strong and motivated us to do the work necessary to implement it.

Later when I was elected to the leadership of my congregation, we developed a similar dynamic among the eight of us. We assumed that the gifts of each person were necessary if we were to address adequately the complex issues facing us. We trusted each other and spent the necessary time listening to each other’s ideas, raising up the underlying assumptions, challenging when necessary and developing the broad directions which then could be taken and developed by the appropriate sub group or individual. It provided an opportunity to see the connections and to gain a fuller look at the reality by allowing the varying perspectives to shine some light on the issue. .

In both situations I believe I experienced what is called “dialogue” in today’s process lexicon. Although “dialogue” can refer to a very specific discipline, I believe it is the experience of truly engaging with others in a conversation that respects the gift each person is to the whole believing that together you will probe, explore, and eventually come to some level of understanding. I believe dialogue leads to a synergy among the participants creating something new be it in concept or action. In dialogue I believe you trust that your insight or perspective is not the only valid one and that you are willing to listen to the other.

Dialogue is far richer than debate, advocacy, an exchange of ideas, negotiation or a discussion. It is not a one-side winner take all approach to issues. Peter Senge reminds us that “To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through the group to discover insights not attainable individually.” For this to happen one can’t just be waiting to jump into a conversation with one’s own point of view preparing what you’ll say while the other persons are talking. Rather, it is to begin to think together. Engaging in dialogue means that you are willing to look at all the assumptions including your fundamental beliefs and worldviews if necessary.

For many of us, this kind of talking together demands new behaviors and skills. David Bohm, the physicist, wrote extensively on “dialogue”. He saw that dialogue explores the manner in which thought is generated and sustained on a collective level. He saw this manner of inquiry as probing the critical questions of identity, culture and meaning. For Bohm dialogue was an invitation to collectively explore the prospect of an enhanced humanity.

Dialogue invites us to probe our assumptions, to keep peeling away the layers of inference and bias. To do this successfully one’s ego cannot be in control. Dialogue invites us to be part of a larger community of meaning. It is an opportunity to create a new consciousness, new understandings.

As I read William Isaacs’ book, Dialogue, which expands on Bohm’s concepts, I felt that to engage in dialogue demands a contemplative heart. For you are truly trying to see the real in new ways. As defined by the English mystics, contemplation is to take a long loving look at the real. It invites us to let go of our biases and assumptions so that we can be open to the Spirit working within us and among us.

Steve Wirth has developed a process of contemplative dialogue which weds these two concepts. He sees three important stages for the individual or a group who practice contemplative dialogue. They are: to come to a clearer awareness and understanding of our mental and perceptual filters; to learn the skills needed to support making decisions out of the best values thereby allowing us to impact our communities and who we become; to consistently relate with and to the collective mind or spirit of the group.

I believe dialogue and contemplation offer us the opportunity to engage in transformation at a new level. It will provide us the possibility of real communication which leads to friendship and love. It can assist solving problems but perhaps even more. If we engage in dialogue and contemplation perhaps we will achieve what Bohm envisioned. “Possibly it [dialogue] could make a new change in the individual and a change in the relation to the cosmic. Such an energy has been called ‘communion.’ It is a kind of participation. The early Christians had a Greek word, koinonia, the root of which means ‘to participate’ – the idea of partaking of the whole and taking part in it; not merely the whole group, but the whole.”

Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM

©2003-2019 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue

Further Reading
Bohm, David. On Dialogue. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.
Bohm, the physicist, wrote extensively on dialogue. This is a comprehensive compilation of his thinking on this subject. His dialogical world view is presented both with its theoretical underpinnings as well as with practical applications.

Isaacs, William. Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1999.
Isaacs has worked extensively developing the dialogue approach especially with major corporations. Building on the insights of David Bohm, Isaacs provides us with a comprehensive explanation of dialogue and its practical guidelines. He helps all of us to learn how to talk together in honest and effective ways.

Palmer, Parker J. To Know As We Are Known. San Francisco, CA: Harper/Collins Publisher, 1983.
Palmer writes this text for educators. He envisions what education could truly be like if it was a community of truth. Much of what he shares offers a new way of listening and responding, a new way of talking with each other. He believes the soul of education is found through a cultivation of the wisdom we each possess.

Wheatley, Margaret, J. Turning to One Another. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Co.,2002.
This is a very practical book to begin talking with one another. Wheatley believes that we can change the world if we start listening to each other. Simple conversations in which we are invited to speak honestly about things we care deeply about. This book provides simple processes and topics to begin.


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