The idea for this Pattern comes from the work of David Bohm. Bohm was a quantum physicist who, later in life, became interested in human communication. He would not say he “invented” dialogue; rather, he felt it was common in so-called “primitive” societies. Indeed, it seems to have been a common occurrence in the recounting of Paula Underwood in The Walking People. I learned more about Dialogue from Peter Senge and Bill Isaacs while working in “Knowledge Management” at NYNEX and IBM.
Author, reviewer and revision dates:
Created by John C. Thomas on February 21, 2018
Campfire Reflections. Quaker meeting.
In a hyper-competitive society, conversations that might be related to actions that affect more than one person are framed as contests with winners and losers, much like a sporting event or a court case. Sometimes, this might be appropriate, but it is not generally a good method. An alternative method to debate and discussion is Dialogue. In discussion and debate, as soon as one person begins saying something in favor of X, others decide whether they are for or against X. Then, based on a superficial hearing of what the person is saying, they determine how to best add weight to X or detract from it. They typically want to be able to “jump in” as soon as there is the slightest gap in the conversation. As a result, they are typically rehearsing their own upcoming argument and not even listening to the other person beyond the first few words. By contrast, in Bohm Dialogue, one person says something and everyone else listens to them respectfully. After listening, everyone reflects on what has been said. Then, they might or might not make a comment. This comment does not have to be an argument pro or con. It can be an analogy, a story, a reflection, a question, an example, or an observation. Rather than dividing into “camps” or “teams” and trying to “win” an argument about whether X or ~X is better, everyone works collaboratively and cooperatively to understand the space of possibilities and consequences. In such cases, the group might end up doing X, ~X, or .5X. Or, they may decide to gather more data; they may invent Y; they might decide to experiment in a small way with X. It is a joint construction process.
Groups consists of individuals who never have precisely the same interests or the same experiences. In some cases, people simply make their own choices. It isn’t necessary for everyone to eat the same food or read the same books. But in some cases, appropriate action requires that people agree. Do we drive on the left side of the road or the right side? Do we penalize companies for polluting the environment or not? Do we have daylight savings time or not?
In a competitive society, it is easy to fall into the trap of framing problems in terms of who will benefit and who will lose. Everyone on the “losing side” will tend to find arguments to support their position even before understanding the other side. Such a process rarely results in innovation or breakthrough thinking. In a rush to win, people tend to ignore subtleties and interactions so even the framing of the problem becomes over-simplified. If people become angry or fearful, their ability to process information deteriorates and they most often stick with something they already know. In extreme cases, people will literally “freeze” with fear and be unable to perform even a simple yet critical action such as pulling the ripcord on their parachute.
In addition, if group action is decided through a process that is framed in terms of winning and losing, those on the losing side may not fully cooperate with the group decision. Consciously or unconsciously, they may even act to thwart the implementation of the group decision.
In the rush to “win,” those on the winning side may not even listen to important concerns from the other “side” and even if the “correct” decision “wins out,” important implementational details are overlooked. In this way, the implementation of the group decision will be flawed even if everyone tries to cooperate.
By framing the group decision process in terms of “winners” and “losers,” group cohesion and mutual trust can often be lost. This is particularly true if the group process is so contentious that people use propaganda or outright lies to try to “win” the debate. This not only makes this particular problem solving exercise less than optimal; it also means that future interactions will be less cordial, less civil, and less likely to result in what is best for the group as a whole.
Complex problems and large problems can often only be solved by groups. In addition, sometimes, decisions must necessarily impact the entire group. Groups may be as small as a couple deciding where to go on vacation or tennis doubles team deciding on an effective approach to their next match or as large as all of humanity deciding on how to deal with population growth and pollution.
Groups must not only decide on a collective course of action; generally, they must also implement that decision.
- Everyone wants to protect their “own interests.”
- People may think of their “own interests” at varying levels; e.g., their own body, their own belief system, their own family, their own tribe, their own party, their own nation, all of humanity, or even all of life.
- The expectations of any one person are primarily based on their own experiences.
- The behavior of any other person is largely based on that person’s experiences.
- If one person acts uncivilly or hyper-competitively, it tends to increase the chances that others will do the same.
- In some societies, competition has become the default way to interact.
- Competition tends to induce high stress levels in people.
- High stress levels tend to make people less willing to listen, change, or think creatively.
* Everyone is an expert when it comes to their own experience.
Instead of having a group debate or discuss two or a few alternatives to determine which one is the winner, instead use Bohm Dialogue to cooperatively, cooly, and calmly have the group examine a situation using everyone’s experience together. Have people listen respectfully to everyone’s contribution. Have everyone reflect on what they say. It helps if people frame their contribution in terms of their own experience rather than abstract and sweeping generalities and pronouncements. Let the group cooperatively build a joint understanding of the problem. This often results in an emergent solution. Even when it does not and, in the end, a vote on X or ~X must be taken, everyone feels respected by everyone else and people are much more likely to help implement the solution.
Imagine a tribe of people sitting around a fire at the end of the day. They reflect on their experiences. One says, “I gathered acorns today. There were very few though. This is not like the other years.” Everyone listens. They reflect.
Another says, “It would be nice if we could eat the acorns as the squirrels do, without having to wait.”
Another says, “Yes, though even they do not eat them all right away.”
Another: “Are there fewer oak trees? Or, is each tree making fewer acorns?”
The first says, “I am not sure. Let me think back. Each tree has fewer than in years past.”
Another says, “Speaking of fewer, I only caught two fish today in my favorite fishing spot. And the water was shallower.”
Another adds: “This spring I gathered fiddlehead ferns. There were only a few. Odd.”
Another: “There were so many nice sunny days this spring and summer. I guess there was a lot less rain.”
Another: “It would be nice if we could make it rain more.”
An older woman adds, “It has been raining less as I’ve grown older. Less and less each year.”
Another: “How can we make it rain more?”
Another: “I don’t know how we can make it rain more. But we could save the water when it does rain.”
Another: “I like water. Sometimes the small raindrops join together to make larger ones.”
Another: “Indeed, it is the nature of water to like the company of others.” Laughter.
Another, “Perhaps we can encourage water from the big river to visit us. We can dig a trench. If we encourage some water to go into that trench, other drops may follow into our stream.”
Another: “More water in our stream would encourage fish as well as fiddleheads and oaks to visit us more often.”
To the typical “modern person,” this dialogue seems needlessly random and inefficient. But is it really?
Sure, the typical business meeting has an agenda and it seems as though it’s efficient. The meeting below is pure fiction — but it is precisely in line with my typical experiences from a lifetime of meetings in “efficient corporate America.”
10:10- 10:30 Discuss ways to get more acorns.
Chairperson: “We need more acorns. How can we get them?”
Person 1: “I need help. They are hard to find.”
Person 2: “Well, I can’t do it. I’m having enough trouble getting fish. That takes all my time.”
Person 3: “You think you’ve got troubles? I can’t find enough fiddleheads either, so I can’t help.”
Person 4 – speaking directly to Person 1: “You sure you’re really hunting acorns and not just ogling the women? Just kidding.”
Person 1: “You come gather the acorns then. You’ll see.”
Person 4: “I said I was just kidding.”
Person 2: “When can we talk about getting more help fishing? Can we put that on the agenda for next week?”
Chairperson: “It’s next on the agenda.”
Person 5: “The real solution is incentives. I hate to say it, but I just don’t think everyone is really pulling their own weight around here.”
Person 6: “The key is better metrics. Words like ‘fewer’ are very fuzzy. We need an accounting of all the acorns. And fish. And fiddleheads. Then, we will be able to quantify the extent of the problem.”
Person 1: “Who is going to count the acorns? You? I know I got fewer and it isn’t from not trying.”
Chairperson: “Hey, we’re almost out of time. Let’s table this discussion for now and put it on the agenda for next week. It seems to me, in the meantime, Person 1, you’re going to have to get up a little earlier in the morning and gather more acorns that way. Let’s vote. All in favor of Person 1 getting up earlier to gather more acorns, raise your hands.”
[Everyone raises their hands except Person 1].
Chairperson: “OK, motion carried. Person 1, give us a report next week on exactly how many acorns you got every day.”
Person 1: “Look, the acorns are largely gone now. Getting up earlier isn’t going to help.”
Chairperson: “Sorry, Person 1. Do the best you can. We need to move to the next item on the agenda which concerns fishing.”
Person 1: “I always do the best I can. But I’m telling you that there will still be fewer acorns next week.”
Chairperson: “OK, we need to take this off-line and talk about fishing. If you can’t gather acorns, we’ll find someone who can. Enough.”
What are the likely outcomes from this “efficient” meeting? First, it is quite likely that Person 1 is pretty pissed off. Second, the group is unlikely to ever realize that there is a problem with the acorn supply rather than the extent or manner in which Person 1 is gathering them. Third, the group is way far away from realizing the systemic nature of the problem and the fact that the “real problem” is a diminishing source of water, let alone making any progress toward solving that actual problem.
Generally speaking, using dialogue will be more not less efficient for finding and implementing solutions to root problems than will competitive debates or discussions. The solutions arising from Dialogue will be “owned” by the entire group and it is more likely that everyone will be working together to make sure the solution actually works. In addition, the long term effect on the group is to increase mutual trust and cooperation.
Actions are always better based on reality than on fantasy. Yet, humans often latch onto a particular interpretation of events very quickly and with insufficient data. As a consequence, people often work within the constraints of their own limited thought patterns. Treating what is essentially and quintessentially group problem solving as a competition between people for which of two or three solutions most often results in solving the wrong problem or at best only solving a sub-problem. In addition, “solutions” arrived at in this competitive way often result in decreased effectiveness of a group over time because of growing envy, resentment and mistrust.
By contrast, Bohm Dialogue encourages people to work together with respect and to understand a problematic situation from many angles. In this way, the real or more basic problem is understood as well as how it impacts everyone present.
As Bohm points out, many people mistakenly believe the word “Dialogue” comes from the Greek word logos for truth and the Latin root di for two implying that a dialogue is a two-sided debate. Instead, “Dialogue” comes from the Greek logos and the Greek root dia which does not mean two but through. It is coming to the truth through interaction.
“Who Speaks for Wolf.” Reality Check.
Known Uses: (See the Incarnations section of the Wikipedia article on 2014)David Bohm referenced below). I have also had personal success running Dialogue sessions as Executive Director of the NYNEX AI lab and in SIGCHI meetings. If you explain the “rules of the game” people can fairly easily learn to Dialogue.
Quaker meetings are often run in this same fashion and the group does not “vote” to choose among a couple possible actions but instead reflects as a group until a consensus is reached.
Bohm, as I mentioned, was a quantum physicists and he likened what happens in dialogue to having people be in a “super-cooled” and therefore “super-conductive” state. When people are “agitated” to “win,” they are bouncing around like hot molecules and conducting information among them is difficult. The more you heat up a wire, the less well it conducts current or information. Near absolute zero, the wire instead becomes “superconductive.” When people relax and do not have an “axe to grind” and are not ego-invested in a predetermined outcome, they behave quite intelligently in discovering truths.
Bohm, D. (1996). On dialogue. New York: Routledge.
Holman, P & Devane,T. (1999). The change handbook: Group methods for shaping the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communicating in Business and in Life. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.
Krishnamurti, J. and Bohm, D. (2014). The ending of time: Where philosophy and physics meet. New York: Harper/Collins.
Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. Doubleday.
Shaw, P. (2002). Changing Conversations in Organizations. A complexity approach to change. London: Routledge.