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Conversation is thinking in its natural state.
Thinking is the conversation within us....
Words began in human beings in the process
of transforming gregariousness into co-operation.

-- Malvina Reynolds

Not all communication is dialogue. Dialogue is shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility. Any communication that fits this definition, the Co-Intelligence Institute considers dialogue. Communication that doesn't fit this definition, we don't call dialogue.

(Note: Some of our colleagues believe that what we call dialogue should be called conversation. See for example, Is "debate" or "conversation" the most useful form of public discourse? by Alan Stewart.)

Dialogue can at times be truly magical, dissolving the boundaries between us and the world and opening up wellsprings of realization and resonant power. In those rare, deeply healing moments of dialogue in its most ideal form, we may experience the wholeness of who we are (beyond our isolated ego), listening and speaking to the wholeness of who we are (deep within and beyond the group around us). At those times it is almost as if wholeness is speaking and listening to itself through us, individually and collectively. Words become unnecessary; knowing is instantaneous, and meaning flows like a great river within and among us.

These are moments of grace, whose frequency increases as we practice listening more deeply and exploring more openly with each other.

Here are some guidelines for dialogue in its most basic form

  1. We talk about what's really important to us.
  2. We really listen to each other. We see how thoroughly we can understand each other's views and experience.
  3. We say what's true for us without making each other wrong.
  4. We see what we can learn together by exploring things together.
  5. We avoid monopolizing the conversation. We make sure everyone has a chance to speak.

Bohmian Dialogue

The late quantum physicist David Bohm observed that both quantum mechanics and mystical traditions suggest that our beliefs shape the realities we evoke. He further postulated that thought is largely a collective phenomenon, made possible only through culture and communication. Human conversations arise out of and influence an ocean of cultural and transpersonal meanings in which we live our lives, and this process he called dialogue.

Most conversations, of course, lack the fluid, deeply connected quality suggested by this oceanic metaphor. They are more like ping-pong games, with participants hitting their very solid ideas and well-defended positions back and forth. Such conversations are properly called discussions. "Discussion," Bohm noted, derives from the same root word as "percussion" and "concussion," a root that connotes striking, shaking and hitting.

Dialogue, in contrast, involves joining our thinking and feeling into a shared pool of meaning which continually flows and evolves, carrying us all into new, deeper levels of understanding none of us could have foreseen. Through dialogue "a new kind of mind begins to come into being," observed Bohm, "based on the development of common meaning... 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."

Bohm's approach to dialogue involved participants working together to understand the assumptions underlying their individual and collective beliefs. Collective reflection on these assumptions could reveal blind spots and incoherences from which participants could then free themselves, leading to greater collective understanding and harmony. Bohm maintained that such collective learning increases our collective intelligence. (For more about Bohm's approach to dialogue, click here.and here.)

Other ways of understanding dialogue

My friend and fellow communications theorist, Ken Lebensold, expands Bohm's alternatives to three types of communication:

Type A: Antagonistic communication, meaning conversations that can't seem to move beyond conflict (this is analogous to Bohm's "discussion")

Type B: Banal communication, meaning conversations which feel oppressive, boring, or depressing, This might happen because participants are trying to avoid conflict, intimacy, or surprises, or it might just be habit. (Common examples are extreme politeness, tightly-controlled meetings, and alienated marriages.)

Type C: Creative communication, meaning conversations that engage people's diversity creatively to generate greater shared understanding (which is analogous to Bohm's sense of "dialogue").

Consultant John Adams suggested a very simple way to describe dialogue, inspired by fellow consultant Harrison Owen: "Dialogue is people truly listening to people truly speaking." When we all truly speak and truly listen, we can't help but generate greater shared understanding.

An unspoken dimension of such guidelines for individual behavior is that they enable us to engage a deeper, larger intelligence than our own. Some say this is a universal intelligence of which we are tiny parts. Others say it is a collective intelligence generated by the synergy among us. I say it may be either or both, depending on the circumstances. Both are forms of co-intelligence accessible primarily to those who practice true listening and real dialogue.

Open Dialogue

Again, dialogue is shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection or possibility. When such communication happens without structure or discipline, we call it "open dialogue." Our cultural conditioning makes it unlikely that most "open conversations" will actually end up as "open dialogue." The usual outcome is that some group members end up arguing or "head tripping" while others sit passively by. What can we do to avoid such outcomes? It is hard to get dialogue rolling in a world which has little understanding or experience of it. Few people are competent, aware and wise enough to evoke real dialogue in the midst of a heated argument, for example. Those who are, are awesome to witness, but hard to emulate.

In the presence of a number of such souls, dialogue can come easily. In groups of practiced dialoguers, a novice will often find herself eagerly and effortlessly participating in the open, authentic, shared exploration unfolding around her.

But few of us have constant access to true open dialogue. More often we can get access to real dialogue only through some structured process like a listening circle. But sometimes people (including ourselves) don't want the constraints of a listening circle. Or we're in a circumstance where such practices are inappropriate. We need guidelines and tools we can use to bring the spirit of dialogue to our everyday conversations and meetings. This section will provide some ideas and methods that are widely applicable.

Guidelines for Open Dialogue

The more all participants are aware of the nature of dialogue and committed to bringing it about, the better the chance it will happen. Towards that end, the following comparison of dialogue and debate offers one of the most useful summaries of dialogue that we've seen. (It was adapted by the Study Circle Resource Center from a paper prepared by Shelley Berman, which in turn was based on discussions of the Dialogue Group of the Boston Chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility.)

Even on first reading, it can change one's perspective. The specifics, however, can be hard to keep in mind. So the more often people read (and discuss) the list, the more effective it will be. Perhaps someone will put the items on this list into fortune cookies for group use. Until then, you could write each one on a card and give every participant in a meeting one card to keep in mind, on behalf of the whole group.

  • Dialogue is collaborative: two or more sides work together toward common understanding. Debate is oppositional: two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong.
  • In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal. In debate, winning is the goal.
  • In dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) in order to understand, find meaning, and find agreement. In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter its arguments.
  • Dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant's point of view. Debate affirms a participant's own point of view.
  • Dialogue reveals assumptions for reevaluation. Debate defends assumptions as truth.
  • Dialogue causes introspection on one's own position. Debate causes critique of the other position.
  • Dialogue opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions. Debate defends one's own positions as the best solution and excludes other solutions.
  • Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude: an openness to being wrong and an openness to change. Debate creates a closed-minded attitude, a determination to be right.
  • In dialogue, one submits one's best thinking, knowing that other people's reflections will help improve it rather than destroy it. In debate, one submits one's best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right.
  • Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending one's beliefs. Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one's beliefs.
  • In dialogue, one searches for basic agreements. In debate, one searches for glaring differences.
  • In dialogue, one searches for strengths in the other positions. In debate, one searches for flaws and weaknesses in the other positions.
  • Dialogue involves a real concern for the other person and seeks to not alienate or offend. Debate involves a countering of the other position without focusing on feelings or relationship and often belittles or deprecates the other person.
  • Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together they can put them into a workable solution. Debate assumes that there is a right answer and that someone has it.
  • Dialogue remains open-ended. Debate implies a conclusion.

Tools for Open Dialogue

"Popcorn" and other variations of circles

In listening circles, people's turns are decided by the passing of an object around the circle. The sequence is totally predictable. This is highly structured dialogue.

Sometimes a group wants to use an object to guide their discussion but they don't want to go around in a circle. They want more spontaneity. So the object is returned to the center after each turn and picked up by whoever wishes to speak next. This is sometimes called "popcorn" because the object pops in and out of the center. Since it is a bit less structured, it is considered more "open" than a formal listening circle.

The group can decide that no one speaks two times until everyone has spoken once. This version of popcorn still feels much like a listening circle. However, if the group lets the object pass to anyone, regardless of how often they've spoken, there is a major loss of circle atmosphere. This loose form of popcorn feels like an ordinary conversation, except that people don't interrupt each other, there's time and space between speakers, and it's clear who has the floor -- major accomplishments nonetheless.

In some circles the focus is on individual people. These individuals may be sharing their stories or receiving some kind of help from the whole group. In these circumstances it can be useful to let other people question the speaker for a while after he's finished, before the group's attention moves, with the object, to the next person.

Chime and stone

Two more modifications of open conversation can help it have some of the benefits of dialogue without the constraints of a formal circle. These modifications are embodied in a chime (or a gong) and a stone (or other listening circle object) placed where all participants can easily reach them.

If at any time one of the participants feels the group needs to center itself or move to a "heart space," they reach into the middle and strike the chime or gong. All talking stops immediately until the sound fades. Often the silence extends for a minute or more. When conversation begins again, it usually has a more centered, reflective quality.

The purpose of the stone is different. When someone picks it up, they get the next turn after whoever is currently talking. This enables participation by less dominant, more reflective people who aren't inclined to compete for turns in fast-moving, often competitive conversations.

A penny for your thoughts

Another way to deal with this last problem -- the difficulty of some participants to get a word in edgewise -- is to give everyone an equal number (for example, four) pennies, one of which they put into a bowl in the middle whenever they speak. When they run out of pennies, they can't speak again until everyone else has run out. (In a small group you don't need pennies; just agree that each person won't speak again until everyone else has.)

An interesting variation on this is to make the pennies represent time -- say, one minute. A hat is passed to a speaker who puts in two pennies, and a timer is set for two minutes. When it goes off, he has to stop talking or put in another penny. People who want to hear from someone can give them one or more pennies, to give them more time. Sometimes a wild market in pennies can get going, with people wheeling and dealing. One participant at a conference took up a collection from the men to get a boxful of pennies for the women -- an interesting approach to affirmative action!

If you think people might cheat, you can use poker chips or other unusual objects instead of pennies.


An open dialogue can be helped by facilitation. An experienced facilitator can be brought in or the role can be held by one or more -- or all -- of the participants. The simplest form of facilitation entails ensuring that all involved have a chance to speak and that the meeting starts and ends on time.

Some facilitators discuss broad dialogue guidelines with participants and get them to agree to try applying them. Often guidelines such as the ones at the start of this article are posted on a wall where they can be referred to during the dialogue.

The facilitator says that he or she will be trying to shepherd the conversation along the guidelines described. Then the facilitator lets people talk, giving them gentle reminders as necessary.

Of course, to the extent all participants are brief, mindful, and curious about what each other has to say, little formal facilitation or gimmicks are necessary to ensure healthy dialogue.

(more on facilitation)

Maintaining a shared center

It is as important to "maintain a shared center" in an open dialogue as in more formal listening circles. When just a few people are talking -- especially when they are engaged in a back-and-forth discussion rather than being fully present in the group space and speaking from their hearts -- the shared center tends to get lost and the group's attention and energy dissipates. Other group members find themselves drifting off or withdrawing, becoming spectators instead of participants. Many groups encourage anyone who notices this dynamic in themselves or in others to call it to the group's attention. Then the whole group can take a moment to explore why this is happening or re-orient to its shared center in some other way. An individual who speaks in a particularly profound and inclusive way can also bring the circle back to center. In any co-intelligent dialogue, maintaining the shared center is usually at least as important as whatever subject is being considered.




see also

Exploring transactional and transformational conversations

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