Importance of Dialogue

One project that I am consulting on at the moment deals with an organisation that is largely run by volunteers and is spread across over 30 countries. A major part of this work is to try to foster a sense of community between all of the individuals who are doing similar work around the world, but are currently doing so mostly in isolation.

January 2016 marked the beginning of a second year of this work, and while we have so far been able to celebrate a number of successes most of the low hanging fruit has now been picked. It seems that this is the point of the process where things get tough, but also the place where a cultural shift really begins.

There are two distinct aspects to my role in this process:

  1. Act as a point of contact and advisor for the individuals and teams who are currently working in isolation, to help them formulate their work process and delivery of their national website.
  2. Try and get a deeper understanding of how these separate units are operating within the context of the organisation to help pool resources and maintain consistency.

While the former is quite easy to track with tangible progress and deliverables, the latter is altogether more difficult to quantify. It involves having many conversations with individuals all throughout the organisation, many of which open up further areas of enquiry which lead to more conversations. Rarely is there a sense that this brings us closer to some form of a conclusion or result.


This is something that I was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable about - after all, no one likes to feel like they are not getting anywhere. I knew that it was important to be having these conversations, but I felt like I needed to be able to justify having them by accomplishing 'results'.

This uneasiness lead me to re-discover a wonderful collection of essays on the topic of dialogue, written by the theoretical physicist David Bohm titled 'On Dialogue'.

This summary by Jeanie Sharp does a better job than I could do condense Bohm's thoughts:

Dialogue "comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos means 'the word' or in our case we would think of the 'meaning of the word.' And dia means 'through'--it doesn't mean two" (Bohm, 1990, p. 1). Bohm points out that dialogue suggests a "stream of meaning" flowing among, through and between us. This makes it possible to create a flow of meaning in the entire group so that some new understanding will emerge. This in turn will create a "shared meaning" in the group that serves as the glue or cement that will hold the group (and society) together.

This insight feels so important and entirely liberating - that the process of dialogue itself is the actual result, one which is laying the foundations for a global community of shared understanding.

I have tried to capture Bohm's recipe for such a dialogue below in as succinct a format as possible to serve as a personal reminder, but one must read the whole essay to really understand the spirit of the approach needed:

  1. Suspend assumptions ( there is no attempt to gain points or prevail, and nobody tries to "win" ).
  2. Regard each other as colleagues (dialogue can only take place when we can suspend those notions of authority).
  3. There must be a Facilitator who holds the context of dialogue. If group is experienced, facilitator can just kind of blend in, especially once the atmosphere is established.

I am excited to try and understand these principles more by finding ways to bring this format of dialogue into the work - focusing more on the benefit of a shared meaning within the group rather than specific arbitrary points of progress.

You can read a copy of the principle essay from the book online here.

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