David Bohm on Dialogue

by Jeanie Sharp

Professor David Bohm is Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of London. He is perhaps best known for his work as a theoretical physicist; however, his interests in the areas of communication and dialogue date back to the 1950s.

Bohm describes the process of dialogue as a communication system that has the potential for bringing about a new world view. Because Bohm sees dialogue as a vehicle for bringing about world peace, his views perhaps represent the purest form of dialogue possible. In order to participate in dialogue, one must first understand what dialogue is according to Bohm.

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.

Bohm goes on to point out that the cohesiveness of the group allows the participants to become coherent at the "tacit level." This unspoken level of communication that develops slowly in a dialogue group has the potential for holding tremendous power that can fuel grassroots changes in a society.

In order for dialogue to take place, three conditions must be met. First, participants must suspend assumptions. Bohm says that discussions and negotiations are not dialogue, because each represents a process whereby someone tries to "win" or convince others to assume the views of another. In dialogue, there is no attempt to gain points or prevail, and nobody tries to "win." The primary objective of dialogue is to suspend your opinions and look at the opinions of others. All participants must learn to listen to what is on someone's mind and suspend judgement without coming to a conclusion. Dialogue requires an "empty place" to give all participants the necessary space to talk.

Second, all participants must regard one another as colleagues. While authority and hierarchy permeate our societies, dialogue can only take place when we can suspend those notions of authority. Since we must have an empty space in dialogue with no set agenda or program, it will be much easier to treat all participants as colleagues in a real dialogue setting.

Third, there must be a "facilitator" who holds the context of dialogue. While we want to all be colleagues, those entering a dialogue experience for the first time will need someone experienced in dialogue to facilitate the conversations. Opinions will be expressed that will likely differ from those of many participants in the group; however, all participants must refrain from entering into discussions that attempt to break down the opinions of those different from the participants.

The facilitator experienced in dialogue can play a key role in creating an environment that allows participants to speak frankly about the values and opinions they hold. Furthermore, the facilitator will initially have to work to keep the space empty for open communication to take place and for participants to simply listen rather than voicing their own judgements. As human beings we have spent a great deal of our lives holding on to our assumptions about life. We seem to have a strong need to defend our assumptions; giving in to it will prevent dialogue. The facilitator makes certain that each person has the needed space to talk openly.

Finally, Bohm points out that a reason for dialogue must exist in order for participants to engage in dialogue. This reason, whatever it may be, will get the participants through the frustrations of dialogue, because the very process Bohm speaks of really goes against the norms of most societies. However, with dialogue participants can create an environment that creates fertile ground for positive change.


Go to William N. Isaacs' take on dialogue

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