Contents of this section
Dialogue on dialogue
Interlude: Experiences in online dialogue
Distance dialogue
The dialogue that wasn't
Handling conflict
Creating a container
A tale of two organizations: part 1
Critical processes in the container
A tale of two organizations: part 2
When worldviews collide
AIDS in the Workplace
Risk taking and safety

Dialogue on dialogue: Our process

There are three conditions that must be met for dialogue, according to Bohm (1989, 1990).

  1. Suspend assumptions.
  2. Regard each other as colleagues.
  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.
In coming together as a group, we sought not only to understand dialogue academically and theoretically, but to get a feel for dialogue and some insight into how to practice it. Therefore, we decided to begin by each member of the group telling a story concerning an experience with dialogue, good or bad. In retrospect, this serendipitous starting point provided the glue to bring us together.

"I think it helps to hear all the practical applications of this. It contributes to knowledge of the third kind."--Jeanie.

"The stories gives it a recognizable human face rather than being disembodied concepts or ideas."--Lorna.

"Gives life to the formal knowledge."--Jeanie.

In keeping with the literature, we found our learning not just in the readings, but also in this group. Shotter says knowledge should be rooted in the experience of everyday people rather than rooted in theory set forth by researchers in natural sciences. This encourages us to act from within a position in a culture, and to focus on developing a sense of belonging in the world in which we live (Shotter, 1993). That's what we've been doing.

A unique relationship develops among team members who enter into dialogue regularly. They develop a deep trust that cannot help but carry over to discussions. And then they develop a richer understanding of the uniqueness of each person's point of view. They experience how larger understandings emerge by holding one's own point of view gently. Part of the vision of dialogue is the assumption of a larger pool of meaning accessible only to a group. (Senge, 1990)

Coming together at Lorna's house helped set the tone, break the ice. Group members unanimously expressed the feeling that the setting and hospitality shaped the quick bonding of the group, making it possible to explore ideas together in a collegial fashion marked by a sense of trust, sharing, and safety.

Although we didn't explicitly find it in the literature, our experience suggests the importance of a shared sense of humor--being able to laugh together.

We also believe it important to have the freedom to "wander around" on topics. We perceive most groups (especially business and academic) as wanting to "stick to the agenda." The freedom to follow topics where they want to go helps to build the sense of community.

Interlude: Experiences in online dialogue

by Donnell King

I believe I had my most "dialogical" experiences in a forum that didn't even involve face-to-face communication, when I participated heavily in an online community.

I believe the culminating experience must have come in 1995 or so, when I was invited to perform a wedding for some friends who met online.

For some time before that I had taken part in the Family RoundTable (RT) on GEnie, an online service similar to CompuServe or America Online®. Unlike some other services, however, and certainly unlike newsgroups or chat channels on the open Internet, GEnie organized itself around fairly tightly controlled communities of interest.

I served as an assistant sysop on the Family RoundTable, which means (among other things) that I helped to enforce the discussion standards. Swearing violated those standards, as did insulting other members. Violators received a warning; if they ignored the warning, they were temporarily locked out of bulletin boards and live chats in the RT; upon readmission, another violation led to permanent lockout. As a privately-owned network, GEnie could exercise speech restraint that would not be tolerated on the open Internet. Although I personally believe in free speech, I recognize that this restraint led to a very safe and civil environment, which allowed true community to flourish.

It's obvious, but bears stating, that people could not see each other or even hear each other in the online community. Without vocal or visual cues, people could not jump to conclusions about someone based on how they sounded, what they looked like, or even what gender they were. This led to two effects which profoundly affected the community: 1) the knowledge of that gave a sense of safety, which led people to reveal their innermost thoughts relatively quickly; and 2) because of that, people got to know each other's minds and even "souls" before ever laying eyes on each other.

The depth of this effect struck me when two members of this community who met online asked me to perform a wedding for them. My "girlfriend" and I attended a get-together of friends in Charlotte, N.C.--friends who had known each other for years who had never met. I had seen pictures of a very few of them and had actually met one of them. The rest I had neither seen nor heard.

Several of them surprised me--I never would have thought they looked or sounded that way, "knowing" them as I did. My two friends who were getting married had lived a thousand miles apart and had fallen in love before ever meeting. In fact, we realized after a time that out of about 45 people in attendance, 40 of them were in relationships that had begun online. Almost all agreed that, had they met first in person, they may have never talked to each other, because their appearance (and sound) didn't match a preconception about the "type" of person they would find interesting.

During the two nights we stayed at the motel, community members often retreated to their motel rooms to hook up computers to modems and continue to chat in the way they found familiar. They included hundreds of others who could not physically attend, but who felt part of the wedding because of being "plugged in."

As I reflect on that experience, I realize that many of the elements of collaborative learning identified by class members characterized the specific and ongoing interactions of the members of that community.

Getting into the flow with each other

We saw the importance of putting yourself in tune with each other and the group. The literature and our experience emphasize the need to treat each other as colleagues. Respect for each other plays a major role. It is simply part of being "in the stream" with the people in the group.

"When you're in tune with other people, things work out."--Lorna.

You have to pay attention while interacting with members in your group--otherwise, you may unintentionally send an inaccurate message. We could see this as almost a downside in not having an explicit facilitator. It required each member to act as facilitator. We decided that our experience illustrates that it's most important to have an explicit facilitator at the beginning of a group, while members are learning about each other. As Lorna pointed out, sometimes you need a facilitator. "But if we acted on our own initiative--if we were mindful of each other--then you don't have to have a formal facilitator."

We taped our first session to give to colleagues unable to attend. Later, everyone expressed the feeling that this showed regard for each other, not just the ones unable to attend. Taping the meeting and even addressing comments to Jim, who could not attend, helped us view him as being present and a part of the group. Later, as he listened to the tape, he found himself answering questions out loud. He also provided written materials prior to the first session, which enabled us to include his ideas in the initial mix. He even laughed with us as we joked about Lorna's singing computer; although we were separated in time, we seemed united in spirit.

Distance dialogue

by Jim Pruitt

When our group first met I was entangled in a swirling vortex of chaotic nuclear proportions at work and was unable to attend. My fellow collaborators decided that my presence could still be felt by audio taping the session and giving it to me at our next class meeting. Lorna's tape machine has the capability of recording at different speeds, allowing her to save tape and avoid having to change tapes often during long sessions. When the session that I missed was recorded, the machine was on slow speed. So, when I got the tape I decided that I would listen to the meeting in my car cassette player on the way home from class that night.

Car tape players do not (at least mine does not) have multiple speed playback. So on my trip home I was treated to The Chipmunks (Alvin, Simon, and Theodore minus David Seville) in dialogue. I found that if I listened closely, I could recognize those chipmunk voices (put a face on the rodent, so to speak), although I must admit it was their distinctive laughs that gave them away.

I tried slowing the car down, hoping the tape speed somehow linked to the wheel speed and that the discourse would become intelligible. The only additional intelligible sounds I heard, however, came from the horns of the people in the traffic jam I created.

At our next meeting Lorna (I recognized her by her chuckle) lent me her recorder so I could listen to the missed meeting at the correct speed.

What I heard amazed me! Along from remarks directed at me by the participants and recorded on the tape, I heard stories of both successful and unsuccessful dialogues and collaborations. (I often found myself responding to comments directed at me from the tape machine, which made me feel quite silly.) The number of collaborative successes related in the stories seemed to exactly equal the number of failures. Each story (related elsewhere in this paper) had lessons to be learned.

For me it seems that the more repetitions we get of these types of experiences, the better our ability to make good decisions when collaborative opportunities reveal themselves. I am on the edge of a number of such opportunities, but because I want the experience to be positive I want to make the best decision as to the timing of the collaborative effort. So I want to listen to my group and others describe the successes and failures of their experiences.

Speaking of listening, I must say that I had quite a different type of experience being in a in which I could not participate in real time. It was easier to listen more closely to what was said when there was no possibility or necessity to respond in the near term. I also found that meaning sometimes appeared to change if I rewound the tape and listened to it again. It seemed as though if you have the benefit of hearing responses to what was said, then the meaning of revisited discourse can change.

This allowed me to question what happened to change the meaning of what was just said. It let me focus on the change mechanism more precisely since I could stop the dialogue with the push of a button and not lose what was about to happen.

My thanks to Lorna, Martha, Jeanie, and Donn for allowing me to meet with them on tape and in person. You are, however, much easier to understand in person--at normal talking rates.

The dialogue that wasn't

by Martha Merrill

My story about dialogue in my practice must be one of a failed attempt. Not that I haven't tried to initiate dialogue with the "powers that be" in my workplace. I have. I guess I can learn about dialogue from unsuccessful attempts as well as successful ones. I optimistically look forward to the day when dialogue "takes hold" and some mutual learning occurs.

The Preschool Priorities "management team" consists of the Manager, two Assistant Managers, three Coordinators, five Lead Teachers, and five supervisors. We meet sporadically (but about quarterly) to talk about issues we face in our day-to-day operations.

Last October we met at a remote center location to minimize interruptions. We had pulled together four big tables to produce a large square sitting area. We all sat around the table except for our Manager. She sat on a chair behind the group.

The meeting trudged along for around an hour until Leigh, one of the supervisors who shares my despair at the lack of communication within this team, brought up the subject of staff turnover.

This is almost an undiscussable, but she persisted. She suggested that the turnover resulted from more than a problem of low pay and difficult work--that it might be the result of how we manage staff. You could hear breaths sucked in. Heads snapped around toward the Manager.

I couldn't believe it when I heard myself suggest that maybe Leigh was right.

"Could we discuss this and see where it goes?"

We buzzed about the possibility that treating employees without respect might be the root of our problem, that maybe we managed from a negative standpoint. After all, the Manager's management style is one of "looking for problems," crisis management at best. She thrives on investigating problems (that is, talking with everyone except the employees involved in the incident). During the increasingly rare lull times she creates a crisis if she can't find one.

At the mention of "managing from a negative standpoint," the Manager stood up and began pacing. This was our cue to stop this talk, but we continued to discuss it. I tried to model dialogical practice by "asking back" what I thought folks meant. I asked others to elaborate, and asked why folks felt the way they did. I felt like the five or six of us who were really talking about this (i.e., trying to develop a support group for new employees who may feel overwhelmed, writing a staff newsletter with information that would help employees feel valued, etc.) hung on the verge of dialogue.

The more we talked, the more agitated Elise (the manager) became. She interjected unhelpful comments (for example, "we don't have time to waste on support groups") and paced about with folded arms. Just when I thought we were engaging others in the group and exciting them with the possibility that we could DO something about the status quo, Elise stepped up, placed her hands palm down on the table, leaned forward, and said, "We have wasted enough time talking about soft issues. Let's get down to work. What are we going to do about all the home visits that haven't been made?"

The group fell silent.



"Well?" she asked.

Ellen (an Assistant Manager) began to talk about plans for requiring that home visits be completed by a certain date. The momentum and the opportunity drained away. I felt so disheartened.

This failed attempt is one of many. I tried to discuss collaborative learning with her last fall and she just said, "Every time I hear you say 'collaboration,' all I can think about is soured milk."

I have had mixed results in my attempts to dialogue at work. I hope that I am learning about the dynamics of conflict and the dynamics of groups where some members have no interest in learning a new way of communicating. I wonder: if I had possessed more skill in questioning, could I have facilitated a different outcome in that October meeting? I would like to believe so. At any rate, I am learning about the difficulties of fostering and sustaining dialogue.

Handling conflict

We believe that society generally seems to favor an adversarial approach. It is within this context that Isaacs says he's trying to make dialogue happen in organizations that have traditionally used adversarial approaches to methods of governance and interactions (Isaacs, 1993).

"[The adversarial approach] permeates the world that we live in."--Lorna.

For example, consider the relationship between unions and management, employees and management, the way you get promoted or even keep your job, the way grievances are settled. It is not that all relationships are adversarial; it is that so many are.

"In this group, we knew we didn't have to approach each other as adversaries."--Martha.

We believe the adversarial approach also shows in how our society deals with resistance and differences in opinion. Because we assume the adversarial approach, we often gloss over differences, pretend they don't exist or don't matter. We (society) think that disagreements are bad. We tend to try to smooth over disagreements rather than to "go with it."

Creating a container

Isaacs stresses the need to build a "container" (Isaacs, 1990). We experienced the value of creating an environment in which people commit to the conversation, then dialogue about something that could have lots of conflicts. Through mostly informal mean we found ourselves building sense of trust, of commitment to each other. This enabled us to speak our minds, examine our assumptions, and open up to one another. We found this consistent with Isaacs and our experiences outside our group. For dialogue to happen, participants must create a place where people can allow themselves to be vulnerable--a safe place.

A tale of two organizations: part 1

by Lorna Williams

When I think of experiences that I've had that would illustrate having an experience with dialogue, I think of two community nonprofit institutes of learning of which I was founding chair and president. I am on leave from one and have resigned from the other.

Meeting with Organization A

This group meets four times per year. Other working meetings are held with some of board members and members of the faculty as needed. The meetings are held at the home of one of the board members. They last all day, beginning at 10:00 a.m. with coffee and muffins and visiting until everyone arrives and people have tuned in to one another.

The group comprises five members of First Nations heritage and five of non First Nations, four faculty and one director/principle teacher--six men and nine women. The members live in urban areas and remote rural areas. Education levels range professor emeritus of the school of social work, masters levels in social work, and health, a chief of a large reservation, directors in education, community health workers, an advocate, an elder with many years of experience in community development, a retired bureaucrat and community developer.

We begin and end the day with a prayer. In our prayer we ask for guidance and assistance in hearing each other and working together to benefit our communities. We pray for clear minds and good hearts to help us in our work. We give thanks that we are together and ask for protection for our families and loved ones not with us.

I usually develop an agenda along with the director or with other faculty, board members, or the office manager. When I feel that people are ready we begin the meeting. We don't follow the agenda sequentially, other than the formal motions to satisfy the terms of public societies. We begin by reviewing all the activities which involved the organization over the past three or four months since the last meeting, including accomplishments, mileposts, significant meetings or policies or changes in government activities that would affect our world. Many of the topics touch items on the agenda. As we talk about each item, we talk until we either come to a shared understanding and agreement on a topic, or we leave it and go on to another item, returning at some point to pick up the discussion on previous items.We don't vote on items; we talk until we come to a shared resolution. Some items we choose to set aside with some clear guidelines for our staff and faculty. Although the amount of time people talk varies as in other groups, everyone is keenly aware of everyone, the conversations are sometimes intense and can become passionate, and often someone will tell a funny story to make people laugh or to ease the tension. We make all the decisions with the organization's goals, vision and mission statement in mind.

So the day has a rhythm and ideas flow. Although I chair the meeting and the group makes sure I keep the job (I've tried to give it up), in that group I feel I can speak freely about the items for discussion. My position as chair and president does not seem to create an imbalance of power. The principal educator/director also participates fully in the discussions. Only one time in 10 years has there been tension between us. The roles, experiences, education, and work of the participants all contribute to the discussions. People speak freely from their strength. All the people involved are deeply committed to the cause and our work. The turnover in the membership is very small. At the end of the day we've completed the agenda, had a meal together, caught up on all the news in each other's lives, discussed developments in the province, communities, and the nation and renewed our commitment to the organization and one another. We leave with a feeling of accomplishment, having achieved a clear plan for the future.

To be continued....

Critical processes in the container

Isaacs talks about different things happening in the container at different stages. If you want to create change, recognize an uncomfortable reality: there will be instability in the container. When people say what's on their mind, it creates dissonance, discomfort, causes people to rethink why they're there. But while people are being kind and nice, you're not going to move.

So you work towards a point when people can be up front about their experience.

A tale of two organizations: part 2

by Lorna Williams

Meeting with Organization B

The second organization began one year after A. I also was the founding president and chair of this educational institute. It grew out of a desire to promote mediated learning and to make this service available to more adults, youth and children.

This group met once a month. The membership comprised mainly professionals in the school system: Teachers, school psychologists, speech language pathologists, members of the community, parents, community organizers, a retired official of a granting organization, social workers, lawyers, accountants, and business. There was a part-time director and a full-time office manager. Later the office manager went on part time and we had a full-time secretary.

In this organization there was an agenda that looked the same for each meeting, with reports from the many committees, and reports from each of the staff. The meetings were lengthy and very tense. Membership turnover was high. There wasn't a commitment to get to all the meetings and to inform staff of absence. In this organization there was a split between the chair and director. There were numerous attempts to work out a working relationship. This split the board into two camps. During the meeting there was little discussion, lots of debate and no dialogue.

When worldviews collide

Isaacs gives an example of a company about to go under. Cutbacks are needed. Management and union have to come together. But long-entrenched assumptions get in the way. For instance, a union boss said of his feeling for his place in the organization: "They hired me from the neck down." This phrase says so much about how one group perceives another group--not so much how management viewed labor, but how labor perceived management as viewing them.

As uncomfortable as it may have been, it was necessary to this organization to reach a point where that sort of thing could come out.

According to Isaacs (1990), activity within an effective container moves through these stages:

  1. Initially, there are concerns for safety and trust, which you have to move through.
  2. Next, you must uncover polarization so you can move toward common group.
  3. The next level is inquiry to understand the polarization, the fragmentation. People experience collective pain as the degree of disconnection is held within the group. We see why this relates to the first stage--it is fear of this anticipated pain that keeps people concerned about safety. But we must move through this stage to reach the next level.
  4. The next level is creativity in the container--based on collective perceptions, as people engage with one another, which reaches a generative power or energy.

AIDS in the Workplace

by Jeanie Sharp

In the spring of 1984, a large electric utility faced the reality that AIDS is everyone's problem.

The company faced tough decisions on how to deal with this terminal disease when a thirteen-year employee confronted his supervisor with the fact that he had "full blown AIDS" and was dying. Management in the division where the employee worked encouraged the supervisor to "fire the queer!" However, the naive supervisor knew that firing this dedicated employee was not an option.

After a number of discussions with various company officials, the supervisor agreed to co-chair a committee comprising eleven management officials that represented various divisions of the company. While the positions of authority and areas of expertise varied greatly, all committee members had volunteered to serve on the committee because each knew the AIDS issues had to be addressed. The committee was unusual for the company because typically committees comprised employees of the same level of responsibility. However, the president of the company knew that to resolve the dilemma committee members had to work fast and bring diverse views of the issue to the table.

The first few meetings were spent airing frustrations over the AIDS issue. Obviously the committee members differed in their opinions of the subject. After several meetings, all committee members soon realized that AIDS was a horrible disease that faced our society, and most of the victims were young men in the prime of their life. Once all committee members realized this, a comprehensive AIDS policy emerged within four weeks that created a win-win situation for everyone. Furthermore, the committee members had become close friends who held a great deal of respect for each other. What began as a grim task confronting eleven individuals concluded as a cohesive unit that could speak as one voice on the AIDS issues and policies of the company.

What made this committee work? Many parallels exist with Bohm's dialogue framework.

First, committee members did indeed view each other as colleagues, because regardless of employment level the reason for forming the committee was a new issue for our entire society. The committee was blazing a new path into a territory never before explored.

Second, by discussing the values and stereotypes that surrounded the AIDS issue, participants could air their opinions in a safe environment. Only participants knew what was said in committee meetings. This allowed a high level of trust to develop over time.

Finally, there was a common reason for the dialogue to take place among all participants. The committee knew that the AIDS issue had to be resolved, and since all committee members were employees, each had a high level of commitment to meeting the challenge at hand. And, as fate had it, many committee members spent the next year working with other companies in the area to help these corporate dinosaurs develop similar AIDS policies representing a caring and compassionate approach to dealing with AIDS in the workplace.

Risk taking and safety

A good example of the relationship of risk taking and safety comes from Jeanie's retail business. As she explained it, they had "stolen" a golf manager from the only competitor in their area. He invested money in their business and was going to be the managing partner. However, he quickly became disheartened, and began saying negative things and griping. At about this point, Jeanie began attending the collaborative learning class during spring semester 1999 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Dr. Kathy Greenberg, one of the class facilitators, said during one of the classes to ask probing questions.

Jeanie said she took the advice back to her place of business, and in one meeting asked the golf manager, "What are you really feeling?" After about half an hour of talking around the question, he finally said, "To be honest, I'm sorry I invested. I'm tired of working long hours."

Jeanie reported, "We said, fine, we'll buy out your portion."

This led to the insight that the other people in the business were all talking about the golf manager, but no one said, "What's your problem." They didn't want to challenge him--to "open up that can of worms." In retrospect, he gave numerous messages, but couldn't say it clearly and openly until the container had been created.

We also noted the value of the explicitness of the question. Jeanie was willing to take the risk of probing.

Several of us noted the unexamined effect of one's root culture. Martha said she used to think it was a Southern thing to play nice and not embarrass people. There was this unspoken rule that you should always make people comfortable and be hospitable. Openness often equated to rudeness.

But although clearly seen in Southern culture, the notion seems wider than that, a sort of enculturation that cuts across various strata of human society. The particular expression may vary, but the desire seems widespread. Unfortunately, such often exacerbates conflict. rather than avoid it. Donn remembers a news story from several years ago involving an elderly man who woke up one morning, took his shotgun, and murdered his elderly wife. He then sat at the kitchen table waiting for the police to come. When they asked him why he had acted so dreadfully, he said, "Well, she burned the biscuits again."

Whatever else that incident involved, it surely included more than burned biscuits. It likely was the culmination of years of stored up, unexamined, unacknowledged, unprocessed conflict. There must be a place or way to bring out conflict and deal with it. Functional cultures have the social rules to deal with it. Perhaps one of the practical applications of conscious dialogue is to introduce rules for dealing with conflict into cultures and subcultures that, for whatever reason, have lost their inherited rules or find them no longer adequate.

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