William N. Isaacs' take on dialogue

by Lorna Williams

Isaacs' working definition of dialogue is that it is a discipline of collective thinking and inquiry, a process for transforming the quality of conversation, and in particular the thinking that lies beneath it. It is evident in the articles I read that Isaacs' idea of dialogue developed along the same lines as Bohm--he quotes Bohm extensively. Others whose work was influential include Buber, Kurt Lewin, Argyris, and Wittgenstein.

Isaacs is the director of the Dialogue Project at MIT's Organizational Learning Center. The Dialogue Project has conducted action research experiments on dialogue and organizational learning in a variety of settings around the world. "The intent of the project was to explore the validity of dialogue and to contribute in the development of practical knowledge about it" (Project Annual Report, 1993-94). Isaacs and his colleagues wanted to derive a working definition of dialogue; contribute to a developing theory of dialogue; and gain practical knowledge of what is required to initiate and operationalize dialogue in communities.

Isaacs made a significant contribution to our knowledge about how to make dialogue happen in organizations that have traditionally used adversarial approaches to governance and methods of interaction. They include the seven principles for the exploration of thinking and the idea of providing a "container" in which dialogue can take place.

Phases for the evolution of the container