Dialogue from Peter Senge's Perspective

by Martha Merrill

Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, which, when published in 1990, became a resource book for organizations interested in team learning. Senge looks at the "paradigm shifts" needed for an organization to become a learning organization, or an organization that learns collectively.

Senge's ideas on dialogue and its use in learning organizations draw heavily on the work of David Bohm, a contemporary quantum physicist. In introducing his chapter on "Dialogue and Discussion," Senge discusses Bohm's treatment of the subject of dialogue:

Dialogue, as it turns out, is a very old idea revered by the ancient Greeks and practiced by many "primitive" societies such as the American Indians. Yet, it is all but lost to the modern world. All of us have had some taste of dialogue--in special conversations that begin to have a "life of their own," taking us in directions we could never have imagined nor planned in advance. (Senge, 1990, p. 239)

Senge uses Bohm's work to define and examine such concepts as quantum theory, systems perspective, mental models, incoherent thought, and synergy as they are related to dialogue. Bohm's thinking and writing saturate Senge's discussion of dialogue. For example, Senge quotes Bohm in identifying the three basic conditions necessary for dialogue:

  1. All participants must "suspend" their assumptions, literally to hold them "as if suspended before us";
  2. All participants must regard one another as colleagues;
  3. There must be a 'facilitator' who 'holds the context' of dialogue. (Senge, p. 243)
An in-depth examination of Bohm's conditions follows the discussion of the necessary conditions. Only when Senge begins to examine dialogue from a team learning perspective does he offer some insight into his own perception of dialogue and its uses:

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. 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. This idea, while it may appear radical at first, has deep intuitive appeal to managers who have long cultivated the subtle aspects of collective inquiry. (Senge, p. 248)

Senge often says that "reflection and inquiry skills provide a foundation for dialogue" and that "dialogue that is grounded in reflection and inquiry skills is likely to be more reliable and less dependent on particulars of circumstance, such as the chemistry among team members" (Senge, p. 249).

Senge's perspective seems to be that dialogue can be a powerful tool for building team learning. His discussion of dialogue in The Fifth Discipline is heavily informed by the work of David Bohm. Senge provides little new knowledge about the definition or principles of dialogue. His contribution to the body of knowledge regarding dialogue lies in his application of dialogue in fostering organizational learning.

Go to Robert Hargrove on Dialogue

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