I. Permission and Copyright Information
II. Dialogue: A Proposal
III. Distributor's Sidebar Reflection
IV. An Open Letter from Donald Factor
I. Permission and Copyright Information
I have received permission to distribute the transcribed copy of "Dialogue:
A Proposal", Copyright 1991, David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garrett.
If you do redistribute this please notify Donald Factor
<firstname.lastname@example.org>. Here is his permission:
If you will read the copyright notice on Dialogue - A Proposal
(reproduced below) you will see that we are keen to get its message as
widely distributed as possible. So if there are any listservers or FTP
or WWW sites that it would be useful on, please put it out. I would like
to know where it ends up if that's possible. We do want to keep the
copyright notice intact because it makes the point that it not to be
used without express permission for any commercial purposes.
C. David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garrett.
>>The copyright holders hereby give permission to copy this material
and to distribute it to others for non-commercial purposes including
discussion, inquiry, criticism and as an aid to setting up Dialogue
groups so long as the material is not altered and this notice is included.
All other rights are reserved.<<
II. Dialogue: A Proposal
David Bohm, Donald Factor, Peter Garrett, (Richard Burg)
We are proposing a kind of collective inquiry not only into the content of
what each of us say, think and feel but also into the underlying
motivations, assumptions and beliefs that lead us to so do.
DIALOGUE - A PROPOSAL
c. David Bohm. Donald Factor and Peter Garrett
The copyright holders hereby give permission to copy this material and to
distribute it to others for non-commercial purposes including discussion,
inquiry, criticism and as an aid to setting up Dialogue groups. All other
rights are reserved.
March 9, 1992 (DB, DF, PG)
November 26, 1992 (Transcribed - RB)
Please address any correspondence to:
Broad Marston Lane
Glos GL55 6SF
DIALOGUE - A PROPOSAL
Dialogue, as we are choosing to use the word, is a way of exploring the
roots of the many crises that face humanity today. It enables inquiry into,
and understanding of, the sorts of processes that fragment and interfere
with real communication between individuals, nations and even different
parts of the same organization. In our modern culture men and women are
able to interact with one another in many ways: they can sing dance or play
together with little difficulty but their ability to talk together about
subjects that matter deeply to them seems invariable to lead to dispute,
division and often to violence. In our view this condition points to a deep
and pervasive defect in the process of human thought.
In Dialogue, a group of people can explore the individual and collective
presuppositions, ideas, beliefs, and feelings that subtly control their
interactions. It provides an opportunity to participate in a process that
displays communication successes and failures. It can reveal the often
puzzling patterns of incoherence that lead the group to avoid certain
issues or, on the other hand, to insist, against all reason, on standing
and defending opinions about particular issues.
Dialogue is a way of observing, collectively, how hidden values and
intentions can control our behavior, and how unnoticed cultural differences
can clash without our realizing what is occurring. It can therefore be seen
as an arena in which collective learning takes place and out of which a
sense of increased harmony, fellowship and creativity can arise.
Because the nature of Dialogue is exploratory, its meaning and its methods
continue to unfold. No firm rules can be laid down for conducting a
Dialogue because its essence is learning - not as the result of consuming a
body of information or doctrine imparted by an authority, nor as a means of
examining or criticizing a particular theory or programme, but rather as
part of an unfolding process of creative participation between peers.
However, we feel that it is important that its meaning and background be
Our approach to this form of Dialogue arose out of a series of
conversations begun in 1983 in which we inquired into David Bohm's
suggestion that a pervasive incoherence in the process of human thought is
the essential cause of the endless crises affecting mankind. This led us,
in succeeding years, to initiate a number of larger conversations and
seminars held in different countries with various groups of people which in
turn began to take the form of Dialogues.
As we proceeded it became increasing clear to us that this process of
Dialogue is a powerful means of understanding how thought functions. We
became aware that we live in a world produced almost entirely by human
enterprise and thus, by human thought. The room in which we sit, the
language in which these words are written, our national boundaries, our
systems of value, and even that which we take to be our direct perceptions
of reality are essentially manifestations of the way human beings think and
have thought. We realize that without a willingness to explore this
situation and to gain a deep insight into it, the real crises of our time
cannot be confronted, nor can we find anything more than temporary
solutions to the vast array of human problems that now confront us.
We are using the word "thought" here to signify not only the products of
our conscious intellect but also our feelings, emotions, intentions and
desires. It also includes such subtle, conditioned manifestations of
learning as those that allow us to make sense of a succession of separate
scenes within a cinema film or to translate the abstract symbols on road
signs along with the tacit, non-verbal processes used in developing basic,
mechanical skills such as riding a bicycle. In essence thought, in this
sense of the word, is the active response of memory in every phase of life.
Virtually all of our knowledge is produced, displayed, communicated,
transformed and applied in thought..
To further clarify this approach, we propose that, with the aid of a little
close attention, even that which we call rational thinking can be see to
consist largely of responses conditioned and biased by previous thought. If
we look carefully at what we generally take to be reality we begin to see
that it includes a collection of concepts, memories and reflexes colored by
our personal needs, fears, and desires, all of which are limited and
distorted by the boundaries of language and the habits of our history, sex
and culture. It is extremely difficult to disassemble this mixture or to
ever be certain whether what we are perceiving - or what we may think about
those perceptions - is at all accurate.
What makes this situation so serious is that thought generally conceals
this problems from our immediate awareness and succeeds in generating a
sense that the way each of us interprets the world is the only sensible way
in which it can be interpreted. What is needed is a means by which we can
slow down the process of thought in order to be able to observe it while it
is actually occurring.
Our physical bodies have this capability but thought seems to lack it. If
you raise your arm you know that you are willing the act, that somebody
else is not doing it for or to you. This is called proprioception.. We can
be aware of our body's actions while they are actually occurring but we
generally lack this sort of skill in the realm of thought. For example, we
do not notice that our attitude toward another person may be profoundly
affected by the way we think and feel about someone else who might share
certain aspects of his behavior or even of his appearance. Instead, we
assume that our attitude toward her arises directly from her actual
conduct. The problem of thought is that the kind of attention required to
notice this incoherence seems seldom to be available when it is most
Dialogue is concerned with providing a space within which such attention
can be given. It allows a display of thought and meaning that makes
possible a kind of collective proprioception or immediate mirroring back of
both the content of thought and the less apparent, dynamic structures that
govern it. In Dialogue this can be experienced both individually and
collectively. Each listener is able to reflect back to each speaker, and to
the rest of the group, a view of some of the assumptions and unspoken
implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being
avoided. It creates the opportunity for each participant to examine the
preconceptions, prejudices and the characteristic patterns that lie behind
his or her thoughts, opinions, beliefs and feelings, along with the roles
he or she tends habitually to play. And it offers an opportunity to share
The word "dialogue" derives from two roots: "dia" which means "through" and
"logos" which means "the word", or more particularly, "the meaning of the
word." The image it gives is of a river of meaning flowing around and
through the participants. Any number of people can engage in Dialogue - one
can even have a Dialogue with oneself - but the sort of Dialogue that we
are suggesting involves a group of between twenty and forty people seated
in a circle talking together.
Some notion of the significance of such a Dialogue can be found in reports
of hunter-gather bands of about this size, who, when they met to talk
together, had no apparent agenda nor any predetermined purpose.
Nevertheless, such gatherings seemed to provide and reinforce a kind of
cohesive bond or fellowship that allowed its participants to know what was
required of them without the need for instruction or much further verbal
interchange. In other words, what might be called a coherent culture of
shared meaning emerged within the group. It is possible that this coherence
existed in the past for human communities before technology began to
mediate our experience of the living world.
Dr. Patrick de Mare, a psychiatrist working in London, has conducted
pioneering work along similar lines under modern conditions. He set up
groups of about the same size, the purpose of which he described in terms
of "sociotherapy". His view is that the primary cause of the deep and
pervasive sickness in our society can be found at the socio-cultural level
and that such groups can serve as micro-cultures from which the source of
the infirmity of our large civilization can be exposed. Our experience has
led us to extend this notion of Dialogue by emphasizing and giving special
attention to the fundamental role of the activity of thought in the
origination and maintenance of this condition.
As a microcosm of the large culture, Dialogue allows a wide spectrum of
possible relationships to be revealed. It can disclose the impact of
society on the individual and the individual's impact on society. It can
display how power is assumed or given away and how pervasive are the
generally unnoticed rules of the system that constitutes our culture. But
it is most deeply concerned with understanding the dynamics of how thought
conceives such connections.
It is not concerned with deliberately trying to alter or change behavior
nor to get the participants to move toward a predetermined goal. Any such
attempt would distort and obscure the processes that the Dialogue has set
out to explore. Nevertheless, changes do occur because observed thought
behaves differently from unobserved thought. Dialogue can thus become an
opportunity for thought and feeling to play freely in a continuously
engaging movement. Topics of a specific or personal nature will become
entwined with areas of deeper or more general meaning. Any subject can be
included and no content is excluded. Such an activity is very rare in our
PURPOSE AND MEANING
Usually people gather either to accomplish a task or to be entertained,
both of which can be categorized as predetermined purposes. But by its very
nature Dialogue is not consistent with any such purposes beyond the
interest of its participants in the unfoldment and revelation of the deeper
collective meanings that may be revealed. These may on occasion be
entertaining, enlightening, lead to new insights or address existing
problems. But surprisingly, in its early stages, the dialogue will often
lead to the experience of frustration.
A group of people invited to give their time and serious attention to a
task that has no apparent goal and is not being led in any detectable
direction may quickly find itself experiencing a great deal of anxiety or
annoyance. This can lead to the desire on the part of some, either to break
up the group or to attempt to take control and give it a direction.
Previously unacknowledged purposes will reveal themselves. Strong feelings
will be exposed, along with the thoughts that underlie them. Fixed
positions may be taken and polarization will often result. This is all part
of the process. It is what sustains the Dialogue and keeps it constantly
extending creatively into new domains.
In an assembly of between twenty and forty people, extremes of frustration,
anger, conflict or other difficulties may occur, but in a group of this
size such problems can be contained with relative ease. In fact, they can
become the central focus of the exploration in what might be understood as
a kind of "meta-dialogue", aimed at clarifying the process of Dialogue
As sensitivity and experience increase, a perception of shared meaning
emerges in which people find that they are neither opposing one another,
nor are they simply interacting. Increasing trust between members of the
group - and trust in the process itself - leads to the expression of the
sorts of thoughts and feelings that are usually kept hidden. There is no
imposed consensus, nor is there any attempt to avoid conflict. No single
individual or sub-group is able to achieve dominance because every single
subject, including domination and submission, is always available to be
Participants find that they are involved in an ever changing and developing
pool of common meaning. A shared content of consciousness emerges which
allows a level of creativity and insight that is not generally available to
individuals or to groups that interact in more familiar ways. This reveals
an aspect of Dialogue that Patrick de Mare has called koinonia, a word
meaning "impersonal fellowship", which was originally used to describe the
early form of Athenian democracy in which all the free men of the city
gathered to govern themselves.
As this fellowship is experience it begins to take precedence over the more
overt content of the conversation (sic). It is an important stage in the
Dialogue, a moment of increased coherence, where the group is able to move
beyond its perceived blocks or limitations and into new territory, But it
is also a point at which a group may begin to relax and bask in the "high"
that accompanies the experience. This is the point that sometimes causes
confusion between Dialogue and some forms of psychotherapy. Participants
may want to hold the group together in order to preserve the pleasurable
feeling of security and belonging that accompanies the state. This is
similar to that sense of community often reached in therapy groups or in
team building workshops where it is taken to be the evidence of the success
of the method used. Beyond such a point, however, lie even more significant
and subtle realms of creativity, intelligence and understanding that can be
approached only by persisting in the process of inquiry and risking
re-entry into areas of potentially chaotic or frustrating uncertainty.
WHAT DIALOGUE IS NOT
Dialogue is not discussion, a word that shares its root meaning with
"percussion" and "concussion," both of which involve breaking things up.
Nor is it debate. These forms of conversation contain an implicit tendency
to point toward a goal, to hammer out an agreement, to try to solve a
problem or have one's opinion prevail. It is also not a "salon", which is a
kind of gathering that is both informal and most often characterized by an
intention to entertain, exchange friendship, gossip and other information.
Although the word "dialogue" has often been used in similar ways, its
deeper, root meaning implies that it is not primarily interested in any of
Dialogue is not a new name for T-groups or sensitivity training, although
it is superficially similar to these and other related forms of group work.
Its consequences may be psychotherapeutic but it does not attempt to focus
on removing the emotional blocks of any one participant nor to teach, train
or analyze. Nevertheless, it is an arena in which learning and the
dissolution of blocks can and often do take place. It is not a technique
for problem solving or conflict resolution, although problems may well be
resolved during the course of a Dialogue, or perhaps later, as a result of
increased understanding and fellowship that occurs among the participants.
It is, as we have emphasized, primarily a means of exploring the field of
Dialogue resembles a number of other forms of group activity and may at
times include aspects of them but in fact it is something new to our
culture. We believe that it is an activity that might well prove vital to
the future health of our civilization.
HOW TO START A DIALOGUE
SUSPENSION of thoughts, impulses, judgments, etc., lies at the very heart
of Dialogue. It is one of its most important new aspects. It is not easily
grasped because the activity is both unfamiliar and subtle. Suspension
involves attention, listening and looking and is essential to exploration.
Speaking is necessary, of course, for without it there would be little in
the Dialogue to explore, But the actual process of exploration takes place
during listening -- not only to others but to oneself. Suspension involves
exposing your reactions, impulses, feelings and opinions in such a way that
they can be seen and felt within your own psyche and also be reflected back
by others in the group. It does not mean repressing or suppressing or,
even, postponing them. It means, simply, giving them your serious attention
so that their structures can be noticed while they are actually taking
place. If you are able to give attention to, say, the strong feelings that
might accompany the expression of a particular thought - either your own or
anothers -- and to sustain that attention, the activity of the thought
process will tend to slow you down. This may permit you to begin to see the
deeper meanings underlying your thought process and to sense the often
incoherent structure of any action that you might otherwise carry out
automatically. Similarly, if a group is able to suspend such feelings and
give its attention to them then the overall process that flows from
thought, to feeling, to acting-out within the group, can also slow down and
reveal its deeper, more subtle meanings along with any of its implicit
distortions, leading to what might be described as a new kind of coherent,
To suspend thought, impulse, judgment, etc., requires serious attention to
the overall process we have been considering -- both on one's own and
within a group. This involves what may at first appear to be an arduous
kind of work. But if this work is sustained, one's ability to give such
attention constantly develops so that less and less effort is required.
NUMBERS: A Dialogue works best with between twenty and forty people seated
facing one another in a single circle. A group of this size allows for the
emergence and observation of different subgroups or subcultures that can
help to reveal some off the ways in which thought operatives collectively.,
This is important because the differences between such subcultures are
often an unrecognized cause of failed communication and conflict. Smaller
groups, on the other hand, lack the requisite diversity needed to reveal
these tendencies and will generally emphasize more familiar personal and
family roles and relationships.
With a few groups we have had as many as sixty participants, but with that
large a number the process becomes unwieldy. Two concentric circles are
required to seat everybody so that they can see and hear one another. This
places those in the back row at a disadvantage, and fewer participants have
an opportunity to speak.
We might mention here that some participants tend to talk a great deal
while others find difficulty in speaking up in groups. It is worth
remembering, though, that the word "participation" has two meanings: "to
partake of", and "to take part in". Listening is at least as important as
speaking. Often the quieter participants will begin to speak up more as
they become familiar with the Dialogue experience while the more dominant
individuals will find themselves tending to speak less and listen more.
DURATION: A Dialogue needs some time to get going. It is an unusual way of
participating with others and some sort of introduction is required in
which the meaning of the whole activity can be communicated. But even with
a clear introduction, when the group begins to talk together it will often
experience confusion, frustration, and a self-conscious concern as to
whether or not it is actually engaging in Dialogue. It would be very
optimistic to assume that a Dialogue would begin to flow or move toward any
great depth during its first meeting. It is important to point out that
perseverance is required.
In setting up Dialogues it is useful at the start to agree the length of
the session and for someone to take responsibility for calling time at the
end. We have found that about two hours is optimum. Longer sessions risk a
fatigue factor which tends to diminish the quality of participation. Many
T-groups use extended "marathon" sessions which use this fatigue factor to
break down some of the inhibitions of the participants. Dialogue on the
other hand, is more concerned with exploring the social constructs and
inhibitions that affect our communications rather than attempting to bypass
The more regularly the group can meet, the deeper and more meaningful will
be the territory explored. Weekends have often been used to allow a
sequence of sessions, but if the Dialogue is to continue for an extended
period of time we suggest that there be at least a one week interval
between each succeeding session to allow time for individual reflection and
further thinking. There is no limit to how long a Dialogue group may
continue its exploration. But it would be contrary to the spirit of
Dialogue for it to become fixed or institutionalized. This suggests openess
to constantly shifting membership, changing schedules, or other
manifestations of a serious attention to an implicit rigidity which might
take hold. Or merely, the dissolving of a group after some period.
LEADERSHIP: A Dialogue is essentially a conversation between equals. Any
controlling authority, no matter how carefully or sensitively applied, will
tend to hinder and inhibit the free play of thought and the often delicate
and subtle feelings that would otherwise be shared. Dialogue is vulnerable
to being manipulated, but its spirit is not consistent with this. Hierarchy
has no place in Dialogue.
Nevertheless, in the early stages some guidance is required to help the
participants realize the subtle differences between Dialogue and other
forms of group process. At least one or, preferably two, experienced
facilitators are essential. Their role should be to occasionally point out
situations that might seem to be presenting sticking points for the group,
in other words, to aid the process of collective proprioception, but these
interventions should never be manipulative nor obtrusive. Leaders are
participants just like everybody else. Guidance, when it is felt to be
necessary, should take the form of "leading from behind" and preserve the
intention of making itself redundant as quickly as possible.
However, this proposal is not intended as a substitute for experienced
facilitators. We suggest, though, that its contents be reviewed with the
group during its initial meeting so that all the participants can be
satisfied that they are embarking upon the same experiment.
SUBJECT MATTER: The Dialogue can begin with any topic of interest to the
participants. if some members of the group feel that certain exchanges or
subjects are disturbing or not fitting, it is important that they express
these thoughts within the Dialogue. No content should be excluded.
Often participants will gossip or express their dissatisfactions or
frustration after a session but it is exactly this sort of material that
offers the most fertile ground for moving the Dialogue into deeper realms
of meaning and coherence beyond the superficiality of "group think", good
manners or dinner party conversation.
DIALOGUE IN EXISTING ORGANIZATIONS
So far we have been primarily discussing Dialogues that bring together
individuals from a variety of backgrounds rather than from existing
organizations. But its value may also be perceived by members of an
organization as a way of increasing and enriching their own corporate
In this case the process of Dialogue will change considerably. Members of
an existing organization will have already developed a number of different
sorts of relationship between one another and with their organization as a
whole. here may be a pre-existing hierarchy or a felt need to protect one's
colleagues, team or department. There may be a fear of expressing thoughts
that might be seen as critical of those who are higher in the organization
or of norms within the organizational culture. Careers or the social
acceptance of individual members might appear to be threatened by
participation in a process that emphasizes transparency, openness, honesty,
spontaneity, and the sort of deep interest in others that can draw out
areas of vulnerability that may long have been kept hidden.
In an existing organization the Dialogue will very probably have to begin
with an exploration of all the doubts and fears that participation will
certainly raise. Members may have to begin with a fairly specific agenda
from which they eventually can be encouraged to diverge. This differs from
the approach taken with one-time or self-selected groupings in which
participants are free to begin with any subject matter. But as we have
mentioned no content should be excluded because the impulse to exclude a
subject is itself rich material for the inquiry.
Most organizations have inherent, predetermined purposes and goals that are
seldom questioned. At first this might also seem to be inconsistent with
the free and open play of thought that is so intrinsic to the Dialogue
process. However, this too can be overcome if the participants are helped
from the very beginning to realize that considerations of such subjects can
prove essential to the well-being of the organization and can in turn help
to increase the participants self-esteem along with the regard in which he
or she may be held by others.
The creative potential of Dialogue is great enough to allow a temporary
suspension of any of the structures and relationships that go to make up an
Finally, we would like to make clear that we are not proposing Dialogue as
a panacea nor as a method or technique designed to succeed all other forms
of social interaction. Not everyone will find it useful nor, certainly,
will it be useful in all contexts. There is great value to be found in many
group psychotherapeutic methods and there are many tasks that require firm
leadership and a well-formed organizational structure.
Much of the sort of work we have described here can be accomplished
independently, and we would encourage thi Many of the ideas suggested in
this proposal are still the subjects of our own continuing exploration. We
do not advise that they be taken as fixed but rather that they be inquired
into as a part of your own Dialogue.
The spirit of Dialogue is one of free play, a sort of collective dance of
the mind that, nevertheless, has immense power and reveals coherent
purpose. Once begun it becomes continuing adventure that can open the way
to significant and creative change.
III. Distributor's Sidebar: A Reflection
One of the open questions about Dialogue is what potential it may have in
organizations. There is a brief section, at the end of "...A Proposal",
addressing the question. The writers expressed a hopeful resolution to the
way in which Dialogue might be limited by fear and anxiety. The dialogue
process runs against many forces which are alive in organizations. Section
IV of this mail message is a letter from one of the authors which takes a
much more cautious position than that offerred in the original paper.
My consulting practice involves working with groups in organizations. I
believe the introduction and maintenance of Dialogue into organizations
(with the phenomenological and epistemological focus of Bohm's intention)
is impossible. The process does not offer any protection from the explicit
and implicit forces which result from 'leadership', 'authority', and the
power structures of our organizational systems. Organizations are generally
purposeful in narrow ways. To undertake a process without purpose in such a
system, will excite anxiety and tension in the unconscious life of the
system. The paradox may be fruitful, but I believe that the seed for the
process must evolve from within the system if the fruit is not to cause
indigestion! Organizations that are moving to open communication and more
intimate relationships may approach dialogue as they evolve into more
engaging systems. But to bring Dialogue from outside, is likely to have
unintended consequences or, more likely, to merely prove unsustainable.
We have seen two alternative definitions for a form of dialogue which is
derivative of Bohm's experiment. One is "contingent" dialogue - a group
focusing on a particular problem. The second, as DWeston named it, is
"strategic" dialogue. These may be valuable and productive techniques for
deeper human communication in organizations. But we ought to recognize how
different they are from the invitation Bohm extended to examine "thought
arising." I believe the following letter from Donald Factor sharpens the
distinction from two particular perspectives.
Richard Burg Voice 510-848-4258
Meridian Group Fax 510-848-4257
1827A Fifth Street 800-3MERIDIAN (800-363-7426)
Berkeley, CA US email@example.com
IV. An Open Letter from Donald Factor
[This] is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to the organizers of the recent
Sundance Gathering organized in Utah by Bill Isaacs and Margaret Wheately
amongst others. It is aimed at clarifying the difference between our approach
and Bill's. [Richard,] please feel free to distribute this too.
An Open Letter
.....As you may be aware Anna and I worked closely with David and Saral Bohm
for ten years. During that time the idea of group dialogue emerged and grew.
Because the project involved ideas that were subtle and quite new to the
culture it seemed important to try to clarify, so far as we could, what we
were attempting. I, along with David Bohm and Peter Garrett, wrote a paper
entitled "Dialogue _ A Proposal" as a starting point. Of course, since
David's death the nature of what we began continues to unfold.
One reason for this letter is that I have noticed what I believe is a deep
confusion that has arisen amongst many of those who are interested in
dialogue and that I believe ought to be addressed in the sort of gathering
that you have arranged. It seems to me that this can best be expressed
through a consideration of two topics that I take to be crucial to both the
theory and practice of dialogue _ at least from a Bohmian point of view.
Notions of the need for facilitation arose early in the development of
dialogue because of the fact that the nature of the activity seemed to lack
any obvious precursors in our general culture. We were unable to find
acceptable models that were relevant to our intentions. Not even T Groups
which appeared to have much in common with what we were after seemed
entirely to fit. Patrick DeMare's work with median groups in London was the
most relevant but, unfortunately, remained relatively unknown. And "action"
oriented methods seemed to derive from very different assumptions. Because
of this, in introducing people to dialogue David Bohm used to take the
approach of conducting a two or three day seminar discussing with them his
notions of the nature of thought as a system and how it tends to lead
inevitably to self-deception, before introducing them to dialogue. When the
dialogue began he then behaved, not as a facilitator, leader or expert but
as an engaged participant. Of course, this must be seen in the light of the
fact that he was well-known and that most participants came primarily
because of him. However, his intention was to make dialogue a conversation
among equals where everyone's ideas, opinions or theories would be taken
seriously but also be vulnerable to challenge and inquiry.
Since his death we have attempted to continue our exploration in this same
direction. These days there are no stars or perceived leaders to whom
members of the group can look for aid or advise. Participation has thus come
to be seen as a collective undertaking, a mutual responsibility for what
goes on _ or what doesn't go on. If someone attempts to control the group
process or to guide it toward his or her objectives or personal viewpoint it
is incumbent on other members of the group to query this, no matter what
authority might be claimed. If an individual in a group feels that the
conversation has become stuck, circular or out of line with the intentions
of dialogue, then it is important for that person to say so in order that
the whole group can look at what is actually happening. The intent is
neither to criticise nor to alter what is happening but to try and see how
it arises and what it means.
Clearly, if a designated facilitator takes on this sort of role then the
other participants will expect him or her to do the intervening and keep the
dialogue "on course." No further thinking will be required nor will there be
much possibility of insight. Whatever learning occurs will derive largely
from giving attention to an external authority rather than from any
first-hand recognition. Further, since the facilitator plays a role that is
different from that of the rest of the group, s/he will be limited in his or
her ability to fully participate. We have noticed that if one or more
participants remain relatively aloof from the nitty-gritty of the dialogue
then a subtle _ or sometimes not so subtle _ sense of being observed,
judged, manipulated or studied, by the one who necessarily has to protect
his or her vulnerability, will arise and tend to limit the possibilities for
expression in the whole group.
I accept that this non-interventionist approach is not shared by all
practitioners of dialogue. I am not arguing that it is "the one true path"
but I am raising this issue because I believe that both the interventionist
approaches and the non-interventionist approaches have validity, but in
different realms. Can they, somehow, be harmonised? Frankly, it seems to me
that a blending of these methods would be extremely difficult because at
least one core assumption is not shared. I will refer more to that in the
following section on purpose.
But first I want to mention that what I am suggesting, here, is an approach
that treats the common occurrence of frustration in dialogue as an
unavoidable and necessary product of the process itself. In my experience
frustration is the one thing that is universal in a group's experience and
this appears to also be the case in our entire culture. Generally,
frustration will lead, on one hand to alienation or on the other to
violence. It could be argued that a great deal of our culture is dedicated
to distracting us from our frustrations in an attempt at defusing them. The
painful experience of frustration is, therefore, something that needs to be
sustained in the dialogue so that its meaning can be displayed and
understood. I have come to suspect that frustration may have to be seen as
the crucial motivating force that can drive the dialogue deeper into unknown
territory and thus toward the experience of creative insight. If this is the
case, then a facilitator can serve little purpose other than to help the
other members of the group to reduce such uncomfortable periods so that the
conversation will flow along a course that is more satisfying or
satisfactory to the desires, assumptions and agendas of those concerned.
Frustation does not require facilitation.
My second topic is purpose. As we suggested in "Dialogue _ A Proposal:"
Usually people gather together either to accomplish a task or to be
entertained, both of which can be described as predetermined purposes.
But by its very nature Dialogue is not consistent with any such
purposes beyond the interest of its participants in the unfoldment and
revelation of the deeper collective meanings that may be revealed.
The moment that somebody turns dialogue into an event for which money is
charged, or uses it to aid an organisation then, it seems to me, that it
has, implicitly, taken on a predetermined purpose. It must, at the very
least, satisfy the desires of those who foot the bill or give a good
impression to those who have paid the price of admission. If the facilitator
is working as an entrepreneur then this concern is magnified since his or
her need to make a living also becomes part of the purpose. Now, I have no
objection to this in and of itself. What concerns me is the confusion
between this and the kind of dialogue that David Bohm and those of us who
persist in continuing his work value highly.
There are also many obvious similarities between these approaches but this
in turn raises the issue of what Bohm called "similar differences and
different similarities". (See: Bohm & Peat: Science Order and Creativity)
These, he argued, are crucial to how thought organises our perceptions of
reality and why we so often get it wrong. He also pointed out that the
strong desire _ often experienced as a necessity _ for practical outcomes of
an activity are generally the result of deep cultural assumptions that need,
along with all other assumptions, to be inquired into. In this context he
suggested that the meaning of dialogue lies outside our culture and that
dialogue might be a valuable way to begin to transform the culture as a
At the time that we wrote "Dialogue _ A Proposal" we added a final section
to address the question of dialogue in existing organisations. But I now
believe that our view was too optimistic and that it also may have added to
the confusion that concerns me. I suppose Patrick deMare's comment to me
about the sort of dialogue that he and Bohm envisioned sums up the
difference. "Yes, dialogue is very subversive."
No organisation wants to be subverted. No organisation exists to be
dissolved. An organisation is, by definition a conservative institution. If
you didn't want to conserve something, why would you organise? Even if an
organisation runs into serious trouble _ if, perhaps, its market or reason
for existence vanishes _ there remains a tremendous resistance to change.
(And, by the way, our larger culture is also an organisation.) I suggest
that the most one can hope for is a change in the more superficial elements
which would naturally occur as an organisation co-opts (See: Schon, D.
"Beyond the Stable State") some of dialogue's ethic of inquiry. And maybe
that is all that is required to accomplish its aims. But any deeper change,
any change that might threaten the very meaning and therefore the existence
of the organisation or its power relations would tend to be rejected _
perhaps subtly and tacitly _ because such vulnerability would not only be
threatening to those within the group, but almost certainly to those who
perceive from without _ perhaps from higher up the corporate ladder _ what
this subgrouping of their organisation is getting up to.
In such situations then some form of direction is obviously required. I do
not mean to argue against a process that works. What is more interesting to
me are the questions, "Is it possible to sustain a group (and to sustain it
as a creative enterprise) without a pre-existing purpose?" And "Is there
value in atttempting this?"
My tentative reply to these questions would be that it can be sustained and
that it does have value, but that to realise this requires a very unusual
level of commitment on the part of those involved. It means, first of all,
that participation in a dialogue group ought to be sustained for a long
period of time. This is especially difficult in the sort of process that I
have been describing because there is no clear idea where it is heading nor
what might unfold. There is much doubling back and repetition. In time,
though, the various rhythm's of the process can be perceived. This sort of
dialogue is about the process of thought, not its products. If it is to be
sustained gratification must be postponed _ maybe, indefinitely. But in the
meanwhile learning does takes place, often subtly and as an integral part of
the process. This learning does not necessarily improve the functioning of
the group because the group is always attempting to progress into unknown
territory. However, it does tend to get translated into other activities
where creativity can be released. It's all very non-linear and ambiguous and
frustrating and doesn't sit easily with our normal cultural assumptions. But
for me it has been of immense value.
This is some of my present thinking. I hope that it might help to stimulate
further exploration. We would be grateful for some feedback on these issues
which we believe are very important along with any other comments you feel
might be helpful. Anna and I both hope the gathering goes well and look
forward to hearing about it.