- A proposal - By
David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garrett
Dialogue - A proposal * Why dialogue * Purpose and meaning
* What dialogue is not * How to start a dialogue o Suspension
o Numbers o Duration o Leadership o Subject matter * Dialogue
in existing organizations * Copyright notice
- A proposal
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.
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.
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.
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.
we feel that it is important that its meaning and background
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.
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.
are using the word "thought" here to signify not
only the products ofour 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
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.
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
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 needed.
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 these insights.
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
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
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.
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
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 of
deeper or more general meaning. Any subject can be included
and no content is excluded. Such an activity is very rare in
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.
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.
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 itself.
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 beconsidered.
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.
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.
dialogue is not
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 this.
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 thought.
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.
to start a dialogue
of thoughts, impulses, judgments, etc., lies at the very heartof
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,
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.
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 areoften 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.
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
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.
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.
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 them.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
in existing organizations
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 creativity.
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.
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.
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.
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 organization.
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.
of the sort of work we have described here can be accomplished
independently, and we would encourage this. 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.
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
Copyright © 1991
by David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garrett
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.
you will read the copyright notice on Dialogue - A Proposal
(reproduced above) 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. We 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.
Bohm Don Factor. Peter Garrett. ------------------------------------------------------------------------
text was transcribed by Richard Burg. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
is an open letter, called "On Facilitation and Purpose" by
Donald Factor, which refers to this paper. In that letter Don
Factor modifies his views expressed in the section "Dialogue
in existing organizations" and adds something about frustation.
by William van den Heuvel, email: email@example.com