By David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garrett
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
However, we feel that it is important that its meaning and background be understood.
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
We 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 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
Dialogue is concerned with providing a space within which such attention can be given.
It allows a display of thought and meaning that makespossible 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.
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
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
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 of
deeper or more general meaning. Any subject can be included and no content is excluded.
Such an activity is very rare in our culture.
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 itself.
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 beconsidered.
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 this.
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 thought.
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 Suspension 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, collective
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.
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 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. 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.
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 them. 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
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.
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
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 creativity.
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
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 organization.
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 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.
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. --
Copyright 1991 by 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.