Thinking together to learn and make sound judgements on behalf of a whole system
The Free Dictionary defines dialogue as “An exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially with a view to reaching an amicable agreement.” In the image of these spheres, diverse in size, tonality and texture I can imagine the exchange of electrochemical information that resulted in harmonious interaction within this dynamic system where drops of oil sought to maintain their integrity within a vessel of water.
The order and pattern of the spheres provides evidence that, although the water and oil molecules are diametrically opposed to one another, they continuously strive for, and in this instant, reached an “amicable agreement” where the whole system, enhanced by diversity, contains more information and complexity. Aesthetically speaking, there’s balance and harmony among opposites. It’s a picture of individual elements engaging each other in the context of a common purpose within a shared environment—”culture” we might say.
Individual integrity (read dignity as well) is maintained, and from our point of view the system displays stability and organization. The molecules of oil didn’t ask to be deposited in the vessel of water, but once together the interaction and exchange of information within the system became more of dance than a battle. Accommodation rather than destruction. Indeed, true dialogue is a kind of discursive dance.
Human dialogue is unique. It involves discussion, but “discussion” is just an exchange that tries to sort things out. The emphasis is on back and forth inquiry and analysis where there may be many points of view. Discussions can be amicable or heated. Either way, participants generally aim to win an argument, score points or have their viewpoint prevail. “Debate” is another kind of discourse. Here, the individuals do battle with one another by offering proofs and counter arguments so their points of view will win. The context is purposefully polarized so there’s a winner and a loser. Having been on a college debate team, I can attest to the occasional glory of winning and the more frequent agony of defeat.
“True dialogue” on the other hand is a process that flows from a base of commonalities and allows conflicting views to court each other so a fuller perspective can emerge from spirited and respectful interaction. It occurs when the participants follow their hearts and souls, when they are allowed to have their full say, are heard and taken seriously—within an atmosphere of trust and discovery—where there is open mindedness, respect and a mutual desire for achieving a common goal. Finding the best way forward or discovering the truth. Simply put, dialogue is how we think things through together so we can individually learn and make sound judgements on behalf of a whole system.
One of the primary purposes of dialogue is to affect a transformation in collective consciousness… it asks us to suspend our attachments to a particular point of view (opinion) so that deeper levels of listening, synthesis and meaning can evolve within a group.
Glenna Gerard & Linda Teurfs, Business and organizational consultants
Whether in a small informal group or a large formal setting, the practice of dialogue is not easy. First, it requires a clear and commonly held picture of the whole, its fundamental purpose and goal—what the system needs in order to function and evolve. With a goal agreed upon, points of agreement need to be identified before differences in perspectives and approach are specified and argued.
Throughout, broader truths, those relating to the well-being and development of the whole system must be allowed to emerge. According to Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, the goal of dialogue is to allow us “To comprehend each other well enough so that common goals and understanding is possible.” True dialogue builds and maintains good relations among the participants as it builds consensus among them regarding the good of the whole system.
Psychologists observe that, as individuals, we tend to think we know what’s best for ourselves and the larger systems within which we participate. We believe our perspectives are not only right, they’re better; others just don’t understand or know what we know. And so there’s a strong tendency to champion our perspectives and methods above all. But where there’s an openness to discover what is actually in the best interest of the whole system, that tendency can be tempered by structuring interaction as a formal (true) dialogue, and making sure that everyone knows the Multicultural Ground Rules For Dialogue beforehand.
I have observed evidence of true dialogue in families, special interest groups, religious organizations, universities, corporations and non-profit entities. That we humans have evolved the capacity to rationally and respectfully think through and transcend our differences while safeguarding our relationships and seeking the common good is reason to hope.
Dialogue is the art of thinking together. It involves listening and thinking beyond my position for something that goes beyond you and me.
William Isaacs, Founder, Dialogos consulting firm, Cambridge, Massachusetts
None of us knows the truth, but together we can come closer to it.
Intelligence requires that you don’t defend an assumption. The proper structure of an assumption or of an opinion is that it is open to evidence that it may not be right.
David Bohm, Physicist
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