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Dialogue: A Proposal (Bohm, et al) 1/2


Copyright 1991.

c. David Bohm. Donald Factor and Peter Garrett

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
these insights.

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


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.


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,
collective intelligence.

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.


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.

 “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.”