A Conversation with a Center, Not Sides
"I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument." --Thomas Jefferson
When was the last time you were really listened to? If you are like most people, you will probably find it hard to recall. Think about a time when you saw others try to talk together about a tough issue. How did it go? Did they penetrate to the heart of the matter? Did they find a common understanding that they were able to sustain? Or were they wooden and mechanical, each one reacting, focusing only on their own fears and feelings, hearing only what fit their preconceptions?
Most of us, despite our best intentions, tend to spend our conversational time waiting for the first opportunity to offer our own comments or opinions. And when things heat up, the pace of our conversations resembles a gunfight on Main Street: "You're wrong!" "That's crazy!" The points go to the one who can draw the fastest or who can hold his ground the longest. As one person I know recently joked, "People do not listen, they reload." When televised sessions of the United States Congress or the British Parliament show the leaders of our society advocating, catcalling, booing, and shouting over one another in the name of reasoned discourse, we sense that something is deeply wrong. They sense the same thing, but seem powerless to do anything about it.
All too often our talk fails us. Instead of creating something new, we polarize and fight. Particularly under conditions where the stakes are high and differences abound, we tend to harden into positions that we defend by advocacy. To advocate is to speak for your point of view. Usually, people do this unilaterally, without making room for others. The Israelis and the Palestinians could not agree over settlements on the West Bank. Sales managers fight with manufacturing managers over production schedules. Executives differ over the best use of capital. Friends argue about what constitutes morality. The headlines chronicle a multitude of times when people might have come together in a new way and yet somehow failed to do so.
There are, of course, many ways in which strong advocacy like this is reasonable. We have loyalties to our tribe, to our company, to our religion, or to our country. We do not live in a neutral world at all, but, rather, one in which the landscape is thickly settled with opinions, positions, and beliefs about the right and wrong way of perceiving and interacting with the world and each other. As a result, we have interests to protect, ideas and beliefs to defend, difficult or downright crazy colleagues to avoid, and our own way in the world to make. There are certainly times when we must defend our views.
But dialogue is an altogether very different way of talking together. Generally, we think of dialogue as "better conversation." But there is much more to it. Dialogue, as I define it, is a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarization and into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and coordinated power of groups of people.
Dialogue fulfills deeper, more widespread needs than simply "getting to yes." The aim of a negotiation is to reach agreement among parties who differ. The intention of dialogue is to reach new understanding and, in doing so, to form a totally new basis from which to think and act. In dialogue, one not only solves problems, one dissolves them. We do not merely try to reach agreement, we try to create a context from which many new agreements might come. And we seek to uncover a base of shared meaning that can greatly help coordinate and align our actions with our values.
The roots of the word dialogue come from the Greek words dia and logos. Dia means "through"; logos translates to "word," or "meaning." In essence, a dialogue is a flow of meaning. But it is more than this too. In the most ancient meaning of the word, logos meant "to gather together," and suggested an intimate awareness of the relationships among things in the natural world. In that sense, logos may be best rendered in English as "relationship." The Book of John in the New Testament begins: "In the beginning was the Word (logos)." We could now hear this as "In the beginning was the Relationship."
To take it one step further, dialogue is a conversation in which people think together in relationship. Thinking together implies that you no longer take your own position as final. You relax their grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others--possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred.
Most of us believe at some level that we must fix things or change people in order to make them reachable. Dialogue does not call for such behavior. Rather, it asks us to listen for an already existing wholeness, and to create a new kind of association in which we listen deeply to all the views that people may express. It asks that we create a quality of listening and attention that can include--but is larger than--any single view.
Dialogue addresses problems farther "upstream" than conventional approaches. It attempts to brings about change at the source of our thoughts and feelings, rather than at the level of results our ways of thinking produce. Like the Total Quality Movement, it seeks not to correct defects after they have occurred but to alter processes so that they do not occur in the first place. A similar analogy can be found in the environmental movement, which has moved in the past twenty years from trying to clean up waste after it spews out of the pipe to "source reduction"--eliminating toxins by redesigning core processes. Dialogue seeks to address the problem of fragmentation not by rearranging the physical components of a conversation but by uncovering and shifting the organic underlying structures that produce it.
The ideas I discuss in this book emerged out of work done first in association with physicist David Bohm beginning in the early 1980s and, later, at MIT's Center for Organizational Learning. Over this period of time, my colleagues and I have found increasing interest in dialogue and in efforts to apply it. Now many corporations like Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Shell, Amoco, Motorola, AT&T, and Lucent as well as communities, schools, and health-care systems have been experimenting with dialogue and producing powerful results. At Ford, one manager initiated dialogues to begin many important meetings, reporting that people, at first skeptical, came to view these sessions as critical to their success. A colleague of mine, Peter Garrett, has held dialogues within maximum security prisons in England for four years now. He has found that offenders will attend these sessions when they will boycott everything else. The prison dialogues provide a setting where genuine healing can begin to occur and where the prisoners can begin to come to grips with their experiences, their emotions, and their situation, producing what some are now seeing as unprecedented change. Finally, there are groups of people in many countries now who meet informally for dialogue: friends in a home, a group of women from different countries who meet every year or so, citizen groups exploring the potential of dialogue to resolve difficult social issues, literally dozens of groups exploring the power of talking together. Here are some examples.
Excerpted from Dialogue by William Isaacs. Copyright © 1999 by William Isaacs. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.