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Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together

Author: William Issacs
Copyright: ©1999
Publishers: Doubleday, New York, N.Y.
Book Review by: Cathy Bernatt

Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together

Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together
is organized into five parts. Part one examines, What is Dialogue? Part two, Building Capacity for New Behaviors, defines the four new behaviors required to bring about dialogue for individuals and groups: listening, respecting, suspending and speaking our voice voicing). The third part, Predictive Intuition, focuses on anticipating and naming the forces that can undermine conversations. They include finding a way to understand the different languages people speak, anticipating how people manage power, and becoming aware of self-defeating patterns of actions. Part four, Architecture of the Invisible, looks at how conversations take different forms depending on the quality of the setting or climate. The final part, Widening the Circle, Issacs shares ways that dialogue is being applied in large organizations, communities and societies today.

In dialogue, we begin to reflect on what we have been doing but not noticing. (p. 41) Issacs defines dialogue as "...a living experience of inquiry within and between people." (p.9) There are four core principles that must exist for dialogue to take place. They are unfolding, participation, coherence, and awareness.

First, there is a constant implicate potential unfolding through and around us. "Authenticity is the art of perceiving potential, and of being willing-daring, even-to bring this out. It implies the gradual process of learning to tell the truth about what we feel and know." (p. 63) Ralph Waldo Emerson expresses the principle of unfolding in an essay called "Self-Reliance": "The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know, until he has tried." (p. 63)

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The principle of participation says that I am in the world, and the world is in me. Issacs says that at the center of the principle of participation is "...the intelligence of our hearts, the freshness of our perceptions and ultimately the deep feeling of connection that we may have with others and our world." (p. 57)

The principle of awareness has to do with my increased self-awareness of the many different voices within myself. A mentor of Issacs said that truth was like a deer that comes to stand at the edge of the woods to drink. If you make too much noise, it runs away. (p. 60) To become self-aware, we need to learn to be quiet and listen. In doing this we will become aware of all the contradictions that exist between what we say and what we do. This happens largely because most people exist with a fragmented belief of the world and the way it works. But the final principle of coherence says that everything is already whole. Our goal is to learn to discover the ways in which it is. How do we do that?

We need to learn four new behaviors in order to resolve incoherence and produce the results we intend. These four new behaviors are voicing, listening, respecting and suspending. To practice and develop each behavior requires us to ask a different core question for each. Asking: What needs to be said? develops our capacity to speak the truth of our own authority, what we really are and think. (p. 419) This develops our ability to speak our voice. Voicing is relatively easy compared to listening. How about listening?

To develop our capacity for listening, we need to pause, be quiet and ask, "How does this feel?" Krishnamurti presents the challenge in listening,

"I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen, it doesn't matter to what, whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters, or how you listen in a dialogue with yourself, to your conversation in various relationships with your intimate friends, your wife or husband. If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate, we hardly listen at all to what is being said. In that state there is no value at all. One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence, in which this whole background is in abeyance, is quiet; then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate." (p. 84)

If we can be quiet and really hear another, the next core question we need to ask is, "How does this fit?" The answer to this speaks to respecting others, to the awareness of the integrity of another's position and the impossibility of fully understanding it. (p. 419)

The fourth question to ask is "How does this work?" Here, I think we are presented with the most difficult challenge of all four behaviors, suspension of assumptions, judgment, and certainty. To do this, according to Edgar Schein, a colleague of William Issacs at MIT, we need to access our ignorance. This means to, "...recognize and embrace things you do not already know. The range of possibilities before you opens dramatically. This can be scary. But fear can be a helpful rather than a hurtful element of suspension." (p. 137) We have four core principles of dialogue and four new behaviors we need to practice to actualize the principles of dialogue. What happens in an actual dialogue?

Issacs introduces a theory developed by David Kantor, a family systems therapist to help explain the dynamics involved in a dialogue. According to Kantor, a healthy conversation involves four fundamental different kinds of actions being used in balance. The mover initiates an action. A second person hears and might agree and want to support what the mover said. This becomes the follower. A third person listening, thinks something is not quite right with what is being expressed thus far and so challenges what is being said or proposed. This person's role is that of the opposer. The bystander provides perspective by sharing what he/she has seen or heard and can potentially expand everyone's vision. All four roles must be included for a healthy conversation to evolve and all members can occupy any of the four roles at anytime. (p. 193 & 418)

Dialogue, as difficult, scary and challenging as it can be, "...aims to engage us...in a collective present-tense truth telling, where no one person's position or thought dominates, but where larger questions and new frontiers are laid bare for exploration. Unfortunately, the initial stages required to move through are often threatening and overwhelming and a lot of people bail out too soon. As a result, genuine dialogue rarely happens.

Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together and David Bohm's book, On Dialogue are core books that will be critical resources for my capstone project. The core questions that I will address in my capstone are: What fundamental criteria should be used in selecting new Outward Bound Staff. Our core mission is utilizing the outdoors as a medium to accomplish a variety of self-discovery, leadership, communication and teamwork objectives with youth and other populations. Instructors need a variety of hard skills such as kayaking, rock climbing, mountaineering, first aid and so on. These are relatively easy skills to develop. The greatest challenge is how do you train young people, most of whom come into the job with little to no real job experience and limited life experience, to be effective facilitators. How do you teach people to feel, to see, to hear, to reflect, to suspend, to tell the truth-to engage in other words in genuine dialogue? Usually this requires living life, experiencing crises, and growing from them as people. Becoming a little wiser everyday. Can we create a set of criteria that can help identify young people who at the outset have the attitude and potential to develop into effective facilitators as well as being competent hard skills technicians? From there, what kind of training program do we need to create to develop facilitation skills? In effect, how can we develop the skills of genuine dialogue?

Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, and The Dance of Change provide a lot of tools that show us ways to develop and evolve the skills of dialogue presented by William Issac.

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