“People say, ‘All we really need is love. If there were universal love, all would go well.’ But we don’t appear to have it. So we have to find a way that works.” –Dr. David Boh
This was the fundamental reason Dr. David Bohm felt so strongly about Dialogue. It was his hope and vision that corporate, labor and civil society organizations would use Dialogue to engage in innovative solutions to complex problems.
Given the growing recognition that the complex problems our organizations and societies face require deeper listening and better communication, there is rising interest in the process of Dialogue. The “win-lose” mindset and command-control way of leading are no longer adequate in today’s business environment.
With this recognition, many organizations have undertaken efforts to integrate Dialogue into their daily operations. For example: incorporating the simple practice of checking-in and checking-out at meetings. “Check-ins” and “Check-outs” create opportunities to share and listen to each individual’s thoughts and feelings in a group at the outset or closing of a meeting. As another example, some companies are hosting agenda-less meetings as a way to foster collective leadership.
For David Bohm, Dialogue was not just about having more effective conversations or fostering reflective meetings. And it certainly was not just a process for improving the effectiveness of business. For Bohm, Dialogue was about shared meaning — the glue that holds everything together — what he called tacit ground. “Thought is emergent from the tacit ground and any fundamental change in thought will come from” that place. A society, community or team that functions well requires a “coherent tacit ground. Shared meaning is really the cement that holds society together, and you could say that the present society has very poor quality cement. Society at large has a very incoherent set of meanings…so incoherent that it is hard to say that they have any real meaning at all.”
Understanding Dialogue begins with appreciating what Bohm meant by incoherence. “The thing that mostly gets in the way of Dialogue is holding on to assumptions and opinions and defending them. This instinct to judge and defend, embedded in the self-defense mechanisms of our biological heritage, is the source of incoherence.” When our views become fixed, our personal meaning becomes incoherent. As Peter Senge says in the Preface of On Dialogue, “The incoherence increases when past meaning is imposed on present situations. As this continues, yesterday’s meaning becomes today’s dogma, often losing much of its original meaningfulness in the process. This is what happens when collectively, societies become governed by shadows — hollowed out myths from the past that are applied as inviolate truths for the present…patterns of thinking and acting that separate people from one another and from the larger reality in which they are attempting to live. “
In short, the core problem that Bohm realized is that “We do not know how to live together in a changing world. We only know how to live based on truths from the past, which today inevitably results in one group attempting to impose their truths on another.” This defending of core beliefs and the resulting incoherence is what Bohm called “an endemic in the modern world.”
Dialogue is a cure for this modern world endemic because it is a process that encourages multiple views without judgment in a way to fully understand another, enabling collective coherent ways of thinking and acting to emerge in flow with meaning. For Bohm, coherence was not a fixed state; it was a way of life. And he knew this came with challenges. “The problem stems from the way contemporary science is predicted on the concept of arriving at unique truth. The idea of Dialogue is thereby in some way foreign to the current structure of science as it is with religion. The quest for unique truth carries the potential to divide rather than connect people. When one human being tells another human what is ‘real’; what they are actually doing is making a demand for obedience. They are asserting that they have a privileged view of reality.”
Despite these challenges, for Bohm, Dialogue offered a different path of truth. “We will never come to truth unless the overall meaning is coherent. Out of creating a larger field of more coherent shared meaning, truly new and penetrating understandings may emerge, often unexpectedly. Truth does not emerge from opinions; it must emerge from something else – perhaps from a freer movement of this tacit mind. We have to get meanings coherent if we are to perceive truth or to take part in truth.”
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