Thinking Together

Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together is a moving story of the power of dialogue. Author William Isaacs co-founded the Center for Organizational Learning with Peter Senge at MIT in 1990. The Center was later replaced by the Society for Organizational Learning. Isaacs founded consulting firm Dialogos in 1995 to help organizations enhance their capacity for change, learning, leadership and dialogue. Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together was published in 1999, and is based on this experience.

The ability to use language in nuanced ways distinguishes humans from other species. Conversation is a verbal exchange, but dialogue works at a much deeper level. Isaacs described it as “a shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together.”

“It is not something you do to another person,” he says. “It is something you do with people. Indeed, a large part of learning this has to do with learning to shift your attitudes about relationships with others, so that we gradually give up the effort to make them understand us, and come to a greater understanding of ourselves and each other.”

Dialogue is essential for collective problem solving and collaboration, but our prevailing culture rarely gives us the opportunity to practice it. We defend positions, polarize and fight. We try to fix things and change people. Shared action arises from shared meaning, and to create shared meaning we have to think together in a deeper way. “Dialogue,”  Isaacs says, “is a conversation with a center, not sides.”

The Ecology of Conversation

William Isaacs developed the following diagram to illustrate the different ways we relate to each other in debate, dialectic or generative dialogue.

Dialogue diagram. Source: William Isaacs,
Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, 1999.

We can choose between defending a position or suspending judgement and listening. Defensiveness can either take the form of verbal brawling (debate), or analytical reasoning that creates tension between opposing points of view (dialectic). In a dialectical relationship, opposing views may or may not be reconciled.

Suspending judgement creates a space where we can set aside positions and listen to each other without resisting. We can explore assumptions in a reflective way that raises new questions and reframes problems. This may transform organically into a generative dialogue where we begin to see new possibilities.

“Discussion is about making a decision,” Isaacs says. “Dialogue is about evoking insight, which is a way of reordering our knowledge – particularly the taken-for-granted assumptions that people bring to the table.” We tend to fall back habitually into discussion mode, insolated and invested in positions and roles where we are consigned to think alone. We give up the opportunity to think together, and lose the possibility of creating something new.

Isaacs describes four pathologies of thought: abstraction, idolatry, certainty and violence. Abstraction isolates and focuses our attention on parts instead of seeing the whole. Idolatry defends established positions, assumptions and beliefs. Certainty allows no room for other views. Violence imposes our views on others. In contrast, dialogue takes us to a place of participation, unfolding, awareness and coherence. It is based on respect for others.

“When we respect someone,” Isaacs says, “we accept that they have something to teach us.” Dialogue is “looking for what is highest and best in a person and treating them as a mystery that you can never fully comprehend. They are a part of the whole, and, in a very particular sense, a part of us.” Suspending judgement “requires that we relax our grip on certainty.” Instead of imposing answers we ask questions. We look for the possibilities between polarizing extremes. Space is created for reflection.

“Most groups will have a number of critical issues that limit their effectiveness – issues that they are unable, for whatever reasons, to see clearly. Most of the time the ecology of a group is such that it is impossible for much reflection in action to take place. Things happen too fast. The pressure to produce results is too great. The fear that arises in people at the thought of slowing down the process is too overwhelming.”

Conversational Fields

Otto Scharmer proposed the following model of conversational fields, described by William Isaacs in Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.

Conversational fields. Source: William Isaacs,
Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, 1999.

Relationships between people are different in each quadrant of the diagram. In Field I, conversation is polite, superficial, and non-reflective. Civility is maintained to protect the group’s equilibrium. In Field II, social norms break down and people start battling with each other. “Unfortunately,” Isaacs says, “many groups never get beyond this point. Things heat up, people try negotiating, compromise, or unilateral control, but they fail to move collectively into the space of reflection. Eventually, they recycle back into politeness, because it is the only other alternative they know.”

If the group is able to move to Field III, people are more reflective. They begin to examine their own assumptions, but don’t feel compelled to agree. If the group can move beyond Field III to Field IV, individual consciousness shifts to a collective awareness of the whole. New possibilities emerge in a state of flow where the group connects on a deeper level and creates shared meaning. Barriers disappear and generative dialogue gives birth to something new.

The Implicate Order

Quantum physicist and philosopher David Bohm described the dramatic shift that occurs through dialogue in his landmark book On Dialogue. A renowned scientist, he became as well known for his insights on the nature of dialogue as for his work in science.

“Meaning is not static – it is flowing,” Bohm says. “And if we have the meaning being shared, then it is flowing among us; it holds the group together. Then everybody is sensitive to all the nuances going around, not merely to what is happening in his own mind. From that forms a meaning which is shared. And in that way we can talk together coherently and think together.”

Using the language of physics, Bohm said the surface reality we see – the ‘explicate order’ – unfolds and emerges from processes working invisibly at a much deeper level – the ‘implicate order.’ Dialogue works below the surface to create change in the world.

William Issacs recalls Bohm using the following analogy at a conference in 1983. “Typically, when you plant a seed, he said, you assume it will cause a tree to grow in its place. The seed causes the tree to grow, we say. But the total environment could be also seen as unfolding into a tree – the air, the soil, the water – all emerging from a common, ‘enfolded,’ or invisible, source, and then appearing in the world. In this sense the seed is the aperture through which the tree unfolds.”

David Bohm understood dialogue in the same way.


Featured image: The Conversation. Source: Wikimedia Commons.