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

Richard Burg (raburg@well.com)
Sun, 2 Apr 1995 23:05:02 -0800

There are four sections to this post, in two messages:

In message 1/2: I. Permission and Copyright Information
II. Dialogue: A Proposal
In message 2/2:
III. Distributor's Sidebar: A Reflection
IV. An Open Letter from Donald Factor

III. Distributor's Sidebar: A Reflection

One of the open questions about Dialogue is what potential it may have in
organizations. There is a brief section, at the end of "...A Proposal",
addressing the question. The writers expressed a hopeful resolution to the
way in which Dialogue might be limited by fear and anxiety. The dialogue
process runs against many forces which are alive in organizations. Section
IV of this mail message is a letter from one of the authors which takes a
much more cautious position than that offerred in the original paper.

My consulting practice involves working with groups in organizations. I
believe the introduction and maintenance of Dialogue into organizations
(with the phenomenological and epistemological focus of Bohm's intention)
is impossible. The process does not offer any protection from the explicit
and implicit forces which result from 'leadership', 'authority', and the
power structures of our organizational systems. Organizations are generally
purposeful in narrow ways. To undertake a process without purpose in such a
system, will excite anxiety and tension in the unconscious life of the
system. The paradox may be fruitful, but I believe that the seed for the
process must evolve from within the system if the fruit is not to cause
indigestion! Organizations that are moving to open communication and more
intimate relationships may approach dialogue as they evolve into more
engaging systems. But to bring Dialogue from outside, is likely to have
unintended consequences or, more likely, to merely prove unsustainable.

We have seen two alternative definitions for a form of dialogue which is
derivative of Bohm's experiment. One is "contingent" dialogue - a group
focusing on a particular problem. The second, as DWeston named it, is
"strategic" dialogue. These may be valuable and productive techniques for
deeper human communication in organizations. But we ought to recognize how
different they are from the invitation Bohm extended to examine "thought
arising." I believe the following letter from Donald Factor sharpens the
distinction from two particular perspectives.

Richard Burg Voice 510-848-4258
Meridian Group Fax 510-848-4257
1827A Fifth Street 800-3MERIDIAN (800-363-7426)
Berkeley, CA US raburg@well.com

IV. An Open Letter from Donald Factor

[This] is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to the organizers of the recent
Sundance Gathering organized in Utah by Bill Isaacs and Margaret Wheately
amongst others. It is aimed at clarifying the difference between our approach
and Bill's. [Richard,] please feel free to distribute this too.

An Open Letter

....As you may be aware Anna and I worked closely with David and Saral Bohm
for ten years. During that time the idea of group dialogue emerged and grew.
Because the project involved ideas that were subtle and quite new to the
culture it seemed important to try to clarify, so far as we could, what we
were attempting. I, along with David Bohm and Peter Garrett, wrote a paper
entitled "Dialogue _ A Proposal" as a starting point. Of course, since
David's death the nature of what we began continues to unfold.

One reason for this letter is that I have noticed what I believe is a deep
confusion that has arisen amongst many of those who are interested in
dialogue and that I believe ought to be addressed in the sort of gathering
that you have arranged. It seems to me that this can best be expressed
through a consideration of two topics that I take to be crucial to both the
theory and practice of dialogue _ at least from a Bohmian point of view.

They are:


Notions of the need for facilitation arose early in the development of
dialogue because of the fact that the nature of the activity seemed to lack
any obvious precursors in our general culture. We were unable to find
acceptable models that were relevant to our intentions. Not even T Groups
which appeared to have much in common with what we were after seemed
entirely to fit. Patrick DeMare's work with median groups in London was the
most relevant but, unfortunately, remained relatively unknown. And "action"
oriented methods seemed to derive from very different assumptions. Because
of this, in introducing people to dialogue David Bohm used to take the
approach of conducting a two or three day seminar discussing with them his
notions of the nature of thought as a system and how it tends to lead
inevitably to self-deception, before introducing them to dialogue. When the
dialogue began he then behaved, not as a facilitator, leader or expert but
as an engaged participant. Of course, this must be seen in the light of the
fact that he was well-known and that most participants came primarily
because of him. However, his intention was to make dialogue a conversation
among equals where everyone's ideas, opinions or theories would be taken
seriously but also be vulnerable to challenge and inquiry.

Since his death we have attempted to continue our exploration in this same
direction. These days there are no stars or perceived leaders to whom
members of the group can look for aid or advise. Participation has thus come
to be seen as a collective undertaking, a mutual responsibility for what
goes on _ or what doesn't go on. If someone attempts to control the group
process or to guide it toward his or her objectives or personal viewpoint it
is incumbent on other members of the group to query this, no matter what
authority might be claimed. If an individual in a group feels that the
conversation has become stuck, circular or out of line with the intentions
of dialogue, then it is important for that person to say so in order that
the whole group can look at what is actually happening. The intent is
neither to criticise nor to alter what is happening but to try and see how
it arises and what it means.

Clearly, if a designated facilitator takes on this sort of role then the
other participants will expect him or her to do the intervening and keep the
dialogue "on course." No further thinking will be required nor will there be
much possibility of insight. Whatever learning occurs will derive largely
from giving attention to an external authority rather than from any
first-hand recognition. Further, since the facilitator plays a role that is
different from that of the rest of the group, s/he will be limited in his or
her ability to fully participate. We have noticed that if one or more
participants remain relatively aloof from the nitty-gritty of the dialogue
then a subtle _ or sometimes not so subtle _ sense of being observed,
judged, manipulated or studied, by the one who necessarily has to protect
his or her vulnerability, will arise and tend to limit the possibilities for
expression in the whole group.

I accept that this non-interventionist approach is not shared by all
practitioners of dialogue. I am not arguing that it is "the one true path"
but I am raising this issue because I believe that both the interventionist
approaches and the non-interventionist approaches have validity, but in
different realms. Can they, somehow, be harmonised? Frankly, it seems to me
that a blending of these methods would be extremely difficult because at
least one core assumption is not shared. I will refer more to that in the
following section on purpose.

But first I want to mention that what I am suggesting, here, is an approach
that treats the common occurrence of frustration in dialogue as an
unavoidable and necessary product of the process itself. In my experience
frustration is the one thing that is universal in a group's experience and
this appears to also be the case in our entire culture. Generally,
frustration will lead, on one hand to alienation or on the other to
violence. It could be argued that a great deal of our culture is dedicated
to distracting us from our frustrations in an attempt at defusing them. The
painful experience of frustration is, therefore, something that needs to be
sustained in the dialogue so that its meaning can be displayed and
understood. I have come to suspect that frustration may have to be seen as
the crucial motivating force that can drive the dialogue deeper into unknown
territory and thus toward the experience of creative insight. If this is the
case, then a facilitator can serve little purpose other than to help the
other members of the group to reduce such uncomfortable periods so that the
conversation will flow along a course that is more satisfying or
satisfactory to the desires, assumptions and agendas of those concerned.
Frustation does not require facilitation.

My second topic is purpose. As we suggested in "Dialogue _ A Proposal:"

Usually people gather together either to accomplish a task or to be
entertained, both of which can be described 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.

The moment that somebody turns dialogue into an event for which money is
charged, or uses it to aid an organisation then, it seems to me, that it
has, implicitly, taken on a predetermined purpose. It must, at the very
least, satisfy the desires of those who foot the bill or give a good
impression to those who have paid the price of admission. If the facilitator
is working as an entrepreneur then this concern is magnified since his or
her need to make a living also becomes part of the purpose. Now, I have no
objection to this in and of itself. What concerns me is the confusion
between this and the kind of dialogue that David Bohm and those of us who
persist in continuing his work value highly.

There are also many obvious similarities between these approaches but this
in turn raises the issue of what Bohm called "similar differences and
different similarities". (See: Bohm & Peat: Science Order and Creativity)
These, he argued, are crucial to how thought organises our perceptions of
reality and why we so often get it wrong. He also pointed out that the
strong desire _ often experienced as a necessity _ for practical outcomes of
an activity are generally the result of deep cultural assumptions that need,
along with all other assumptions, to be inquired into. In this context he
suggested that the meaning of dialogue lies outside our culture and that
dialogue might be a valuable way to begin to transform the culture as a

At the time that we wrote "Dialogue _ A Proposal" we added a final section
to address the question of dialogue in existing organisations. But I now
believe that our view was too optimistic and that it also may have added to
the confusion that concerns me. I suppose Patrick deMare's comment to me
about the sort of dialogue that he and Bohm envisioned sums up the
difference. "Yes, dialogue is very subversive."

No organisation wants to be subverted. No organisation exists to be
dissolved. An organisation is, by definition a conservative institution. If
you didn't want to conserve something, why would you organise? Even if an
organisation runs into serious trouble _ if, perhaps, its market or reason
for existence vanishes _ there remains a tremendous resistance to change.
(And, by the way, our larger culture is also an organisation.) I suggest
that the most one can hope for is a change in the more superficial elements
which would naturally occur as an organisation co-opts (See: Schon, D.
"Beyond the Stable State") some of dialogue's ethic of inquiry. And maybe
that is all that is required to accomplish its aims. But any deeper change,
any change that might threaten the very meaning and therefore the existence
of the organisation or its power relations would tend to be rejected _
perhaps subtly and tacitly _ because such vulnerability would not only be
threatening to those within the group, but almost certainly to those who
perceive from without _ perhaps from higher up the corporate ladder _ what
this subgrouping of their organisation is getting up to.

In such situations then some form of direction is obviously required. I do
not mean to argue against a process that works. What is more interesting to
me are the questions, "Is it possible to sustain a group (and to sustain it
as a creative enterprise) without a pre-existing purpose?" And "Is there
value in atttempting this?"

My tentative reply to these questions would be that it can be sustained and
that it does have value, but that to realise this requires a very unusual
level of commitment on the part of those involved. It means, first of all,
that participation in a dialogue group ought to be sustained for a long
period of time. This is especially difficult in the sort of process that I
have been describing because there is no clear idea where it is heading nor
what might unfold. There is much doubling back and repetition. In time,
though, the various rhythm's of the process can be perceived. This sort of
dialogue is about the process of thought, not its products. If it is to be
sustained gratification must be postponed _ maybe, indefinitely. But in the
meanwhile learning does takes place, often subtly and as an integral part of
the process. This learning does not necessarily improve the functioning of
the group because the group is always attempting to progress into unknown
territory. However, it does tend to get translated into other activities
where creativity can be released. It's all very non-linear and ambiguous and
frustrating and doesn't sit easily with our normal cultural assumptions. But
for me it has been of immense value.

This is some of my present thinking. I hope that it might help to stimulate
further exploration. We would be grateful for some feedback on these issues
which we believe are very important along with any other comments you feel
might be helpful. Anna and I both hope the gathering goes well and look
forward to hearing about it.

Yours sincerely,

Don Factor