Peer Day(#6): Participatory Dialogue

Location: Seattle, Washington

Date: Saturday, August 5, 1995

Self Evaluation

1998 John Perkins

Learner Nick Consoletti convened this peer day, attended by myself, Pat Knox, Hirsh Diamond, and Mary Benda. This happened to be the first peer day that Nick has convened, and he did his best to provide us with lots of material about Dialogue, including his personal background and experience with it, and the history of the concept as developed by David Bohm. To help us with our self-evaluations, Nick provided copies of articles and newsletters.

I longed for an experience of Dialogue. Halfway through the day I realized that Nick and I had miscommunicated. Early in the day I had said something like "I am not as much interested in Dialogue as I am in the chance to experience it." Nick seems to have heard the first half of this sentence, but not the second. He seemed confused why I was at the peer day if I wasn't "interested." I couldn't seem to get him to understand my real interest. I meant that experiencing Dialogue, as close as we could under the limitations of a peer day, meant more to me than learning the full history of the concept. It is the difference between learning about a bicycle, the history of the manufacturer, how the gears work, where the rubber for the tires came from, etc. vs. getting on the thing and trying to ride it.

We met a coffee shop for Nick's history and overview. We then went to the Theosophical Library in Capital Hill and watched Bohm talk about Dialogue. I liked the video, though I think it might have benefited from editing. Alternatively, an actual taping of a Dialogue group in action with Bohm providing a voice-over might have proved really enlightening.

Dialogue brings attention to the assumptions behind our speech; it draws our attention to the substance of thinking. Bohm speaks of thought operating but then hiding, so that we get the impression that nothing precedes or grounds what we think. Bohm uses the term 'thought' to include any product of the mind, including emotions. Other people and groups play a special role in this process.

Clearly, since we live in a world surrounded by the benefits of thinking, what has prevented us from developing something like Dialogue before? I will try to answer this in my own way, though we did not address this topic directly during the day.

My habitual ways of thinking emerges from the ground of my existence and experiences. My thoughts feel right and natural and therefore become invisible to my self for further examination. When I try, I may end up convincing myself all over again how right I am.

Another person has a different history, experiences and thoughts. We may disagree, or agree, for slightly or significantly different reasons. When we allow ourselves to question each other about the basis of our thinking assumptions and presuppositions can be exposed to more thinking and reflection. We might still hold our thoughts, but not as naively as before.

Bohm feels a big group, 20 minimum, is too large for rigid group think to take hold for very long, if they accept the Discipline of Dialogue. He sees no facilitator and no starting 'topic' and no 'work the group has to do. We start, and we talk and think about what we say and think. Then we go home and come back next week.
As Nick admits from his experience of promoting and running such a group for eighteen months in Eugene, Oregon, people who self-select to joining a Dialogue group share an attitude about the value of examining consciousness.

Bohm feels the Discipline of Dialogue stands on its own merits. He seems unaware or indifferent to the long-standing transfer of learning challenge. Educators and trainers constantly puzzle over how to help people transfer skills and knowledge gained in one context, usually classroom, training or retreat settings, to other contexts, such as the workplace or boardroom.

We can benefit from supporting a cultural and group norm that examination of assumptions be allowed within a group, at any time, particularly during times of group stress and high-risk decision making. Irving L. Janis wrote the classic text in this area, Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes in 1972. But the lessons can be applied to any group making important decisions.

Three members of the Pacific Northwest Organization Development Network answered my wish to experience Dialogue in action on August 17th when they led the Spirituality in the Workplace workshop for chapter members. The facilitators had us draw how 'spirit' has affected the way we work. I drew a large tombstone with "Baby Doe, 8-10-95 to 8-17-95" to symbolize my belief that the spirit of these babies dying so young guide my work in preventing infant mortality. We shared our drawings with another person, then with a small group of four before the whole group met to touch on highlights. In groups of eight we used these four Dialogue Principles to continue our dialogue:

1. Listen And Speak with Judgment.
2. Balance Inquiry and Advocacy.
3. Seek the Next Level of Understanding

4. Speak Only When Moved.
I liked the Dialogue portion of this presentation. The pace does leave lots of time for thinking and reflecting. It feels in many ways like a Quaker meeting for worship, but we address one another rather than the Spirit as the Quakers might. I can see possibilities in all meetings, of all sizes for using something like Dialogue to begin and cap a group discussion on an important decision.

Implicitly, Dialogue presupposes a group has agreed to use it as group process. Outside of a workshop setting reaching that agreement in offices, committees, board rooms and bed rooms might prove very elusive.

In my Anticipated Learning section of my request for this peer day I raised some questions I would like to revisit. First does Dialogue 'grind down' the energy for interaction. In other words, do people become so self-aware that they are participating is a Dialogue that they little energy or attention left to engage their fellow Dialoguers. In the little practice I had with Dialogue, the energy level felt fine. No one insisted on the rules. Sometimes not much 'happens' and I might like to see a study of what people are thinking while they sit silently waiting for the next person to feel moved to speak.

Are there similarities between Dialogue and Action Science? Yes, a great deal. Many proponents of Dialogue have taken a strong stand against letting any one person 'facilitate' a Dialogue meeting, arguing that everything must be open to question, including the facilitator and facilitation. This debate appears to me to be similar to the one in physics about whether light is a wave or particle. I think I can comfortably live in a world in which both possibilities exists.

Can learning to sense how I think contribute to changing what I think? I believe not. Bohm is proposing through Dialogue to separate thinking from the actions of a group of people the same way Descartes proposed separating thinking from the body of an individual. Curiously, the fault lies in thinking we might make a separation where none exists in nature. You and I will learn each other's thinking only when we speak to what we believe and witness how we each live them out in practice. I learned of this while living in New York with roommates who clearly agreed with the philosophy and value of recycling but who somehow could not make the necessary changes in their habits to put recyclable material in the recycling bins. With Dialogue we might have traveled further and further back into the recesses of old forgotten choices which bracketed our behaviors. An old choice or accepted influence might prove inconsistent with current behavior. That is as far as Dialogue can take us. At this point the person must make a fresh choice to resolve their cognitive dissonance. No one can predict which way that choice will fall. Thus, after all of that, we may have no net change.


Bohm, David, Factor, Don, and Garret, Peter. (1991). Dialogue: A Proposal. Mimeograph. 6 pp.

Bohm, David. (1993). Science, Spirituality, and the Present World Crisis. Revision: 15(4):147-152.

Janis, Irving L. (1972). Victims of Group Think. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.