Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together

Yolanda Bonadona (Independent OD Consultant, Auckland, New Zealand)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 1 June 2002




Bonadona, Y. (2002), "Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 330-332. https://doi.org/10.1108/jocm.2002.15.3.330.2



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Dialogue, as defined by Isaacs, is a way of thinking and reflecting together. The intention of dialogue is to reach understanding that leads to a new basis from which to think and act. Dialogue can also be described as “a living experience of inquiry within and between people” (p. 19).

This book is a roadmap for people to find their way to dialogue. It discusses what tends to encourage or discourage dialogue, and what happens when it is introduced into difficult settings. It also shows how to manage the internal changes taking place in our inner self as we become more effective at its practice. Dialogue is an attempt to bring about change at the source of our thoughts and feelings, rather than at the level of results that our thinking produces. It seeks not to correct defects after they have occurred, but to alter processes so that they do not occur in the first place.

Although we already think together, we do it in ways that block creativity. According to Issaacs, the reason is not only our personal inability to do it, but also the influence of the environment in which we live. A central aim of this book is to address both of those dimensions. According to Isaacs, the inability to think together is embedded in human interaction. Through dialogue, we become more aware of our tacit assumptions derived from our cultural learning and psychological makeup. This helps us to think in ways that express our deeply held common sense and wisdom, essential to learn the art of thinking together.

Thinking together may sound like a dangerous illusion. People sometimes believe that when we get too close to one another’s thoughts, we risk losing objectivity, distance and our precious individuality. However, as the premise of this book suggests, neither the enormous challenges human beings face today can be solved nor the promise of the future reached, unless we learn to think together in a very new way.

Isaacs presents three fundamental levels of human interaction that need to be addressed when practicing dialogue. They are the foundations by which we can think together:

  1. 1.

    (1) producing coherent actions by avoiding contradictions between what we say and what we do;

  2. 2.

    (2) creating fluid structures by developing “predictive intuition” – a capacity we need to read people’s intent, goals and ways of seeing the world; and

  3. 3.

    (3) becoming more conscious of the invisible atmosphere in which our conversations take place, and which greatly influence how we think and act.

In order to produce coherent actions, and bring about dialogue for individuals and groups, we need to practice four essential behaviors: listening, respecting, suspending and speaking our voice. Listening requires not only hearing words, but also embracing and accepting them, and letting go of our inner claims. Respecting means looking for what is highest and best in a person, seeing other as legitimate and honoring people’s boundaries. Suspending means suspending our opinions and the certainty that lies behind them. To suspend is to change direction, stop, step back and see things with new eyes. Speaking our voice reveals what is true for each one of us, regardless of other influences and social conventions. To be able to say what we really think and feel requires courage and practice.

When discussing the dimensions of predictive intuition, Isaacs proposes a way of anticipating and naming the forces that can undermine any conversation. These include exploring the gaps between what people intend and what they do. It also includes detecting patterns of advocacy (speaking what one thinks) and inquiry (seeking to discover what others think), and its link to voice and respect.

Further exploration of predictive intuition reveals how we might understand the traps that arise when different subsystems in any organization hold different assumptions that are not well communicated. It shows us a way to understand the languages of feeling, meaning and power that people speak. Predictive intuition allows us to anticipate how people manage power using open, closed and random system paradigms.

Looking at the architecture of the invisible, we find the atmosphere, energy and memories of the people who are interacting in the “field of conversation.” We can see how conversation takes different forms, depending on the quality of the setting or climate, in which it occurs.

Exploring the different fields in which conversation takes place, we focus on the quality of the setting in which our interactions occur. We cannot manufacture a “field,” according to Isaacs, but we can create the conditions under which a rich field for interactions is more likely to appear. These conditions make up what Isaacs calls the “container” for dialogue.

Distinct characteristics, patterns and pressures of each field of conversation prompt us to adopt new models of leadership. Using the idea of inner ecology (the systems of interlinked patterns of feeling and thought of people) as a lens, we come to understand the network of problems that seems to plague conversation and limit dialogue.

When widening this circle, we explore ways in which dialogue is being applied in large organizations, in communities and in the larger society. Isaacs offers richly detailed examples of dialogic approaches in areas such as organizational change, and other promising arenas involving power and politics. He closes with some reflections on the new language of wholeness. Learning this new language implies moving away from the fragmented language used in the “machine age” in which we live.

When introducing this book, Peter Senge says that:

There is a deep hunger for meaning and the core practices whereby human beings make meaning together (p. vii).

Dialogue seems to be one of the ways in which it is possible to satiate that hunger. Our inability to think and talk together clearly affects the effectiveness of our organizations. We look for easy solutions, the ones that do not require people to confront their assumptions, concerns, fears, and dreams. Learning how to communicate in open, honest and effective ways will promote greater understanding and acceptance of the diversity of voices that come to the table. Learning how to think together will allow us to move to a new level of collective insight in organizations, and eventually, in the larger society. This remarkable book gives us useful guidelines and inspiration to invest our time and effort into this challenging endeavor.

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