February 23, 2018

The difference between dialogue and discussion

Group discussing plansReading David Bohm’s book “On Dialogue,” which, not surprisingly, has a particularly helpful exposition of the difference between dialogue and discussion…

(David Bohm was a renowned physicist of the twentieth century who also made great contributions to wider philosophical questions.)

“Dialogue,” Bohm says, comes from the greek “dialogos.” Logos means “the word,” or in this case, “the meaning of the word,” and “dia” means “through – it doesn’t mean “two.” He goes on: “A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue with himself.” Bohm says dialogue “will make possible a flow of meaning…out of which may emerge some new understanding…which may not have been in the starting point at all.”

“Discussion,” Bohm says, has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion” and “really means to break things up.” Discussion, therefore, is a process of analysing and breaking up and “will not get us far beyond our various points of view.” Rather, “the object of the game is to win or gain points for yourself.”

Dialogue, of course, makes more demands of our ability to participate effectively in a game in which the aim is for everyone to win together. In particular, we must be prepared to question our assumptions and make them explicit, which takes effort when many of them, including the most powerful among them, are held unconsciously.

Being properly clear on the difference between dialogue and discussion is a good start.

Ever wonder why some discussions go round in circles?

Three in discussion… and what to do about it?

You’ll have been there, I’m sure… The conversation waxes and wanes, ranges about, goes round and round, without anybody ever seeming to “nail” the issue. Nobody falls out, but they never quite seem to line up either.

Why is that?

There could be lots of reasons, but one of them is very common…

That’s the use of oh-so-familiar, seemingly very normal, totally acceptable abstract nouns like integrity, empowerment, engagement, mediation, globalization, manipulation, trust, leadership and so on—all activities with the verbs taken out.

Any conversation that builds on words like these is bound to be dissatisfying. It’ll seem inoffensive probably, but it won’t add much value either.

You see, the trouble is…

Every single person understands these words differently, so as we converse using them, nobody’s talking about exactly the same thing, and so the reality is, we’re trying to nail the proverbial jelly.

What’s to do?

To straighten it all out, we need to put the verbs back in and express the nominalizations, as they’re called, as behaviors. For example, “integrity” might be “always being and acting true to what you say.”

But you thought “integrity” meant something else?

Well exactly, that’s the point.

Until we nail “integrity” down as some observable behaviors, we’ll go round in circles trying to promote it.

Switch on to these abstract nouns and you’ll see this fog is everywhere.

Do you notice? It’s a big deal.

More detail in my book of course, available here http://amzn.to/ouLZgs (US) or http://amzn.to/vAaZMl (UK).

Or you could ask me to speak at your event or guest on your program.

When you go into “dialogue,” are you ready for change?

Three people in discussionOne inevitably leads to the other, or should…

Mark is fighting his corner well. Back and forth goes the debate. Mark concedes little. He comes away with most of what he wants. All are tired out and the other side have doubts about engaging with him again. Even now, no-one really understands the whole problem.

John seeks joint learning about an issue. All contribute from their knowledge and experience without taking positions. John insists that all make their assumptions explicit. He leads by example. A mutual understanding of the problem develops. New solutions emerge. John comes away with a little less than Mark in the short run, but the long term result is much greater.

In the jargon of organizational learning, mediation and other fields, Mark is engaged in “discussion” and John is in “dialogue.” With complex problems, dialogue stands the best chance of finding a good solution. The clarity that results is also vital to organizational learning.

So far, so familiar maybe. You probably advocate dialogue yourself.

But here’s the thing…

When we say we want a dialogue about an issue, have we realized that means opening the door to our own change and growth? After all, if the point of dialogue is learning (which it is), then chances are, we’re going to be doing some of the learning, including about our own selves maybe.

If not, are the others going to do all the learning and all the changing? That implies we’re already complete. That’s not likely, surely. In truth, it implies we’re still wedded to our position.

We could make progress by looking to our own learning.

Does dialogue lead to change and growth in your experience? How open to that are you, when you say you want a dialogue?