DIALOGUE, THE ART OF THINKING TOGETHER BY WILLIAM ISAACS

Background

I read Dialogue for a second time. I needed to read it as I have been thinking hard abou the fundament on which Team Academy methodology is build. I made a lot more sense to me than the first time I read it. At the same time I am afraid I am not ready for it. Am I really able to take time and really listen? Am I able really able to suspend my convictions? I pray to God that he will help me to achieve this most wonderful goal to stand still.

I love this book. Also this book however is an overview. Many topics need more deepening insights time and reflection. But as an overview I think it is quite perfect, at least extremely helpful to me. In this essay I write a summary of things I like to remind myself to every day.

What is better than to copy the contents page of the book to get the highlights; Let’s see:

There are 3 main issues to create a worthwhile dialogue:

–        Building capacity for new behaviour:

  • Listening
  • Voicing
  • Respecting
  • Suspending

–        Predictive intuition

–        Architecture of the invisible

  • Building the container
  • Fields of conversation
  • Convening Dialogue
  • The ecology of thought

Team Academey: expand your conversation tools and spend more time on training

At Team Academy Dialogue we use dialogue as our main tool. As we think together to make our dreams come true. It is a great tool. In practice I have noticed two phenomena:

  1. We do not explicitly use any other tools for meetings. Even if we make a planning we call it dialogue,
  2. When dialogue is needed from time to time we express our convictions. So we do not always adhere to the laws of dialogue. More explicit practice is needed.

My basic proposal here is to consider to introduce a set of tools (Scrum, dialogue, etc) and to –before each meeting- explicitly decide which of the forms we will be using.

Also I propose to make a more in depth training in dialogue part of team mastery introduction.

Beneath I will summarize the book of Isaacs.

Dialogue is the art of thinking together

Conversation is the oldest art in the world. It is a centrepiece in humanity. Bohm, the physicist, takes it a step further, he sais: ‘Like a seed is an aperture to a tree. A dialogue is an aperture to our future.’

Words, language, shape our lives. We must treat conversation as a powerful tool, which can help us but also prevent us from achieving our goals. Isaacs writes: all great failures in life stem from failures in conversation.

Dialogue means ‘flow of meaning’. The Indians have a saying: you talk and talk until the talk really starts. Dialogue is the art of thinking together. There are no winners or losers. In that sense it is the opposite of debate. In other words: A dialogue is a conversation with a centre, not with sides. A dialogue does not solve problems, it dissolves problems.

Taking it a step further, dialogue is about exploring the nature of choice. Reflective dialogue is about increasing the number of solutions instead of reducing them. It is a conversation without judgement.

Dialogue is the art of being in the here and now. Plain thinking without using memory. Isaacs: ‘human beings live out of their memory, insulated from direct experience. Isaacs regards this as a key issue. To be in the here and now is extremely difficult. As it is a prerequisite for dialogue it is something we must train a lot to master.

Dialogue to many sounds vague, however its objective is to reach simple and concrete results out of a complicated issue. It is a process, if no results are achieved it is no good dialogue.

There are at least 2 kinds of dialogue: reflective dialogue: reflecting on what we have been doing but not noticing, and generative dialogue, in which we create entirely new possibilities. Reflective dialogue always precedes generative dialogue.

Dialogue is dynamic. While observing a dialogue one can discern 4 principle roles:

–        Mover – sovereign

–        Opposer – warrior

–        Follower – lover

–        Bystander – Magician

The first 3 speak largely by itself. Please note that the bystander is not passive at all. The word magician explains it. It is the one who observes and objectifies the exchange of words. It is an important role in a dialogue.

Another aspect of dialogue is that is integrates fragmented forces. Here Isaacs takes us back to the Greeks. The objective is to integrate the good, the true and the beautiful. (We, it and I).

Those 3 languages Isaacs uses to structure his book. The first is the language of meaning, the true. The second is the language of feelings and aesthetics, the beautiful. The third is the language of power, the language of action, the good.

Isaacs discerns 3 types of action, the name of the most important chapters of the book. He writes, we must learn to:

–        Produce coherent actions -> producing capacity for new behaviour to resolve incoherence and effects we intend,

–        Create fluid structures of interaction -> predictive intuition which helps us to resolve forces who delay or stop a flow of meaning

–        Provide wholesome space for dialogue -> the space in which we are largely influences the results of our dialogue. Therefor we must carefully construct the environment, create a container in which dialogue can flow freely. Isaacs calls this the architecture of the invisible.

Thinking alone

There are several reasons which prevent people to think together:

  1. Abstraction and fragmentation
    Science contributed to the fact that reality has become fragmented. Good, True and beautiful are treated separately. This can be resolved by staying in the here and now and look to situations with a beginners mind. To quote David Bohm: ‘I am in the world and the world is in me.’
  2. Idolatry and memory
    Idolatry and memory are 2 other obstacles to think together. Idoaltry is a collective representation or image that is not perceived as such but instead comes across as real. Idolatry blocks us from seeing reality. As does memory. Thinking here is defined ‘to say things with surprises us. Things we never said before and are not present in our memory. To think is to sense the emerging potential of a situation, to perceive what is not yet visible and to give it voice.’
  3. Certainty
    Certainty can lead to the inability to reflect –to see that a single way of understanding can limit us- restricts both individuals and organizations.

Beneath the reluctance to let go of our beliefs is the fear that there will be nothing underneath.

Isaacs proposes awareness as a solution, to suspend opinions and to and to stay present in the here and now.

  1. Violence

We impose our views on others and the world. We judge. We shouldn’t. Instead we should look for coherence, to avoid to break the world into parts.

The 4 principles for dialogue are:

–        participation

–        unfolding

–        awareness, direct experience

–        coherence.

The above is the basic stuff on dialogue. Below I mention –because of my personal interest- some tools and ideas which I found in the book:

  1. The ladder of inference
    This tool helps us to differentiate  between the inference we make about experience and the experience itself. We do not notice the difference between a direct experience and the assessment if it.
  2. Structural gap
    If 1 system a person is requires to do 2 different actiosn which contradict eachother.
  3. Three languages
    Isaacs talks about 3 languages: power/action, feeling and meaning
  4. System paradigms
    1. Open systems: focus on individuals and truth. Community growth out of respect for the individual. It values learning and adaptation through participation.
    2. Closed systems: focus on community and history. It values tradition. It respects position and place. Family is regarded as more important than the individual. Space, time and energy are all regulated.
    3. Random systems: a system without borders at least where borders are not perceived as such.  They are characteristics of fiercely individualistic culture.

Refer to chapter 9 for more information.

  1. Conversation fields
    Where a system is a set of interrelated and independent elements, a field of conversation derives from the ideas, thoughts and quality of attention of the people here and now. The quality of shared meaning and energy.

The process of going through field of conversation is the key to dialogue. Please use the image below as a reference. Please note that these steps resemble to the steps a team must take to become a high performance team.

Isaacs

  1. For different qualities of silence
    1. In the first phase silence can be really awkward
    2. In the second phase silence can feel like tension
    3. In the third phase silence is pensive
    4. In the fourth phase silence is whole and at times sacred
    5. Kronos and Kairos

Kronos is the exact time while Kairos is the that receives the movement of natural rhythms

5 thoughts on “DIALOGUE, THE ART OF THINKING TOGETHER BY WILLIAM ISAACS

  1. I appreciate the summary of a book I was unable to get at my library. However, some editing (grammar and spelling as well as bullet clarification) would have made it easier to ingest. Also, you quoted David Bohm. How is Isaacs’ theory different from Bohm’s (e.g. Bohm stating that the role of dialogue should have no other purpose than to hold dialogic structures)?

    • Dear Taylor, thank you so much for your comment! I sincerely apologize for my spelling. English is not my basic languange and I am a bit dislectic. At this moment I can not answer your question, however I have the intention to look into this subject more closely in the coming months. So please bear with me. Thank you, Arjen Hemelaar

      • If you’d like some help editing/clarifying some of your thinking, let me know as I’d be happy to contribute.

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