Dialogue is a word that has been rendered almost meaningless by having so many meanings to so many people. Politicians have appropriated the word and nearly destroyed its usefulness. But there is a deeper meaning to dialogue, having to do with shared exploration through questioning together.
As I see it, dialogue, as joint inquiry, is the social equivalent of solitary meditation. Awakening the meditative state is an almost inexpressible solitary art, which involves effortlessly gathering undirected attention sufficient to silence the chattering movement of thought. Meditation allows the space and stillness for a spontaneous, quantum leap in awareness. The social counterpart, which is almost as difficult to convey, is the art of questioning together in dialogue, with the intent to ignite mutual insight.
A prime proponent of this in-depth dialogue was David Bohm, a physicist of the highest order who Einstein called his “spiritual son.” Later in his life, after his work in theoretical physics, Bohm became very interested in the transformation of human consciousness. He proposed questioning together–dialogue in depth–as a means of fostering radical change in human consciousness. This entails examining, and going beyond, the narrow range of conditioning and reaction based on assumptions and unexamined worldviews, which so often pass for communication.
I had the privilege of meeting and participating in a series of superb dialogues with David Bohm. Each gathering was an intense experience, both because of Bohm’s prodigious intellect, and because of his passionate concern for the human prospect. Bohm is the only famous person I know of whose private demeanor was the same as his public persona. Indeed, I’m not sure he had a public persona at all.
“Dialogue as we are choosing to use the word,” Bohm said, “is a way of exploring the roots of the many crises that face humanity today. It enables inquiry into, and understanding of, the sorts of processes that fragment and interfere with real communication between individuals, nations and even different parts of the same organization.”
The main factors in exploratory dialogue are that participants be self-aware, and that they develop an ear for the right question for the group at a given moment.
Self-awareness is essential, as it helps neutralize the tendency to automatically speak from assumptions. Participants in meaningful dialogue share the intent to examine their assumptions when they come up. When there is an atmosphere of affection and safety, people don’t resist when someone points out assumptions. In short, participants are attuned to the fact that we all have unexamined assumptions, and are quick to look at them.
Of course, as with anything, Bohm’s approach to dialogue can be abused. I’ve attended organized dialogues with master manipulators, facilitators who sell themselves as authorities on dialogue, while pretending not to be. Such people cunningly set the agenda and determine the course and feel-good outcome of a dialogue. Indeed, an entire industry has emerged that takes advantage of the confusion we all feel during these dark times.
On the other hand, I’ve also been part of groups where questioning together has produced an extraordinary degree of collegiality and shared insight. The result isn’t a group mind, since each person retains his or her own perspective and uniqueness. Rather, there is a quality of communion that is beneficial to everyone in the group. And since core insights penetrate to the heart of human consciousness, authentic dialogue helps create a new culture for humanity.
The space for listening, and the listening that produces space, allows communication beyond the verbal level. Most communication is verbal, conceptual and reactive. You say something, and I instantly translate it into what I think you mean, and then reply to that. (A way to slow down reaction, especially with difficult issues, is to check what a person says against what one thinks they mean before responding.)
The process of examining assumptions and listening for meaning entails continually asking questions together. It’s very hard for most people to withhold their opinions and beliefs, much less to honestly examine them. But speaking from opinion and belief is not dialogue, or even communication, as I’m using the words.
In a group of self-aware people, the right question is like the starting notes in a musical composition. Listening and ongoing questioning by participants provides a string of mutual exploration that simultaneously composes and plays a symphony of shared meaning in dialogue.
lefevremartin at gmail.com