Words, Words, Words or Dialogue

Margaret WilliamsonWritten by: Margaret WilliamsonIllustration of Alice and Humpty Dumpty from Alice Through The Looking Glass. Image by Morphart Creation, Shutterstock

As I continue my research into the impact of Dialogue on organisational change, it is clear that when we talk about Dialogue we don’t always mean the same thing.  Apart from the obvious use of dialogue to describe any conversation in a book, a play or a film; we often hear the word used to describe conversations to resolve international conflicts -UN ‘peace dialogues’ for example.

Even in the field of organisational change the word Dialogue means different things to different people, so I thought it might be interesting to share some of the definitions I have come across.

Socratic Dialogue

Based on the ideas of Socrates in this form of dialogue, conversation is used to find the value and truth of people’s opinions.  A facilitator directs group members to think about the answer to some universal problem. They then work together to arrive at a common consensus through ‘argumentation’.  Focussing on concrete examples from their own experience, they are questioned on their assumptions and principles. Socratic Dialogue stresses the importance of thinking about thinking.

Policy Dialogue

Policy Dialogue is often used to describe people from different interest groups sitting round a table to focus on issues where they have a mutual, but not necessarily common, interest.  It assumes that people in different positions will have different perspectives on the same problem.  Groups are usually by invitation only and are small, well-structured and with a focussed selection of issues chosen in advance.  Most importantly, Policy Dialogues end with a set of commitments to action for all participants.

Deliberative Dialogue

This form is often used in the development of public policy.  The objective is not so much to talk together but to think together to identify the best course of action. Thinking together involves listening deeply, exploring new ideas, searching for points of agreement and bring unexamined assumptions into the light.  It usually revolves around a question that needs to be addressed rather than a problem that can be efficiently resolved.  The question usually takes the form “What should we do?”.

Democratic Dialogue

UNDP’s ‘Practical Guide on Democratic Dialogue’ describes democratic dialogue as “a process of genuine interaction in which human beings listen deeply and respectfully to each other in a way that what they learn changes them.  Each participant in a dialogue strives to incorporate the concerns of the other participants into their own perspective, even when they continue to disagree.  No participant gives up their identity, but each recognises the human value of the claims of others and therefore acts differently towards others.”

Inter-group/inter-faith dialogue

Inter-group dialogue, based on the philosophy of the democratic and popular education movements, is a face to face, facilitated conversation between members of two social identity groups or ‘tribes’. It is most commonly used in education and religion and integrates the goals of consciousness-raising; building relationships across differences and strengthening capacity to promote social justice.

Open Dialogue

Open Dialogue is both an approach to people experiencing a mental health crisis (together with their families) and a system of care developed in Western Lapland in Finland in the 1980’s. Open Dialogue teams work to help those involved in a crisis situation to be together and engage in dialogue.  This part of Finland is now thought to have best documented mental health outcomes in the Western World.

Toolbox Dialogue

The Toolbox approach consists of Dialogue with a set of questions and statements in a workshop environment.  It is often used in a research environment to reveal the underlying assumptions of researchers from different backgrounds by asking simple questions, for example, ‘what kinds of data constitute scientific evidence?’.  Making assumptions explicit enables deep mutual understanding and the development of shared standards.

My research for the Dialogue Community of Practice is primarily about the application and impact of ‘Generative’ or ‘Bohmian Dialogue’.

  • ‘Bohmian’ because it was initially developed by physicist David Bohm, and
  • ‘Generative’ because it collectively generates new ideas and meanings.

Bohm referred to Dialogue as:

“a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us” and suggested: ”This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will come some new understanding.”[1]

Bill Isaacs [2] describes this form of dialogue as follows:

“Dialogue, the discipline of collective learning and inquiry, is a process for transforming the quality of conversation and the thinking that lies beneath it. It can serve as a cornerstone for organizational learning by providing an environment in which people can reflect together and transform the ground out of which their thinking and acting emerges.”

Dialogue is a sustained collective inquiry into the processes, assumptions, and certainties that structure our everyday experience.”   

The word ‘Dialogue’ is derived from the Greek ‘dia’ (through) and ‘logos’ (the word) and suggests ‘meaning flowing through’.

Dialogue is often used very loosely to describe any form of conversation but genuine dialogue has a specific set of practices.   As Bill Isaacs says “Dialogue is about creating conditions where you can actually hear the source of the thinking behind the words, including your own. Dialogue is about shared listening in a way that allows us to hear unanticipated possibilities.” [3]

If you are interested to learn more, the video on the Workforce Scotland Dialogue page is a good place to start https://collectiveleadershipscotland.com/workstream/dialogue/


[1] David Bohm (2004) On Dialogue. Psychology Press.

[2] William Isaacs (1999) Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. Doubleday.

[3] William Isaacs (2012) Accessing Genuine Dialogue, The Watercooler, volume 6, Issue 4. http://dialogos.com/files/6713/4851/1672/dialogos-watercooler.pdf

1 comment

  1. Thanks for this… good to see the diffferent ‘takes’ on dialogue alongside one another. I see dialogue as a form of collective inquiry, driven by good questions and well-designed spaces for dialogue. It is part of a broader ‘place-making’ process that meshes dialogue space design and inter-personal meaning-making (noticing shared meaning, and agreeing approaches to address disagreements) and framing action – acting on the fruits of the dialogue.

    I have recently been interested in the ‘4 types of conversation’ multi-stakeholder partnerships model… http://www.mspguide.org/tool/4-types-conversations – I like the structuring and sequencing, moving through different forms of dialogue. There is also an interesting distinction between reflective dialogue and generative dialogue.

    There is also an interesting reference on ‘seven ways of inquiry’ by Henderson and Kesson which inter-relates seven different, but potentially meshable, classical approaches to inquiry. See page 51 of https://www.ial.edu.sg/content/dam/projects/tms/ial/Find-resources/Learning-resource-and-tools/Tools-for-Re-imagining-Learning/Meta-tools-and-resources/Dialogical%20Inquiry%20Model_Final.pdf
    There is more about this ‘Dialogical Inquiry Model’ here:

    Hope these are of some use/interest. Ian Wight

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