On Dialogue - An Overview of Dialogue Theory
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Dialogue: Finding Meaning In Complexity

What is Dialogue?

The word dialogue simply means 'n. a conversation or discussion between people with different opinions'. When we refer to 'Dialogue' in the context of a facilitated forum it means something more. Dialogue is the particular process developed by David Bohm for facilitating the exchange of deeply held views to create collaborative and shared learning, out of which may potentially emerge some new understanding. It's a unique process that David Bohm refined with a view to enhance world understanding.

Who was David Bohm? (1917-92)

He was one of the foremost theoretical physicists of his generation and one of the most influential theorists of the emerging paradigm through which the world is increasingly viewed. Born in Pennsylvania USA he studied under Einstein and Oppenheimer, received his B.Sc. degree from Pennsylvania State College in 1939 and his Ph.D. in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1947-1951 he taught at Princeton University as an Assistant Professor and worked on plasma theory, quantum mechanics and elementary particles. He subsequently taught at universities in Sao Paulo-Brazil, Israel, London and Bristol, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1990. His later work merged physics with spirituality, exploring the latter in conjunction with Eastern guru and author Krishnamurti. (Source: http://twm.co.nz/Bohm.html)

When would you use Dialogue?

Dialogue is used to reconcile situations of complexity, especially where many apparently disparate and irreconcilable views prevent an issue being discussed and resolution being found. It can be used to find and build consensus - although it is not designed to achieve consensus. "In Dialogue, a group of people can explore the individual and collective presuppositions, ideas, beliefs and feelings that subtly control their interactions. It can reveal the often puzzling patterns of incoherence that lead the group to avoid certain issues or, on the other hand, to insist, against all reason, on standing and defending opinions about particular issues." (Bohm, Factor and Garrett).

How is Dialogue different?

In discussion, debate, dialectic or discourse views are presented and defended. The aim is to converge on a conclusion and determine which view is 'right'. A Dialogue is different. In Dialogue different views are presented as a means of discovering a new view. In a discussion, decision is the aim. In Dialogue, there is no outcome required, the exploration diverging to encompass, not limit, the complexity. In discussion we argue against each other. In Dialogue we explore with each other.

What form does it take?

Dialogue is a conscious process that imitates other forms of collaborative discussions that rely on unconscious cultural processes (talking circles, runggun, musyawarah etc). The Dialogue may follow four stages (but may not progress past the first stage) and a Dialogue that reaches the fourth stage is described as a metalogue (ie. beyond dialogue):

  1. Instability of the Context - individual perspectives surface within the group context.
  2. Instability of Content - individuals reconcile the different views surfaced with their own views.
  3. Inquiry of Content - inquiry of different views while suspending (but keeping) own views.
  4. Insight within Context - collective thinking moves beyond spoken views to hidden meaning.

(adapted from Issacs 1993).

What are the logistics?

A Dialogue works best (and possibly only) with 25-45 people in a physical space, usually a circle, where each participant can see and hear each other participant. Too few people and the forum is not representative of a sufficient diversity of views. Too many people and the process may lack cohesion and break down. It may be possible to have non-participant observers, but only if this does not affect the dynamic. About two hours is needed. Any less and there may not be sufficient time to work through the necessary stages. Any more and fatigue affects the focus and the sensitivity of the group. A Dialogue group may meet only once or meet regularly for many years.

What is the underlying philosophy of Dialogue?

David Bohm was a physicist and believed in a fundamental premise in quantum physics that matter is not solid. He believed through his work that the particles that comprise matter are not fixed in location or form, but are ever changing, and in fact may all simultaneously be interconnected, possibly in time as well as a space. He extended this to consciousness and believed "..one can feel a sense of flow in the stream of consciousness not dissimilar to the sense of flow in the movement of matter in general." It gets a bit complicated after that (nature of reality, interconnectedness of all things, etc). His perspective does explain the premise behind the process. I suggest you read further into some of David Bohm's books (particularly "Wholeness and the Implicate Order") if interested.


"Dialogue makes possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding" (1989:1)

"Opinions are experienced as 'truths' where they are really a result of past thought and experiences, what people have said and how you interpret these. They are as a result unique to you. Defending these is a defense of self." (1989:4)

"What is called for is us to suspend assumptions so that they are neither carried or suppressed. They are neither good or bad, merely acknowledged" (1989:12)

"Dialogue involves sensitivity, being able to sense that something is happening, to sense the way you respond, the way other people respond, to sense the subtle differences and similarities" (1989:30)

"Dialogue is about common participation in which we are not playing a game against each other but with each other" (1989:2)

"There is both a collective mind and an individual mind, and like a stream, the flow [of meaning] moves between them" (1989:1)

"If everybody sees the meaning together of all the assumptions, then the content of consciousness is essentially the same" (1989:14-15)


David Bohm (1989) "On Dialogue"
David Bohm (1998) "On Creativity"
David Bohm (1994) "Thought as a System"
David Bohm (1980) "Wholeness and the Implicate Order"
David Bohm (1985) "Unfolding Meaning - A Weekend of Dialogue"
David Bohm (1998) "Infinite Potential - Biography"
David Bohm, Basil Hiley (1993) "The Undivided Universe"
David Bohm, J. Krishnamurti (1985) "The Ending of Time"
David Bohm, Mark Edwards (1991) "Changing Consciousness - A Dialogue of Words and Pictures"
Linda Ellinor, Glenna Gerard (1998) "Dialogue -Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation"
William Isaacs (1999) "Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together"

Online Resources:

An Overview of Dialogue Theory - William Varey

Dialogue - A Proposal ('A How To' by David Bohm, Donald Factor, Peter Garrett)

Main Links Page (Essays, Resources, Experiences)

Online Bookshop

(In the spirit of the work of David Bohm, permission is given for this summary to be reproduced, distributed and used for non-commercial purposes. For other purposes copyright is reserved.)