On the art of thinking together (Part 1)

For us, the tree symbolises the essence of dialogue: We come together, connect with ourselves, the others and open a common thinking space in which new things can emerge. 

Are you one of those people who think meetings are a waste of time? You could work so well if it weren’t for those constant discussions. And then the behaviour of the “fellow-meeters”: you start to relate something and are impatiently interrupted. “Why don’t you get to the point? We don’t have all day.” Or they pick out one aspect of your contribution and react exclusively to it, perhaps even with suspicion. Or a participant explains to you for the umpteenth time what you already know and have known for a long time. Or you are told: “That won’t work”, coupled with body-language reactions of devaluation, and your ideas are brushed aside. And so on, and so on…

In meetings like this, my inner Harlequina has a hard time staying calm. Such behaviour annoys me. While I used to put up with them with my Catholic upbringing, today I help teams to resist such unprofessional behaviour and do better. A bad conversation or even a bad meeting constricts you, makes you uncreative, makes you lose sight of goals and ideas for solutions and brings frustration and trouble in the long run. Do you have to expose yourself to such dilettantism? Have you ever thought about leaving a meeting? Have you ever done it?  

What is a good verbal exchange?

There are different approaches to this. Today I would like to introduce principles that I believe are essential for creative (generative) and transformative work in teams. These principles are also known as Bohm dialogue. David Bohm was an American quantum physicist and philosopher who worked intensively on dialogue in the last third of his career. Bohm defines dialogue as “the art of thinking together”, finding solutions, having creative ideas, getting to the bottom of things and situations, bringing transformation into the world in a sustainable way.

The word “discussion” comes from Latin and means something like “to dismantle, to agitate”. In a discussion, attitudes are asserted against others, arguments are powerfully supported, positions are defended. Fixed points of view are significant, while analysing and dissecting the arguments of others are the main focus. I listen to the other person in the discussion so that I can find the appropriate answer. A discussion has, if possible, a quick result.

Dialogue comes from ancient Greek and means something like dia “through”  and logos “word”. Relationships are created through the word, we meet the other in exchange. Opinions and the assumptions behind those opinions are expressed openly, and changing one’s mind is possible at any time without losing face. In dialogue, my reality is only one of many. The focus is on exploring my thoughts, feelings and opinions, listening both inwardly, i.e. my own thoughts and feelings, and outwardly. In this way, mutual understanding and an understanding of diversity in the group increasingly emerges. Parts are brought together, new things can emerge, at an appropriate pace, developed collectively and held collectively.

Not that I don’t appreciate a good discussion, I too enjoy debating. But anyone who has experienced a generative dialogue (e.g. in a design thinking workshop) will not easily forget the feeling of connection and energy.

A few years ago, I practised Bohm dialogue with a group of 12 corporate executives. After we had regularly conducted dialogue once a week for about 1.5 hours over a period of 4-6 weeks – by the way, this can also be done online in Corona times – the annually recurring pay settlements were due. This meant that over a period of 2 days, each employee was discussed by all managers in a workshop. Most of the participants were dreading this date, because they had never been able to manage in the allotted time in previous years and had quarrelled bitterly. But in the “Bohm year” everything was different: on the afternoon of the first day, the work was completed: all the employees had been comprehensively discussed, without conflict, in a calm, common understanding that did not, however, exclude different opinions. And now everyone had been given a day as a gift. Although the dialogue process itself seems much slower than a discussion, it can contribute fundamentally to the efficiency of a group.

Dialogue is practised regularly in companies embarking on a journey of transformation. As a powerful communication tool, it helps to dissolve encrusted structures, overcome rifts, master crises and develop creative ideas and solutions.

More on the topic of “dialogue” follows in Part 2 next Friday.

Original text: HFI
English translation: BCO

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