When I started this blog I knew my knowledge of social and behavioural sciences was (at best) rudimentary but I assumed I was at least aware of the main subject areas to look into. Or so I thought, until I read Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most by three authors who work for the Harvard Negotiation Project, and then On Dialogue by physicist David Bohm. Suddenly, the subject of Dialogue has burst onto my social change radar, and I’d like to share it with you.
When I first read Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most I was struck by two things. Firstly, the magnitude of the impact that our communication skills can have on our relationships, wellbeing, and daily life. Secondly, how easily we can improve all three by understanding some basic ideas.
A ‘difficult conversation’ is simply anything you find hard to talk about – whether with your partner, your boss, or your neighbour. What the authors suggest, however, is that we can have ‘learning conversations’ instead – inviting the other person into the conversation with us to help us figure things out. The principles are simple and resonate instantly, especially the assumptions we often bring to the conversation, such as;
- Truth: our version of events is The Truth (and the only truth)
- Intention: We believe we can clearly see the underlying intention of the other person
- Blame: the other person is to blame, we are not
The last principle – blame – is particularly ripe for the context of social change. As the antidote to blame, the authors introduce the idea of contribution. Rather than focusing solely on the actions of others, what is our contribution to the situation around us, and what can we do about it? This approach involves a tricky degree of self-awareness, and recognising that our feelings and self-image also play a role in how we respond to every situation.
This isn’t supposed to be a book review, so I’ll simply say that the book has much to offer on a subject many of us may take for granted, and I recommend reading it.
Several months later (and in the same way I came to appreciate the first Stone Roses album only after hearing the ‘Second Coming’…) I was introduced to On Dialogue – a transcript of a lecture by David Bohm, a physicist who founded a new solution called Bohmian Dialogue that many others have since adapted and progressed – including the authors of Difficult Conversations.
Dialogue as in talking? Well, not really. Dialogue as in becoming aware of our thoughts as they change. That may sound nothing like dialogue, so if you consider how we are aware of our own physical movement – a raised arm, a stretched leg, a tilt of the head – dialogue in the ‘Bohmian’ sense seeks the same awareness when we move or change our thoughts and emotions (it has since been suggested to me that this is what Mindfulness describes. For me it covers something broader than that, but no reason why it can’t work in this context too). Being able to do this, Bohm believed, was at the root of redressing the “essential cause of the endless crises affecting mankind”.
What Bohmian Dialogue actually is, is a group practice where participants learn to suspend their beliefs, opinions, impulses, and judgments while speaking together. What can it achieve? Well, there are many books and articles that can do a far better job of answering that question than I can, and I have listed a few at the end of this post. I urge you to try one and consider whether you agree with David Bohm’s declaration that “such a form of free exchange of ideas and information is of fundamental relevance for transforming culture and freeing it of destructive misinformation, so that creativity can be liberated.”
And with the idea of “transforming culture” we come back to social change. Can the broad subject of Dialogue (Bohmian or otherwise) really have an impact on our society at root level? There is a lot to suggest it can. Our natural quest for progress requires us to be open to different ideas and perspectives. Some we will understand, relate to and even agree with. Others will challenge our core beliefs and assumptions. And with those challenges comes uncertainty and fear – triggers for powerful emotions to which we instinctively heed. It is our awareness of these emotions that will determine our ability to learn from each other, and therefore our ability to create positive change.
This is only a brief introduction into the broad subject of Dialogue. There is undoubtedly much more to learn. What’s clear is that how we talk can be a barrier to change, or it can be a tool for change. It may even be the only change we need to make.
- Dialogue – A proposal by David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garrett
- On Dialogue by David Bohm
- Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs
- Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most by Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen