The art of thinking together

By Jorge Taborga

According to William Isaacs, professor, author, and co-founder of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT alongside Peter Senge, dialogue is a vehicle for creative problem identification and solving. However, it is different than what is normally conceived as problem solving. The usual modality to tackle problems is discussion. We are used to exposing our points of view, and entering into a dialectic exchange and sometimes debate.

In any of these cases, we are defending our ideas. Resolution or problem solving emerges out of consensus or a decision made by someone high in the hierarchy. In the best case scenario, the compromise is acceptable to all, but in most situations one or more individuals would feel that they lost. Companies with strong decision-making processes would have a way to make the decision “stick” regardless of the opposition. In the 1990s, I worked for a company where accepting and supporting a decision once it was made was a condition for employment.

Dialogue allows for the identification and solution to a problem by “thinking together.” This notion was first introduced by David Bohm, the famed physicist, and extensively documented by Isaacs. Thinking together is the result of the dialogic process. As stated, it starts with the suspension of our underlying assumptions followed by deep inquiry into the assumptions of all the participants. Dialogue allows for the true exploration of the problem. Thinking together arrives as part of what Isaacs calls the generative dialogue. This is the phase of the dialogic process when the participants together reach new insights, co-create, and ultimately solve the problem with a much greater depth than the defensive form of conversation.

As supported by science and personal experience, the speed of change in the world has accelerated greatly. Edgar Schein submits that dialogue can speed up the process of change within an organization. His argument is twofold. First, resistance to change is driven by fragmentation; fragmentation of thought, culture, language and understanding. Second, our customary communication approach of discussion often ends up in suboptimal solutions through compromise or mandate. Dialogue addresses fragmentation by giving all participants access to proprioception (one’s own perception). Thought coherence is its result. Thinking together is the optimal way to solve problems once coherence is achieved.

Isaacs developed a model showing how a conversation evolves from its inception into two major paths, one of dialogue and the other of discussion. He posits that a conversation for a specific purpose reaches a point of deliberation. This is the stage where options are considered. It is also the point where a major decision will be made based on how the conversation flows.

Two paths are available. The first path is the suspension of underlying assumptions, and the second one  deals with defense. The path of suspending moves to a dialogic conversation. The path of defense further bifurcates into either a productive defense or an unproductive one. A productive defense will result in a solution through the presentation of facts, a dialectic exchange, and a synthesis of the exposed ideas. A decision will be arrived through consensus or mandate. In the unproductive flow, a discussion will ensue leading to a debate in which points are made and defended without a satisfactory conclusion.

Isaacs speaks about creating the container for dialogue. A container can be described in relation to its “quality of energy, experience, and aliveness.” It is not about the physical attributes of the room necessarily, although they are important. A container includes the physical and the nonphysical. Ultimately, it is how we feel when we are in this container. Do we feel a sense of trust and openness? Dialogue requires that the “field of conversation” be comfortable for this purpose.

Boundaries and sensitivity are essential to dialogue. Boundaries relate to the constituencies in the dialogue. For some groups, participation map be open and people may come and go as they please. For others, participation may be limited to a fixed population. Another area of boundaries relates to the depth of personal questions and statements. Dialogue is not the place for insults. However, participants may want to and may need to make personalized statements. This has to be in agreement with everyone in the group. Bohm stressed the need for great sensitivity when embarking on dialogue. He believed that correcting our thought processes requires support, safety, and above all trust.

The art of thinking together is one of the great tools for our present time. We need dialogue to solve our planetary challenges.


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