Dialogue - a book review

Dialogue and the art of thinking together, William Isaacs, 1999
Isaacs' principles of dialogue are participation, unfolding, awareness and coherence, and he teaches how to put these principles in action. A profound handbook for kindling the spark of conversation into a productive fire.

My notes from this books are mostly word diagrams, and outlines of the organizing principles he presents, stitching them together into a coherent explication of how talking together undergirds working together. Here's one of them, showing the path from conversation to the critical deliberative branch point between "defending" one's point of view, and "suspending" it:

SUSPEND => Reflective
Dialogue
Generative
Dialogue
Conversation => Deliberation =>
Skillful
conversation
=> Dialectic
DEFEND =>
Controlled
discussion
=> Debate

He's advocating the "high road" in this diagram, the road less taken. The practices that establish the four principles are Listening, Respecting, Suspending, and Voicing. These map into conversational dynamics we're familiar with:

Follow  Move  > < Oppose  (Bystander)

Roles shift fluidly in healthy conversation; they get stuck in unhealthy ones. All are needed for the group to make progress. Mindful following requires listening; constructive opposition requires respect; to bystand objectively, we need to suspend our own point of view; and to move effectively, we must be able to voice our needs and the motivation behind them.

Structure (formal relationships, expected roles, expectations from previous encounters...) can create structural traps such as "silence = assent" feedback loops. The "guy in charge" checks to see if "everybody's OK with that?" but no one is willing to voice an objection. Structure can let us coast on the wrong agenda, lock us into a given, comfortable behavior, and deprive the group of the best we have to offer.

One more diagram, attributed to C. Otto Scharmer (1998) (but unfortunately, Isaacs did not include a specific citation of the work), that is a more descriptive mapping of the older Organizational Development (OD) 2x2 of "Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing":

Self-Reflective
IV. Flow
Generative dialogue
|
|
|
|
|
|
|
III. Inquiry
Reflective Dialogue
Primacy of
the Whole

Primacy of
the Parts
I. Politeness
(shared)
monologues
II. Breakdown
Controlled discussion or
skillful conversation
Blaming &
Non-reflective

The flow is from lower left, counter-clockwise. Transitions from quadrant to quadrant each have an associated "crisis":

I. The crisis of emptiness
One must empty oneself of expectations if anything new is to happen.

II. The crisis of suspension
"I am not my point of view." Balancing inquiry with advocacy, being able to observe the group dynamic, to follow when appropriate, to oppose constructively, to move from our center.

III. The crisis of fragmentation
Letting go of our isolated (ego) identity.

IV. The crisis of Re-entry
You can't stay here! We need to release ourselves from structure that inhibits the flow of meaning, but we must inevitably return to structure.

This is a rich book, and I felt rewarded for the time I spent with it. Like so much of OD, the epiphany and deepening understanding is just the first step. It takes steady practice, and hard work to put the learning into action.

More provocative tidbits from it:

"Our inner ecology... is continuously organizing the material of our awareness." (He has a couple of very brief references to Maturana, which were like meditation bells for me.)

Words have energy to influence individual and group ecology. They matter.

The tyranny of scientific materialism: Technology is the answer! (But what was the question?)

Dialogue and the New Economy: "Increasing our effectiveness requires that we discover what we do not know, our ignorance, not our knowledge." The burgeoning field of Ignorance Management.

Cultivating Organizational and System Dialogue

An approach in outline:

- MAP & TRANSFORM the STRUCTURAL TRAPS

- ENGAGE the EMBEDDED ECOLOGY

- ACTIVELY REFLECT & INQUIRE

- BUILD INFRASTRUCTURE TO SUSTAIN the 4 PRACTICES of DIALOGUE
for example, learning labs, cross-divisional and cross-functional teams, reporting structures, discussion forums...


The rest of my reading list may be of interest if you liked this.

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

http://www.anybrowser.org/

Sunday, 04-Jun-2000 14:52:00 MDT
http://www.fortboise.org/dialogue.html