Book Notes – Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together

Posted: January 29, 2014 by Todd in Books, Ministry
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William Isaacs
Finished January, 2013.
Very simple dialogue tool: go around the room and do a “check-in” asking people what they are thinking/feeling.  There seems to be a lot of power and need for simply talking and sharing stories with one another.
Dialogue cannot be rushed.
Chapter 1: A Conversation with a Center, Not Sides
Dialogue channels energy towards a center and away from polarization.
High quality leaders are trending away from agenda laden meetings in favor of free space to dialogue.
Part of the purpose of this book is to create a vocabulary to have a meta-conversation about dialogue.
Three Fundamentals of Human Interaction:
  1. Produce coherent actions.
  2. Create fluid structures of interaction.  We need to develop “predictive intuition.”
  3. Provide wholesome space for dialogue.  We must become conscious of “architecture of the invisible” in our conversations. [more…]

dialogue 1

At 652, an outline of the book is provided.
Progressive map of conversation types:
  1. Conversation
  2. Deliberation
  3. Suspend or Defend
If one can choose suspension over defense, you can inter reflective dialogue, which in turn gives way to generative dialogue – an inventive conversation.
Four Practices of Dialogue:
  1. Listening
  2. Respecting
  3. Suspending
  4. Voicing
Chapter 2: Why We Think Alone and What We Can Do About It
Read on phone, notes assembled later
Problems & Solutions
  1. Abstraction (we separate parts from the whole) solved by “Principle of Participation” (calls attention to our intimate connection to the world around us
  2. Idolatry (confuse memory for thinking) solved by “unfolding” (ready yourself to observe the invisible reality waiting to unfold into a present, visible form)
  3. Certainty (interpretations that blind us to thinking) solved by “awareness” (practice of suspending beliefs to observe the underlying living processes of things)
  4. Violence (judgments on people/world) solved by “coherence” – a practice of looking for connections amongst the parts
Chapter 3: The Timeless Way of Conversation
Read first 1/2 on phone, notes assembled later
Chapter’s goal is to set forth a “theory” of conversation.
We need a “beginner’s mind” as the mystics speak of, not an expert’s mind.
Without practical knowledge of dialogue theory, we don’t have much of a road map.  But ultimately, there  is no “technical” solution, no step, by step process.  But rather good dialogue is about being.  It is intuitive and must be mastered.  It is already within us and must be learned inductively.
[Todd’s note: I wonder if there is a kairotic moment with dialogue today for it to be even more powerful precisely because it is so rare and people are so blind to their need for it.]
Part II: Building Capacity for New Behavior
Dialogue begins with self.  Next four chapters will describe “practices” that are intended to be lifelong and community based to help me develop the “four practices of dialogue” (see chapter 1 notes).
Chapter 4: Listening
Hearing is deeper than the other senses, particularly sight.  The speed of sound is slower that the speed of light.  There are few illusions in hearing.  Sound is always deeply connected to its environment.  Also, it contains meaning within it to be unfolded in future contexts.  Dialogue allows us to hear a fuller context.
The written word has disconnected our auditory experience from nature.
Most of our “listening” comes from a predisposition we carry into a conversation and thus isn’t listening at all.  We must distinguish between the inferences we make about experience and the experience itself.
There can be a difference between a valid judgment and an observable fact.  Someone arriving late can be a valid judgment, but not an observable fact.
“Listening from disturbance” is the term that describes hearing data from memory rather than the present moment.  Listening from disturbance is usually self-confirming.
To make progress, “follow the disturbance” (the source of difficulty).
Then, look for data that disconfirms your point of view.
People tend not to say what they really think because they perceive themselves to be in a lose-lose situation.  Dialogue can open up when we listen for the dilemma and bring it to light.
Chapter 5: Respecting
We have to see genuine value in others we’re dialogging with.  Treat the people you come in contact with as a teacher.
The observer and the observed cannot be separated.
When inquiry is taken deep enough, it will eventually reveal the original impulse to be wholesome.  [Todd: A better theological principle than ‘original sin.’]
Finding one’s center is key to genuine respect in dialogue.
Listen through the filter that “this, too is in me.”

Look for what is strange in the other – what you have no category for, spend time with this sort of person.
Don’t react to the tension that arises in dialogue.  Retain respect for all positions in a dialogue.
Be aware of the parts of yourself that do not respect others.
[Todd’s question: how do you handle a dialogue where respect breaks down?  Idea: model respect for others.]
Chapter 6: Suspending
Our perspectives blind us to other possibilities (story of the frozen grease)
By holding and examining our internal criticism – neither disavowing nor expressing it.
Suspension one is disclosing your own internal criticisms
Suspension two is observing the processes from which criticisms emerge internally
Thoughts do not just appear.  Suspension gives us access to How criticisms emerge.
Instead of just trying to fix, ask how conditions arose that calls the problem in the first place.
Chapter 7: Voicing
Our speaking should not come from a predetermined statement formed in reaction or immune to context, but rather emerge unplanned and almost burst forth from us for the sake of the group.
Our voices should “unfold and enfold.”  They should be our unique ‘music’ to contribute to the world.
To let a group’s voice emerge, allow a few moments after someone has spoken to pass so that the meaning can bloom.
Voices can have a dark, overinflated side, that crowds others out.  It ultimately undermines their credibility and effectiveness.
Part III: Predictive Intuition
Predictive intuition is the ability to see the forces operative that are guiding the dialogue.
Two dimensions of predictive intuition: (1) seeing the gaps between what people do and what they intend and (2) anticipating and overcoming hidden and powerful structures that neutralize dialogue.
Chapter 8: Patterns of Action
This chapter explores the first dimension of predictive intuition – the gap between what is done and what is intended.
Advocacy is speaking from a point of view.
Inquiry is exploring what you don’t yet understand.
Inquiry can disarm advocacy.  Advocacy must be balanced with inquiry and we should err on the side of inquiry.
David Kantor’s work shows that conversations reveal not just personal needs, but also the needs of the group.  These are called “hidden imperatives.”
A healthy conversation, according to Kantor involves a (1) mover, (2) follower, (3) opposer, and (4) bystander (2749).  All people feel free to occupy any of these positions at any time.
“Two points of view cannot generally live side by side for long.”
There is such a thing as a “mixed move” – a statement/action that is more than one of the 4 positions.
If a position is silenced, Kantor called them “disabled.”  “Any system that silences bystanders and opposers is by definition in trouble.”
People tend to be better at one or another of the positions.  We can also get “stuck” in one of the positions.
Each position has a dialogue practice that corresponds to it:
move – voice
follow – listening
oppose – respect
bystand – suspension
In practice:
  1. Listen for the position a person is using.
  2. Listen for the underlying intention behind that position.  Below are some common ones.


The central spirit behind this approach is forgiveness.
Chapter 9: Overcoming Structural Traps
This chapter is about recognizing and overcoming the hidden and powerful things that often neutralize dialogue.
Examples of this sort of thing: expectations around budget time, fish swimming into a blender with the blades turned off
Structure is “the set of frameworks, habits and conditions that compel people to act as they do.”
[Note: Why not utilize prayer/devotion time at church meetings to help set or reshape the structure?]
Traps are when different structures are pulling people in different, conflicting directions.  Dialogue is the way to engage traps.  David Kantor has developed a way to diagnose these traps, called “structural dynamics.”
Three languages people speak when expressing themselves:
  1. Affect (or feeling)
  2. Meaning
  3. Power
It can be very difficult to communicate across these “languages.”  You should first understand your own primary language.
Three ways in which people prefer to organize power and relationships:
  1. Open – resolve differences through a process of open exchange.  (Think Android)
  2. Closed – regulates the life of its members. (Think iOS)
  3. Random “system paradigms” – individuals without any clear correlation.  System, what system?
All three modes have a shadow side.  They include:
Closed: “insular purity,” blind to emergent change
Open: “tyranny of process,” can include too much, tolerant of intolerance that cannibalizes
Random: anarchy, nothing constant (this was the most difficult to understand)
Mapping – I’m not very clear on how to do this.  Seems like putting on paper both issues and structures as well as the content of what is said are important.
Part IV: Architecture of the Invisible
There are “conversational fields,” which are all of the influences – memories, atmosphere, energy, etc. exerting influence in a conversation.  Fields are somewhat like stages in a conversation.
Chapter 10: Setting the Container
The route to understanding goes through doubt and confusion.
“Fields” cannot be manufactured, but the “container” can be intentionally set.  A well prepared container sets you up for the best field possible.
The idea behind a container is that human beings need a setting in which to hold the intensities of their lives.
Isaacs: “No container, no dialogue.”
Three essential elements to the container:
  1. energy
  2. possibility
  3. safety
Ensure, before dialogue begins, that energy, possibility, and safety are present.
We should consciously decide how to structure the mode of the container – closed, open, or random.  Decided and maintaining this reduces anxiety.  This might come in the form of interjecting things like, “George, were you understood as you intended?”
Chapter 11: Fields of Conversation
The process of dialogue is more important than any “end” or “objective.”
Both of these are wrong: “No fight, no reality.”  “Terminal niceness”
Containers are the “relatively observable features of fields.”
Four Fields – Corresponds to Otto Scharmer’s TheoryU Fields
All spaces have their role.  It is movement through the fields that indicates health.
Field 1 – Politeness
Initially the container supports very little intensity.  Things are kept polite and superficial.  Differences are kept hidden.
“In Kantor’s four player system terms, Field I is usually characterized by “more-follow” sequences: some people move, others follow, no one opposes or bystands.”

Erving Goffman is an expert in Field 1 behavior.
We must encounter the “crisis of emptiness.”  Here, we empty ourselves of expectations that anything new is to happen.  We empty ourselves when we realize our initial desires aren’t going to be met.  This crisis can be provoked by commenting on the process of the conversation itself.  On the other end of this crisis there must be a move towards shared responsibility.
Here silence is socially awkward.  Kronos dominates.
Field 2 – Breakdown
Here people start to say what they think.  Move – oppose sequences emerge.
Here emerges the “crisis of suspension.”  Here we must find a way to cool down the exchange to the entire crowd may freely move.  Failure at this point, often goes back into politeness.  The way out is self-reflection.  Everyone must see that “I am not my opinions.”
Here silence holds tension.  Kronos time is running out.
Field 3 – Inquiry
Curiosity dominates the Inquiry Field.  No longer are people feeling compelled to agree.  They reflect upon the rules themselves.
“Outsight” is insight collectively experienced.
Here we must engage the “crisis of fragmentation,” where we can be something new together.
Here silence silence is thoughtful, reflective.  Here we start to become aware of kairotic time.
Field 4 – Generative Dialogue
The rarest of all, in this stage people come to an awareness of the whole.  There is an experience of “flow” or “collective flow.”  People can speak from and interact in a pool of common meaning.
Here we must overcome the “crisis of entry (or reentry)” as we come out of the generative state into a world more familiar with Field 1 and 2.  The movement of healthy dialogue requires us to continue beyond the generative stage into other places.  In this way, the movement is more like a spiral or a circle.
Here silence is whole, even sacred.  Kairotic time dominates here.
Kronos is time measured.  Kairos is time that is filled with its own purpose.  Kronos is external time, Kairos is internal time.
Chapter 12: Convening Dialogue
This chapter is about the best leadership practices for each field of dialogue.
Leadership for Field 1:
  • Clarify your intentions – do you see them as “needing help”?  If so, can you tell them?
  • Entry is everything – The start sets the tone
  • Join each person differently
  • Create the container – four practices are key: (1) listening, (2) respecting, (3) suspending, and (4) voicing
    • Evoke the ideal – make explicit the potential
    • Support dreaming out loud – be ready to add your support to positive visioning that emerges
    • Deepen the listening – work for understanding in the heart and mind
    • Make it safe for opposers – affirm them, come to their defense
    • Dare people to suspend – help people manage the “crisis of emptiness” (abandon initial expectations for dialogue)
Leadership for Field 2:
  • Map the structures – name the underlying forces and their consequences (often conflicting) as best you can
  • Facilitate Cross-Model Conversation – attempt to make the case that different people are speaking “different languages,” e.g., (affect, energy, or power; open, closed, or random)
  • Educate – talk about dialogue theory:
    • Articulate new capacities for action (Part II)
      • Listening
      • Respecting
      • Suspending
      • Voicing
    • Develop people’s predictive intuition (Part III)
      • Action – Intention Roles
        • Mover
        • Follower
        • Opposer
        • Bystander
      • Structural Traps
        • “Languages”
          • Affect
          • Energy
          • Power
        • Relationship Organization Type
          • Open
          • Closed
          • Random
    • Shed light on the invisible architecture that surrounds them (Part IV)
      • Set Container
        • Energy
        • Possibility
        • Safety
      • Fields
        • Field 1 – Politeness
        • Field 2 – Breakdown
        • Field 3 – Inquiry
        • Field 4 – Generative Dialogue
Leadership for Field 3:
  • Listen for emerging themes – bring out underlying themes and questions that go beyond any single person
  • Model leading from behind – see self as an equal partner in inquiry process
  • Predict and deal with retrenchment – beware of sense of superiority that can come with newfound group identity that is now talking/thinking differently
Leadership for Field 4:
  • Embody service – what is our group’s highest purpose?  unique calling?
  • Reflect on the whole process – reflect on entire dialogue process
  • Seek paths to resolution – what actions are now possible?
  • Allow the leadership role to move – seek out the de facto leader
  • See the whole as the primary – ask and act on behalf of the whole
Chapter 13: The Ecology of Thought
Twin aspects of inner ecology: memory & awareness
Three levels of ecology:
  1. behaviors we exhibit (Part II)
  2. predictive intuition (Part III)
  3. invisible architecture & fields (Part IV)
Our thoughts are not merely “in here,” but rather connected with our feelings, bodies, and perceptions of the outside world.  When we think of something we like, we feel good – these are interwoven.  Language tends to separate all of this.
This chapter uses ecology as an analogy for what is happening to us internally.  One limit is the factor of interpretation, which science leaves little room for.
We each carry our own ecology – one that surrounds us and one that is internal.  They also affect one another.  This applies to groups as well.  Ecologies are made up of reflexive memories.  These happen instinctively.  To transform our ecology, we must transform our memories.  We do this through perceptions inherent in the practices of dialogue.  Changing the way we talk can change the way we think.
Three great value spheres of human experience: (1) the Good (We), (2) the True (It), and (3) the Beautiful (I).  These exist more independently and don’t naturally talk easily to one another, but they should be seen as interconnected.  In our scientific era, the True (It) has dominated the Good and the Beautiful.  According to Plato, the Good should be the master of the other two.
Part V: Widening the Circle
Chapter 14: Dialogue and the New Economy
We are in a period of “punctuated equilibrium” – a massive change, reordering things.
An adjustment to this change can’t only be personal, but must be collective.
Kevin Kelly’s Three Features of the New World:
  1. Globalization
  2. Favoring the intangibles of information, ideas, and relationships
  3. Intense interlinking
KK’s Counterintuitive Laws based on the above:
  1. Power lies in embracing decentralized control
  2. Generosity produces wealth
  3. Support the network, not my node within it
  4. Freely abandon the successful for the emergent unknown
Networks can be the solution to many intractable problems.
We must learn to manage our ignorance.  There are three different types of ignorance: (1) blindness, (2) unawareness, and (3) deliberately withheld information.
Chapter 15: Cultivating Organizational and System Dialogue
This chapter deals with real world examples of some of this theory in action. Very case-studyish.
Chapter 16: Dialogue and Democracy
I listened to most of this chapter via “Speed Up.”  It deals with the real world politics of all of this theory.  Less “how to” than the rest of the book, but reflects on the most polarized of all places – the American political scene.  Not terribly important to review.
Chapter 17: Taking Wholeness Seriously
I listened/read this chapter via “Speed Up” as well.  It seemed to be a sort of reflection on the theory emphasizing how it ties together everything “wholistically.” Each of the elements in the Good, Beautiful, and True.  The content and the feeling.  It reflects on the Internet both good and bad for dialogue.  Also not so much how-to, but probably the most useful chapter in Part V.
The book seems to be aimed at those facilitating meetings.  How can this all be applied when we’re participants and have more limited ability to set the container and so forth?
How does one map the structures of dialogue?
How do time constraints effect dialogue?
How can dialogue be successful when a “figurehead” is dialoguing for a group?  How can they internalize the change inherent in being part of the conversation.

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