[Navigation imagemap]
Home | Search | Map | Books | Knowledge Garden | Calendar | Ordering | Guestbook

A Metaphor for a Worldwide Paradigm Shift
Creating Learning Organizations Through Core Competence in Community Building
Softstuff: Work Teams in Technical Organizations
From Chaos to Community at Work
Discovering a Generative Path to Organizational Change
Dialogue and Organizational Transformation
The Wisdom Council
Rediscovering the Circle: Community in Balance
A Sense of the Whole: The Essence of Community
The Quest for Collective Intelligence
Principles for Sustainability
My Journey Toward Hope

Dialogue and Organizational Transformation

by Glenna Gerard & Linda Teurfs

This document is a revised version of the chapter
" Dialogue and Organizational Transformation "
in the anthology " Community Building: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business " , New Leaders Press, 1995.
Please do not quote without the permission.

Suppose that we were able to share meanings freely without a compulsive urge to impose our own view or to conform to those of others and without distortion and self-deception. Would this not constitute a real revolution in culture and therefore eventually in society?
-- David Bohm, Changing Consciousness, 1992.

The sciences of the 20th Century have brought us a profoundly new vision of how the universe works. Individual parts have definition and meaning only by virtue of the relationships between them. It is no surprise then that we find dialogue and community building at the forefront of organizational change efforts. Both are about creating cultures based on understanding relationships -- relationships between people, structure, processes, thinking, and results.

For organizational change to be lasting, a shift of mind or change in consciousness has to take place. Because we are talking about cultural change, it has to happen at both the individual and group levels. Without such a shift, no restructuring effort will produce the kind of lasting change we are seeking.

Popularized recently through the work of the late David Bohm, dialogue is a group communication process aimed at exploring the nature and power of collective thinking and how it shapes the culture of a group. When we learned that one of dialogue's primary purposes is to affect a transformation in collective consciousness, we recognized its potential in the area of organizational change. While Bohm was working at a more global or societal level, we were interested in how it might be introduced specifically into organizational settings. We were not alone Peter Senge devoted the better part of a chapter to dialogue in his book The Fifth Discipline.

Over the last several years we have explored dialogue in a variety of settings. We are seeing that it can serve as a bridge or how-to for community building and organizational transformation. Dialogue can help organizations create climates that lead to greater collaboration, fluidity, and sustainability. Its practice can provide the environment and skills necessary for creating a cultural shift toward high levels of trust and open communications, heightened morale, and alignment and commitment to shared goals.



The word dialogue stems from the Greek roots " dia " and " logos " and means " through meaning. " It is a communication form for discovering the shared meaning moving among and through a group of people. " Shared meaning " forms the basis of culture. Dialogue involves becoming aware of the thinking, feelings and formulated conclusions that underlie a group's culture or way of being with each other.

Although new to modern-day organizational practices, dialogue has been around a very long time. It can be traced to the works of ancient Greece (for example, The Dialogues of Plato ) and to forms of communication used by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. Aspects of dialogue can be found with in Quaker spiritual and business practice, and in counseling models such as that of Carl Rogers, as part of certain Eastern meditation practices and in the philosophical works of Martin Buber.

What is it about dialogue that gives such hope and evokes growing interest today? A fellow participant in dialogue once said, " Dialogue is about creating sacred space through conversation. " That's a pretty powerful statement. Thinking about what values most cultures hold sacred -- such as respect, trust, love, family, life, and the pursuit of happiness -- it does convey the power and potential of dialogue. Dialogue is about creating an environment that builds trust, encourages communication with respect, honors and values diversity as essential, and seeks a level of awareness that promotes the creation of shared meaning (culture) that supports individual and collective well-being.

One useful way to describe dialogue is by contrasting it with discussion, a much more familiar form of conversation. The roots of discussion are the same as those of percussion and concussion, signifying " a breaking apart " or " fracturing " into pieces. The intent of discussion is usually to deliver one's point of view, to convince or persuade. Since points of view may differ widely, discussion often leads to divisiveness and polarization in groups. Opinions tend to be rigidly held on to and defended.

In contrast, dialogue asks us to " suspend " our attachments to a particular point of view (opinion) so that deeper levels of listening, synthesis and meaning can evolve within a group. The result is an entirely different atmosphere. Instead of everyone trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong, the group is involved in trying to see a deeper meaning behind the various opinions expressed. Individual differences are acknowledged and respected. What emerges is a larger, expanded perspective for all -- what Bohm called an " impersonal fellowship, " a term he took from the work of Patrick De Mare's Koinonia .

Dialogue informs and builds alignment without the need to pursue a specific outcome. Bohm often spoke of being struck by stories of hunter-gatherer tribes that came together frequently to talk without any agenda. In their day-to day activities everyone knew what to do, what decisions to make. Bohm believed that it was during these seemingly aimless talks, that individual members of the groups became informed by the shared meaning they developed. Their alignment was a natural outgrowth of the shared meaning they created. In refining the application of dialogue for the business environment, we seek to create a modern-day equivalent.



Thought has created a lot of good things. It is a very powerful instrument, but if we don't notice how it works, it can also do great harm.
-- David Bohm, Changing Consciousness , 1992

Bohm proposed that we live in a holographic universe. Every part of the universe both contains and contributes to the whole. If one part is affected by something (some change), it affects the whole and vice versa. Thus, we live in a relational world where the individual impacts the collective and the collective impacts the individual. The difficulty is that our thinking causes us to behave as though the opposite were true: that we live in a fragmented world where individual parts are separate from each other. Our thinking process works against our ability to perceive the interconnections and the whole.

An organizational example may help to further illustrate this. Several members of a cross-departmental team made assumptions around their input to a business plan. Because they didn't see their input as having real impact, they didn't put much effort into making it accurate. The head of the department, in contrast, took the data very seriously and was going to use it as the foundation for an important proposal she was to make to the board of directors. The discrepancy between her and the team members was discovered in a dialogue session the afternoon before it was to be presented. Had the department head made the presentation as it stood, she would have locked the department into parameters not in its best interest. The group was shocked to see the results its incoherent thinking could have produced if not brought to light. We have seen many such examples in our work with groups.

Bohm offers dialogue as a means to uncover and correct incoherence. By pooling our individual perspectives in an environment of non-judgment, a larger view of reality becomes possible. We can start to perceive the necessary linkages between our actions and the results we get. Through dialogue we can participate in collective thinking. We no longer have to take actions based on limited understanding.



The " technology " of dialogue as we have conceived it for organizational settings consists of four main skill components we call building blocks and a set of guidelines. We will first describe these skills and guidelines and then describe how they work to enhance the day-to-day functioning of a group and lead to a transformation of its culture.

Building Blocks

The building blocks involve learning a new way of being together and of interacting. They involve skills that overlap and interweave in various ways. Often for one to develop, the others need to be practiced.

Suspension of Judgment. Because our normal way of thinking divides things up and creates what seem like ultimate " truths ", it is difficult for us to stay open to new and alternative views of reality. Our egos become identified with how we think things are. We find ourselves defending our positions against those of others. We close ourselves off from learning and do harm to our personal relationships. We can get into heated battles about who's right and who's wrong.

When we learn to " suspend judgment " we are able to see others' points of views. We are able to hold our positions "lightly " as though they were suspended in front of us for further consideration. It is not that we eliminate our judgments and opinions -- this would be impossible even if we tried. In dialogue we become more open to other ways of viewing the same thing. Later, we may discover whether our original perspective is still acceptable or needs to be expanded or changed.

Suspending judgment in this way is the key to building a climate of trust and safety. As others learn that they will not be " judged " wrong for having their opinions, they feel free to express themselves fully. The atmosphere becomes increasingly open and truthful.

Identification of Assumptions. The opinions and judgments we hold are usually based upon layers of assumptions, inferences, and generalizations. When we do not look at the underlying belief system behind our judgments, we all make important decisions that lead to disappointing results. Unable to figure out why we don't get the results we want, we may try adjusting our actions (based on the same unexamined assumption set) and still not get the results that we want.

It is only when we are willing to peel away the layers of assumptions, that we can see what might be giving us trouble: some incomplete or " incoherent " thought.

By learning how to identify our assumptions, we are better able to explore differences with others. We can build common ground and consensus, getting to the bottom of core misunderstandings and differences. We have found assumption identification to be extremely useful in understanding and working with diversity and conflict in groups.

Listening. Listening is critical to our ability to dialogue. Of the communication skills most often taught in schools: reading, writing, speaking, and listening; listening usually gets short shrift. For this reason, it is often overlooked and taken for granted. In this skill area we focus on how the way we listen impacts how well we learn and how effective we are in building quality relationships. Going far beyond active listening techniques, we focus on developing our capacity to stay present and open to the meaning arising at both the individual and collective levels. Bohm likens the mind to a quickly turning wheel. It is only when we slow it down that we can perceive the individual spokes. We bring attention to slowing our pace down so that we can listen and perceive at ever more subtle levels (this goes hand-in-hand with inquiry and reflection). We also work on over coming typical blocks in our ability to listen attentively and to stay present.

Inquiry and Reflection. It is through the process of inquiry and reflection that we dig deeply into matters that concern us and create breakthroughs in our ability to solve problems.

Our problems cannot be solved at the same level at which they were created.
-- Einstein

By learning how to ask questions that lead to new levels of understanding, we accelerate our collective learning. We gain greater awareness of our own and other's thinking processes and the issues that separate and unite us. By learning how to work with silence and slow down the rate of conversation, we are better able to identify reactive patterns and generate new ideas. It is this aspect of dialogue that can lead to what Bohm calls a more " subtle state of mind " -- leading to a perception of common ground and a sensitivity to the subtle meanings around us.



Each time a group comes together to dialogue they commit to a common set of guidelines. These can be thought of as norms. As they are practiced over time, they become integrated at a tacit level of understanding. As the group matures, they may no longer be explicitly necessary (except as reminders).

A good way of introducing the guidelines is to first provide a demonstration. This is probably due to the natural way we learn to communicate -- through the modeling we receive as children. We have found a short video presentation to be effective. It gives groups a " feel " of dialogue before they try it. After a demonstration the group can then be asked " What makes this different from other forms of conversation? " By generating the guidelines themselves, the group can take ownership of them.

Essential guidelines for dialogue include:

  • Listening and speaking without judgment

  • Acknowledgment of each speaker

  • Respect for differences

  • Role and status suspension

  • Balancing inquiry and advocacy

  • Avoidance of cross-talk

  • A focus on learning

  • Seeking the next level of understanding

  • Releasing the need for specific outcomes

  • Speaking when " moved "



Through the practice of dialogue, community is created and organizational culture transformed in three ways: behaviorally, experientially, and attitudinally.

Behavioral Transformation

Through ongoing practice with dialogue, participants learn how to be with each other differently. They practice skills and guidelines that encourage new norms. The more often they are practiced, the more dialogical communication is used beyond the practice sessions -- leading to the actual state of community.

Experiential Transformation

Dialogue sets up the conditions of community. While groups new to dialogue will not be in full community when they first start out, the atmosphere induced by dialogue has the " experiential feel " of community. Individuals, thus begin to pick up at a tacit level what a culture based on community principles feels like. They incorporate it at an intuitive level.

Attitudinal Transformation

As group members experience the effects of dialogue, a profound shift takes place at the belief and attitude level. This comes about as a byproduct of the incorporation of new modes of behavior and learning the " feel " of what being in community is like. Attitudes of rigid individualism give way to attitudes of collaboration and partnership. Beliefs strengthen around the " value of the group as a whole. "



We can think of dialogue as though it were a practice field (a term coined by Senge) for building community. Once a group has had the initial introduction to dialogue's building blocks and guidelines, it is ready to begin. The more often the group comes together in dialogue, the faster it learns how to create and sustain itself in community.

Each group will have various ways and times of coming together for meetings. What is most essential at this beginning stage is that a regular routine be established according to the normal operation of the group. For example, if a group typically meets every other Monday for two hours, they might decide to dialogue for one hour before the start of these meetings.

It is also important that the head of the group and/or organization be aware of and be supportive of the transformative potential inherent in the process. A leader who is not willing to let go of position, rank and authority during the sessions will stymie and undermine the building of community. Ultimately, the leader will need to be able to support the vision of " shared leadership " both during and outside of the sessions, if community is to be built and sustained.

While the process of dialogue is being practiced during these routine times, the content can shift to reflect a group's most important issues. In a newly forming group, for instance, the content might be around the group's mission or purpose. In an already established group, the content might reflect the group's most pressing problems. By allowing this shifting of content, dialogue can enhance the group's functioning in several vital areas such as: decision making, problem solving, conflict work, strategic planning, issues of diversity, and organizational learning. These could also be considered practice fields that help integrate the dialogue process into day-to-day operations.

Practice Fields

Figure 1. Practice Fields

It is critical that the content be relevant to real group needs. If the group does not see how dialogue improves their day-to-day operations, they may not be able to sustain the kind of enthusiasm and interest needed for ongoing practice to occur.

Over time, the group will learn to move between dialogue and discussion based meetings -- using both to their particular advantage. Typically, a group will set aside time for dialogue, followed by discussion (for decision-making purposes).

With practice, a change in consciousness occurs. Group members develop new attitudes about how to be and interact together These usually include a greater honoring of individual differences, an increased sensitivity and caring for the group as a whole and individual members, and higher priority placed on trust and open communications. Eventually, these new attitudes lead to a transformation in the entire organizational culture. Group members act in the spirit of community both inside and outside the dialogue sessions.



Let's take a look at how dialogue might be integrated into a typical problem-solving cycle. In Figure 2 we depict the basic problem-solving stages groups go through: problems are identified, solutions generated and chosen, and actions taken.

Typical Problem-Solving Stages

Figure 2. Typical Problem-Solving Stages

First, a problem is identified in or out of a meeting context. Next, if the problem is important enough, a meeting is usually called to generate solutions and to make a decision. Once the decision is final, actions are taken to solve it. While this seems like a fairly straightforward approach to problem solving, it can be fraught with difficulties. A few common examples are:

  • The problem is identified late and is now a crisis.

  • The problem is not well understood; everyone solves a different problem.

  • Not enough time is taken to generate a complete or lasting solution

  • There is a lack of commitment and alignment around the action -- the implementers did not participate in the solution and may not understand it fully.

  • Little learning occurs around what caused the problem in the first place, and the problem reappears.

If we assume that dialogue is being practiced routinely in a group, some of these difficulties diminish. Below, we spell out exactly how this happens at each stage. Although we start out with problem identification and end up with action, we do not wish to imply that dialogue always works in such a linear fashion. In any one session, for instance, several issues or problems in various stages may come into play. We describe the process in a step-by-step manner to show the general way that dialogue enhances problem solving.

Problem Identification. First, when dialogue takes place at regular intervals, emerging issues can be grasped quickly by all members. It becomes a kind of early warning device for the group. At the problem identification stage, dialogue can also help the group in sorting out which issues or problems are the most pressing for the group as a whole. Precious meeting time can be saved as the group learns to prioritize together.

Generation of Solutions and Decision Making. Next, as the group moves on to the solution generation and decision stage, dialogue can help to clarify the exact nature or definition of the problem (so the same problem is being solved by everyone), contribute to generation of a fuller solution set before decisions are made, and lead to insight on the implications of specific solutions.

Taking Action. Finally, as action is taken, members are more likely to be fully aligned and committed. They will all have had a part in identifying, sorting, clarifying, generating and reflecting on solutions. As results become available, dialogue can also serve as a feedback loop, alerting members to the fit between results and action. In this way organizational learning prevents problems from reappearing.

As groups progress in their ability to use dialogue, they will move to higher, more effective levels of problem-solving capability. They will begin to develop greater sophistication in their ability to identify and prioritize emergent issues, and their ability to reflect on and anticipate future conditions will continually expand. Such groups learn and operate on an ever-increasing, upward spiral of team effectiveness.



We've already spoken of the ways in which dialogue encourages community and organizational transformation. Let's look more specifically at what happens in groups practicing dialogue as they move through the various stages of group development. We will use M. Scott Peck's stage model of community.


Dialogue sets up the conditions of community. In so doing it helps create the safety necessary for a high level of openness and disclosure right from the beginning. This can help give members a reference point for community. While members may still deny having major differences (a hallmark of pseudo-community), with dialogue they may be able to go very deeply into sensitive issues.


Dialogue helps make the inevitable chaos stage seem not so " out-of-control " and fearful. As strongly held differences begin to be felt and disclosed, judgment is suspended, assumptions identified, all views expressed and listened to. As group members continue to dialogue their way through this stage, something often shifts: a new alternative may unfold; attitudes toward group differences that felt irreconcilable begin to dissipate; chaos becomes a source of creativity instead of something to avoid.


Emptying is present right from the start of new dialogue groups and is continually deepening during each subsequent dialogue. Individual members agree from the beginning to suspend rigidly held positions. If they do not, there can be no dialogue.

Emptying can also be about healing. Groups often find it painful to move on to new ways of operating. For change to take place, people have to mourn what they are giving up. Dialogue helps by allowing emotions to be shared around the pain of letting old ways die. This speeds the ability of group members to move on and assures that difficult emotions are expressed in a timely manner and not allowed to fester.


Through the ongoing practice of dialogue, groups learn to renew their visions and purposes for being together and to mindfully surface emerging issues and problems. Because dialogue is meant to be an ongoing practice, it is an ideal medium for maintaining a fluid and growing state of community.



We began our work with dialogue in hopes that it would allow us to work at deeper, more transformative levels with our clients; that by helping groups and organizations think and communicate differently, we could help them create lasting change within their cultures. We have not been disappointed.

David Bohm maintained that if we could become conscious of our thinking process we might be able to create a different kind of culture, one based on a holographic view of the universe. Such a culture would bridge the needs of the individual and the collective leading to increasingly deeper levels of community and adaptation to the environment. Two important challenges for us have been how to best facilitate people's ability to participate in dialogue and then how to help them continue the practice and experience all of the possible ways it can enhance the group.

Through introducing groups to the building blocks and guidelines and by encouraging them to continue in their practice of dialogue, we are beginning to observe enhanced functioning in practical, day-to-day ways. We are also observing changes taking place in the cultures of these groups. There are signs that dialogue has a ripple effect within organizations in which it is introduced. In other words, it can become contagious.

We conclude with two case examples. These are taken from our follow-up work with two different groups:

The first example involves a cross-functional team of seventeen managers in a sizable public agency. A two-a half-day training seminar was followed by four sessions that we facilitated -- all over a three-month period. Team members practiced on their own for an additional six-month period. Over the course of the nine months they experienced three notable changes.

  • They became aware of the profound impact their assumptions had on the results they obtained.

  • They were able to catch emerging interpersonal issues and problems before they became full-blown personnel " crises. "

  • They felt a sense of community within the group that they characterized as increased respect, trust, and caring.

The second example involves a human resources group in a large, successful and progressive company. They were introduced to dialogue as part of a three-day retreat and planning meeting. The process was first used to identify assumptions pertinent to planning, then to gain a better understanding of the group's collective challenges and priorities. When they returned to their day-to day activities, they continued to use the guidelines and building blocks in their meetings and their personal communications. As a result, they report they are able to work effectively in their current environment of almost daily organizational change. As the pace quickens around structural change, they are able to interact collaboratively and are able to stay focused on their goals.

For David Bohm, the purpose of dialogue was to consciously create cultures more in line with a relational, holographic universe. While Bohm, together with other new science theoreticians, has provided us with models, the hands-on work of organizational transformation remains. We believe that through the practice of dialogue, the fear of the unknown can become less paralyzing. Dialogue can provide us with a clearer pathway to making the organizational changes we so desire.

by Glenna Gerard & Linda Teurfs

The Business Transformation Book Café is a project of Vision Nest Publishing
Last updated by webmaster, April 23, 1997 .