My copy of 'Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together' is looking rather battered; it has been regularly pulled from the shelf and thrown into a bag for a read on a long flight - or simply reviewed to check a few points, or refer again to a diagram. I was introduced to the book during my Master's in Organisational Change at Ashridge and the practice of dialogue and the reflexive approach it provides to the way we think has been foundational in my work ever since.
Isaacs starts alongside David Bohm as he starts to define what dialogue is:
"Generally, we think of dialogue as "better conversation." But there is much more to it. Dialogue as I define it, is a conversation with a centre, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarisation and into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and co-ordinated power of groups of people."
"Dialogue fulfills deeper, more widespread needs than simply "getting to yes." The aim of a negotiation is to reach agreement among parties who differ. The intention of dialogue is to reach new understanding and, in doing so, to form a totally new basis from which to think and act."
Isaacs takes us through the fundamental 'capacities' or practices of dialogue: listening, respecting, suspending and voicing and links these to David Kantor's 'Four Player System' while offering gentle anecdotes and stories that help us to see the potential for dialogic practice in action.
The book brings several apparently simple models together; in addition to the Kantor system, we are offered Bohm's route to generative dialogue, Otto Scharmer's work on dialogic fields, and there there is clear advice for practitioners together with stories from the field that enable the reader to quickly integrate the work into action. There are, however, also notes of caution:
"Recall the story of the first day when we brought steelworkers and managers together. They were excited by their own progress and began to speak about forging "a single container" that could include everyone. This led people to relax and begin to reveal how they really thought and felt. One manager suggested that man-hours per ton should be reduced. The steelworkers immediately reacted, seeing this as betrayal. It meant cutting or losing jobs. Now they were not polite - they vented."
Ultimately, Isaacs points us towards the democratic potential of dialogue, "It can produce a deep shift in our understanding of power." He notes that dialogue is a leveller and can transform repressive hierarchies - and practitioners should pay attention here - the hierarchical, deeply political nature of many of our organisations can be at odds with this kind of work. And, perhaps that is why we should work with this kind of practice ever more enthusiastically. I find myself repeatedly drawn to an almost throwaway line on the final pages of the book:
"A friend of mine once described dialogue as a state out of which we are continually falling."