Review: David Bohm’s On Dialogue
For over 20 years, my work has centered around the thoughts and teachings David Bohm shared and wrote about in his book On Dialogue, where David Bohm clearly lays out the path for authentic leadership and collaboration for organizations.
First, let’s start with a brief introduction to Dr. David Bohm himself:
Dr. David Bohm was born in 1917 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 18 miles southwest of Scranton. His Hungarian Jewish immigrant father, a furniture store owner, was Bohm’s primary caregiver; so, as Bohm grew up, he learned the family business; and when it was time for college, Bohm attended Pennsylvania State College (now Pennsylvania State University), eventually over time, landing at the University of California, Berkeley where he obtained his doctorate in theoretical physics. While Dr. Bohm is best known as a theoretical physicist, he had keen interest in subjects “considered outside the purview of traditional science” like the nature of thought and consciousness.
Considered by Albert Einstein to be his “spiritual son”, Bohm is acknowledged today as “one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century,” contributing “unorthodox ideas to quantum theory, neuropsychology and the philosophy of the mind.”
For those of you who may not be familiar with On Dialogue David Bohm, let me share with you some of the cliff notes, starting with what Dr. Bohm meant by Dialogue, in his own words:
Dialogue is a “stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ that holds people and societies together.”
In short, Bohm considered Dialogue as a free flow of meaning between people in communication where an attempt is made to reach a common understanding.
And how do we attempt this? Through listening; and in playing an active role in listening, slow down the process of thought.
When I first read what has now become Bohm’s infamous little book, I was struck by how he talked about creating an empty space with no agenda or program. This of course is something that feels quite foreign to most organizations because it comes with the mindset that simply talking doesn’t get us anywhere, and if we are not committed to accomplishing anything, then we cannot be successful or competitive in the marketplace.
Yet Bohm offers a different perspective—a perspective that involves creating an opportunity where we listen to all of the opinions in the room. “And if nothing seems to get done…the process of Dialogue is still going to affect us at a much deeper level…simply by listening to all the opinions.” Doing so with the intention to fully understand another’s view “will bring us together” for it is the “defense of opinions” that separates people.
The thing I have observed about listening is that most of us don’t really listen to one another. From Steven Covey’s perspective, we listen with the intent to reply. From David Bohm’s point of view, we listen to win. Dialogue creates a space where there are no winners or losers—allowing people with diverse perspectives to discuss topics that are important to them where all parties feel safe and respected no matter how great their differences or point of view. It is possible for people who strongly disagree with one another’s views to still have an opportunity to learn from one another without feeling forced to either protect or change their opinions. In short, Dialogue creates a space of psychological safety—where you can break down self-imposed barriers to be able to authentically show up and employ yourself without fear of negative consequences to self-image, position or career. This psychological safety is essential, and from Google’s perspective, “the critical differentiator between consistently successful teams and others.” Bohm’s view was that if people listen to one another in a way that encourages all opinions to be heard, and “would do that in government or in business or internationally, our society would all work differently”; and my assumption is that he meant for the better.
“But then, that requires sensitivity—a certain way of knowing how to come in and how not to not come in, noticing subtle cues…and your response to them…what’s happening inside of you, what’s happening in the group” being sensitive to the meaning (or lack of it).
In On Dialogue, David Bohm talks a lot about meaning. Why? Because meaning holds everything together; it is the “cement”, the bond.
From the works of Viktor Frankl, “to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. This meaning is unique and specific and can only be fulfilled by him alone. What matters is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” It is indeed this very search that defines our humanity—so much so that when this deep need for meaning goes unmet, our lives come to feel empty and unfulfilling. So, it’s no surprise, perhaps, given that Bohm was a quantum physicist that Dialogue is based on five essential questions of existence:
Who am I?
Where do I come from?
Why am I here?
What can I do?
What should I do?
When we can’t discover the answers to these fundamental questions, we find ourselves in a “crisis of meaning.” Meaning has to be part of life because we need to make sense of our existence.
And David Bohm felt strongly that there is one thing blocking our sensitivity to meaning: defending assumptions and opinions.
On Dialogue teaches us that meaning is flowing. In other words, it is not a static process. This is why David Bohm refers to it as “cement” or “glue.” In sharing meaning with one another, it flows among us and “holds the group together. Everybody becomes sensitive to all the nuances going around and not merely to what is happening in his own mind” with his or her own thoughts. “From this forms a meaning which is shared. And that way, we can talk together coherently and think together.” Gosh, imagine what that could do for your team or business over and above a culture of psychological safety.
With all of Bohm’s works, I find I need to read and re-read some of the passages. His writing is not for the light of heart. After all, he is a quantum scientist…and I am not! But if there is just one thing that is abundantly clear from Bohm’s On Dialogue, it is that the biggest thing that gets in the way of Dialogue is holding on to our assumptions, judgements and opinions and defending them. It is when we become attached to these ideas that we become personally identified with them. This is true for the collective as well. Similar to group think, identifying collectively with a certain mindset or opinion not only sabotages collaboration, it creates an environment where people cannot authentically listen and lead.
And so now we have come full circle. When you are attached to a certain assumption or hold a fixed mindset and defend it, “the main difficulty is that we cannot listen properly to somebody else’s opinion because we are resisting it.” We don’t really want to hear it; and so we shut down, creating barriers between us.
When we defend, however—and it happens to all of us, me included—Dialogue is not suggesting that you judge yourself for defending your opinion; it’s rather about noticing when you are defending. Because we will defend. We will judge. We will have our biases—it’s the brain’s way of protecting us. The practice is to be “sensitive to that that condemns and judges, and so forth…looking at all the opinions and assumptions and let them surface…because assumptions are powerful; and we are not usually aware of them.” By suspending our assumptions—hanging them out in front so you and others can see and experience them—we can more fully understand one another and from that understanding, derive meaning—the bond that deeply connects us.
At the beginning of this post, I suggested that Bohm’s On Dialogue lays a path for authentic leadership and collaboration. Here are some of the stepping stones Bohm addresses:
Listening is more important than speaking. Listen to fully understand.
When we actively participate in listening, we slow down the process of thought.
In slowing down the process of thought, we enhance our ability to observe and sense what is happening inside of us and within the collective.
Observing and sensing makes us more sensitive to the shared meaning that is emerging.
In being more sensitive, we more consistently notice our opinions, assumptions and judgements—not to let them go—but to instead suspend them for all to see. This requires vulnerability. Vulnerability demands psychological safety.
In suspending, we more fully see and value one another and from that deeper understanding, co-create the glue that binds us.
I’ve been studying Bohm’s works for more than two decades and have read On Dialogue more times than I can count. Each time I pick up the book, I resonate at deeper levels and learn something new, as I continue my journey to seek for deeper meaning in my business, relationships and life.
The most significant thing I can share about my experience with the book and Bohm’s further works is that Dialogue has become so much more for me than an approach to communication and breaking down barriers through which we give rise to meaning and connection. What Dialogue has become for me is a way of being, based on quantum physics, underpinned by a set of principles—an opportunity to explore the deeper layers of what is meaningful and valuable through deeper listening and more open communication.
And while there is no one answer to the world’s problems, “the important point is not the answer. Just as in Dialogue, the important point is also not the particular opinions—but rather the softening up, the opening up, of the mind, and looking at all thoughts, views and ideas.”
If there is some sort of spread of that attitude, it will most certainly serve us well.