Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The True Meaning of Dialogue

A new kind of mind thus beings to come into being which is based on the development of a common meaning that is constantly transforming in the process of the dialogue. ~ David Bohm

Recently, I was reading Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership by Jacob Jaworski. In Chapter 16, Dialogue: The Power of Collective Thinking, Jaworksi refers to the work of David Bohm, a quantum physicist, who distinguishes between conversations, or discussion, and the true meaning of dialogue. Jaworski’s examples of collective leadership involve groups of people engaging in dialogue to generate understanding. He points to the power of such phenomena in transforming participants. These experiences reaffirm the social constructivists’ view that people do not learn in isolation, but instead,
learn collaboratively.  

Defining Dialogue
Bohm suggests that “thought is largely a collective phenomenon, made possible only through culture and communication. Human conversations arise out of and influence an ocean of cultural and transpersonal meanings in which we live our lives, and this process he called dialogue.” (from the Co-Intelligence Institute)
True dialogue, according to Bohm, takes place when people come together participate in a “shared exploration towards greater understanding.” As well, John Adams stresses the importance of listening: “Dialogue is people truly listening to people truly speaking.”
Educators are skilled in knowing what constitutes good speakers and good listeners. Saskatchewan Education’s 2001 publication, Classroom Curriculum Connections: A Teacher’s Handbook for Personal-Professional Growth provides guidelines for teachers engaging in collegial dialogue (pp. 68-74). And the emphasis on good communication skills is evident in the English Language Arts curriculum of Saskatchewan which has devoted learning outcomes to both speaking and listening in all grade levels.

Speech Bubble by Marc Walthieu cc

Dialogue in Distance Learning
Distance educators can create this type of dialogue in the online environment when they become facilitators of both informal and formal conversations. Participants need a space in which they feel trust in order to engage in meaningful dialogue.
Alfred P. Rovai’s article, Facilitating online discussions effectively , suggests the following design strategies to help foster such an environment:
1.   Develop expectations or “ground rules” at the beginning of the course. Promote the importance of differing viewpoints.
2.   Provide opportunities for socio-emotional discussions. These conversations can help create a community of trust, which will lead to more open dialogue.
3.   Create opportunities for both authentic content-oriented discussions and task-oriented discussions.  
4.   Choose discussion topics that allow learners draw on their own experiences and backgrounds. By openly sharing multiple perspectives on a topic, a dialogue similar to Bohm’s model can be generated.

Facilitating Dialogue
Rovai also suggests that the facilitator's role is a balancing act: he or she must develop a strong social presence in the course, while at the same time avoiding becoming the center of discussion. Instead, the emphasis should be on student-to-student interactions.
The facilitator should encouraging passive participants to enter into the dialogue which can help make the dialogue more equitable. One of the ways to deter a few participants from taking over the conversation is to divide larger classes into smaller groups. Rovai  also suggests that at least 8-10 participants are needed to promote good interactions.
Many online participants, including my online classmates, enjoy the ability to skim through posts, pausing to reflect or contribute to an idea when they connect to the topic. In this respect, the chance of one or two people dominating the conversation is less likely to happen in distance learning.   
Some of the thoughts shared about the value of the online environment and learning through discussion, conversation, and dialogue is shared in this summary video created by student, Marc Gobeil:

With the multitude of web-based technologies available to educators, communication in distance courses has never been easier. And in a world where social media has changed the nature of communication and collaborating, teaching the skills of open, respectful dialogue, whether face-to-face or digitally has never been more important.


  1. How neat that you worked in Marc Goebeil's summary video into your reflections on the importance of read discussion/dialogue! I do think we have had an experience and a group that conducted real discussions in a way that respected each other, and also offered opportunities for all of us to participate and grow. Nice! And one of the reasons the group came together was because participants (I'm thinking of you here, Jade) made a particular effort to not only connect with the content, but to deliberately be a catalyst in getting everyone to connect with each other.

    I'm a fan of Rovai -- some of his other work on developing and validating a Classroom Community Scale has been important to my own research, and I think he has one of the clearest voices in our field.

    One of the hardest things to do -- maybe impossible to "do" but possible to hope for -- os to make sure people actually do listen to each other. So often groups come together and talk a lot, but right past each other, because everyone is talking but nobody is listening. It's important to promote listening, and even practice it, in online environments. We know a lot about active listening from other environments, and I think it has a lot to teach us about how we can operate in online environments.

  2. I hear ya ;)
    At the Leadership Workshop hosted by the U of S in May, I heard the expression "dueling monologues" for the first time.
    Psychology Today offers different articles on the art of listening: