Conversation is the Work


  Cogito ergo sum

“Underlying many of the problems of humanity is our inability to even talk about our problems.”

[Paavo Pylkkänen]

Physicist David Bohm had the capacity to abstract what he learned from his work into the larger arena of meaningful living. His way of being in the world doesn't allow a person to avoid participating or being changed by that participation.

To read Bohm is to learn to think and talk again, and we need practice to do both. Anyone looking to improve their effectiveness in conversation would do well to pick up the short book On Dialogue, which collects the physicist's thoughts on the inclination of modern society to “break things up which are not really separate” and thus fragment the world into “selves” that are at odds with each other.

We hardly experience good conversations anymore, and when we do, we leave unaware of the process that led us to feel satisfied we had a true meeting of the minds. That's because we view conversation as the mere exchange of information where everyone is sending and some people may be receiving. Taken this way, conversation and communication in general becomes a utility but is not very useful in creating something new.

The symptoms of poor communication start with a common cause—the inability to listen. It's a widespread issue that plagues the very groups who set out to fix or improve communication. Our current state of confusion and frustration resulting from all this sending of information without listening compound the problem.

Says Bohm:

communication can lead to the creation of something new only if people are able freely to listen to each other, without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other. Each has to be interested primarily on truth and coherence, so that he is ready to drop his old ideas and intentions, and be ready to go onto something different, when it is called for.

Conveying information is a process where the screen is our own thoughts. Which is when our biases and assumptions take over and drive us to defend our position, whether it is true and coherent or not.

We approach work in the same way, using conversation as a dumb pipe rather than a tool to “work together.”

if people are to cooperate they have to be able to create something in common, something that takes shape in their mutual discussion and actions, rather than something that is conveyed from one person who acts as an authority to the others, who act as passive instruments of this authority.

In this sense, our modern way of work needs improvement because we still expect people to do their job well, often without too much input from the thinking of the person doing the work, including any moral questions of personal accountability.

Scientists are constantly engaged in a conversation with nature and with fellow human beings to discover things, test through observation, and question their hypotheses. That is how they do their work when they are willing to keep an open mind about natural phenomena as they occur rather than as they'd like them to be.

There is no time for conversation, yet it is the critical aspect of doing the work. When we're able to pay attention to our fears and mental blocks while we listen, we begin to create the space for true collaboration. We engage in true dialogue and open the door to “the stream of meaning” within and with each other.

It's valuable to distinguish dialogue, which is the exchange we have with conversation, and discussion, which has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion.” This helps us understand what happens in meetings as we analyze information.

[Discussion] really means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view, and where everybody is presenting a different one—analyzing and breaking up. That obviously has its value, but it's limited, and it will not get us very far beyond our various points of view.

Discussion is almost like a ping-pong game, where people are batting the idea back and forth and the object of the game is to win or get points for yourself. Possibly you will take up somebody else's ideas to back up your own—you may agree with some and disagree with others—but the basic point is to win the game.

In a dialogue there are no intentions to win. It's what James Carse would define an infinite game where the purpose of playing is to stay in the game to keep playing with each other. To stay with the same train of thoughts, when we view conversation as the work, we generate time by evolving ideas and building on what we create together.

Part of our trouble is that we engage in discussion, even during negotiation, instead of opening a dialogue. We hold onto our assumptions, consider some things untouchable, and miss the opportunity to think creatively because we're not open to thinking critically. Conflict starts with assumptions strongly held.

Our current need to rethink work (among many other things) calls for a deeper understanding of how our opinions are holding us back. Says Bohm:

It is important to see that the different opinions that you have are the result of past thought: all your experiences, what other people have said, and what not. That is all programmed into your memory. You may then identify with those opinions and react to defend them.

But it doesn't make sense to do this. If the opinion is right it doesn't need such a reaction. And if it is wrong, why should you defend it?

However, as we identify with our opinions we tend to experience them as “truths.” We overcome this natural tendency to marry our ideas by talking things through with others. Having a dialogue helps us change the thought process collectively. As we rarely see thought as a process, that is the first difficulty. Because thought is the place where fragmentation starts, which then creates our whole realitynations, but also communities and family.

Anyone who has ever tried to meditate knows that thought is very active. The problem is we are not aware of the process and the activity most of the time. Which leads us to believe that it reflects back to us the way things are in reality. Cogito ergo sum says the Latin philosophical proposition by René Descartes “I think, therefore I am” and so is everything else we can think into being.

On Dialogue is a book about how we all think, together, and how we can try to improve that process. The ideas are simple, but challenging to put into action.