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Finding a Shared Meaning, Reflections on Dialogue, Part I

An interview with Linda Teurfs by Jeanne Weiler


In 1994, Linda Teurfs was interviewed by Jeanne Weiler for Seeds.  The interview was published in Volume XI, Number 1 of Seeds, which at that time was a print-only publication.  Part I of the interview is re-produced below.  Part II will be available in the next issue of our e-zine.

At the time of the interview, Linda Teurfs, an organizational consultant specializing in team building, interpersonal communication, and leadership, had had over 17 years of experience in corporate planning, marketing, and consulting.  Her focus since 1991 had been the development and facilitation of dialogue, a group communication process based on the work of the late David Bohm.

The editors of Seeds decided to re-publish the interview on the web because of requests from a number of colleges to use it as course material in the classroom.  Dialogue has so many possible applications.  It can be useful in diversity work, organizational change efforts, visioning, problem solving, conflict resolution, community building, organizational learning, continuous process improvement and more.

J:  Linda, could give us an idea of what dialogue is?

L:  Let’s look first at the Greek roots which may be helpful in discovering the meaning of dialogue.  Dia logos means “through meaning.”  So dialogue is very much about creating meaning between us, which implies understanding.  The Greek roots of discussion, in contrast, mean “to fragment.”  For instance, the same roots are in “concussion” and “percussion,” meaning a breaking apart or fracturing.  What we do in discussion is to break things down into pieces.  You take one stand or one position and defend it rigorously.  I take another stand or position and defend that rigorously.  So we  are all kind of holding our ground and battling it out.  On the other hand, in dialogue, I might share the meaning I have about what we are talking about.
An analogy is that we create this pot of soup between us.  I might put into the pot carrots, and you might put in some chicken.  Then you might put in some peas, and we cook this soup for a while.  After we dialogue for some time, we come to share on very deep levels.  We create what David Bohm called collective meaning.  It is more holistic.  What we have begun to create is a larger picture, instead of looking at tiny pieces.  It is very much based on a systemic view of the world, a holistic view.

J:  You mentioned David Bohm.  Who was he?

L:  David Bohm was a quantum physicist by profession, who in later years began to have dialogues with Krishnamurti, the great teacher and philosopher.  They spent quite a bit of time together.  David Bohm is known for his holographic view of the Universe in which an implicate and explicate order is conceived. 

He explained, in the terms of Western scientific culture, what many spiritual people believe about the Universe.  There is a manifest and an unmanifest world.  Through dialogue, we can help make a bridge; we can help make explicit what is implicit.  Krishnamurti stimulated Bohm’s thinking about dialogue, and there are several books published on their dialogues.  In them Krishnamurti represents the spiritual viewpoint, while Bohm represents the scientific.  It is very interesting.

J:  How did you get started, then, in your work with dialogue?

L:  I’ve been an organizational consultant for about seven years.  I do a lot of work with groups: team building and communication and leadership training.  What I often find is that it is easy to make short-term improvements in how a team operates, but six months later, much of the improvement dissipates.  People go back to old patterns of interaction.  What drew me to dialogue was that it can be used in an ongoing way.  This is what makes it completely different from other processes.

J:  Would you say that this helps people communicate better?

L:  Yes.  It serves a number of purposes.  People learn better communication skills by practicing the guidelines for dialogue that we give them.  Frequent dialoguing changes the attitudes we hold about one another.  We come to respect individual differences more and to deepen our trust in each other.  Dialogue stimulates the surfacing of issues.  Often as a collective, we don’t surface personal or sensitive issues.  We don’t come together routinely to handle group maintenance.  Every group needs to handle its issues or they will come out eventually as gossip or full-blown crises.  Dialogue helps to surface things early before they become problems. 

Dialogue is also about self-facilitation.  It is based on the concept that we are all leaders and the role of the facilitator can shift.  Once a group is trained in the skills and guidelines of dialogue, the consultant doesn’t have to stay in the picture.  The group members can facilitate themselves.  All I do as a consultant is model the skills and guidelines.  Once they feel comfortable using them, they no longer need me.  They incorporate them into their own way of relating.

J:  It sounds really useful to tap the resources of the people involved.  You mentioned guidelines or skills.  What do you actually teach to facilitate dialogue?

L:  The skills are centered around four building blocks.  One is suspension of judgment.  We use a didactic model of the human thinking and communication process which shows why we get into habit patterns of speech.  The ego identifies with the assumptions we hold which are expressed by these patterns of speech.  But the habits of expressing ourselves can get us into trouble if we are identified with them.  Our communication is based on how we think.  Because we think in a fragmented way, we then talk in that way.  We are attached to our thoughts and assumptions, and then we get into trouble.  The concept of a witness is developed which allows us to suspend judgment.  The concept of the witness helps us not to be so attached to what we are saying.  Suspension of judgment is not saying that we can’t judge, because we are always going to judge.  That is how the mind works.  But we are going hold the judgment very softly, so that we can hear each other.

I am going to talk about each of the four building blocks, but you will notice how they all lead into each other.  Listening is another building block.  You can’t listen deeply, unless you hold your assumptions and your judgments loosely.  As a building block, listening is not just about listening, but is a deeper level of listening.  It’s making sure, by using certain techniques, that we have heard each other:  paying attention, focusing on the moment, not getting lost in our own head trips.  The training is about bringing awareness to these skill areas.

The next building block is about identifying one’s assumptions.  It can be thought of as peeling an onion.  Because of the way the mind works, there are different levels of understanding, and we tend to make inferences and generalizations on skimpy evidence and then assume we are right.  We don’t hear each other.  We get into problems with our communication. 

There is a wonderful technique developed by Chris Argyris from MIT called the Left-hand/Right-hand Column Technique.  People focus on what they remember about a conversation that did not go well.  They take a piece of paper and fold it in half.  On the right-hand column they write as much as they can remember of the conversation:  “He said this,” and “I said this,” and so forth.  On the left-hand column, they put what they were thinking, feeling, wanting to say, but didn’t say.  What comes out of this is quite a revelation.  Usually in the left-hand column are insults, judgments, accusations, and assumptions.  Why do we hold them back?  Usually it’s due to fear.  “I’m afraid how the other person would respond, how they would react.”  “It would be an insult.”  “The relationship would be shattered.”  What are the consequences?  The consequences are that I never clear these things up.  I get stuck.  I end up hating the person.  Really looking at the consequences gives people a lot of motivation to change.  It is a very powerful exercise.

J:  Yes, if you can lay everything on the line, you are conscious.

L:  It’s incredible.  Every time I have a misunderstanding I find I do make these mistakes.  It’s amazing all the things I was thinking that I didn’t say.  If I had just bothered to test a few of my assumptions, it probably would have cleared the whole thing up.  Of course, it is one thing to reflect on it, and another to do it at the time.  What the exercise does is to help you begin to change your belief system about the assumptions you hold.  It’s a learning process.  People learning to dialogue aren’t able to do it perfectly the first time.

J:  And the fourth building block—what is it?

L:  The final building block, inquiry and reflection, is a really important one.  It means slowing down, giving yourself time to actually take something that has been said and do two levels of reflection on it.  One is to do an inner reflection on it, to get clear what it means to you.  And that simply takes time.  The other level of reflection work is to actually come back out with a question to the other person based on your inner work.  This might take the conversation to the next level.  We can really make some incredible breakthroughs as a group, because dialogue is all about finding the next level of understanding.  You can’t do that if you are in the rut of your fixed, reactive patterns.  That is what usually happens in discussion, because you hold your ground relentlessly.  It is a circle rather than being a spiral. 

We think of dialogue as being a spiral upwards and that’s kind of where the unfolding comes in.  Again, what we are trying to do through the inquiry and reflective process—which is where real creative breakthroughs can be made—is to bring in the implicit.  We discover what’s trying to happen here between us, so we can break new ground, so we don’t keep seeing something the same old way.  We are not able to get out of the chaos unless we can put the whole thing together in a new way.

J:  It sounds very encouraging for new solutions to old problems.  Do you choose a specific topic on which to dialogue?

L:  You can come together to dialogue about only one thing, and that can be a very rich dialogue.  I’ve done many groups where there is a problem and we have dialogued about it.  Pure Bohmian dialogue would not be restricted to one topic only. 

The thing that makes a dialogue a dialogue is that we can have a subject, but we cannot have a fixed outcome.  The second you have the need for a fixed outcome, it’s not a dialogue.  The reason is that you have some manipulation of the communication process.  The implicit cannot become explicit.  We are trying to get to some decision or cover an agenda that has already been pre-established.  That’s the main distinction between dialogue and other forms of group communication.

J:  If you don’t come together to solve something, what is the purpose of dialogue—simply to experience communication?

L:  The purpose of dialogue is to create shared meaning.  A short definition of dialogue is that it helps to create a collective meaning around what is trying to happen in the present moment.

J:  Are the people who dialogue different after learning how to do it?  What do you feel would be the implications of more people being able to dialogue?

L:  One of the biggest reasons I was drawn to dialogue was that I realized its transformative value.  I don’t think people who really make an effort to dialogue can leave unchanged by it.  It’s about being who we are with each other in a totally different way.  In dialogue, we no longer come from a place of wanting to convince or inform.  We come with the intention of understanding.  This is very different.

J:  Does everyone involved have to follow the rules to dialogue?  Can you, for instance, go out and talk with anybody, even though they don’t know about dialogue?

L:  That’s a good question.  Personally, I know my experience with dialogue has changed how I interact with people.  It’s been quite useful.  But I have found that people new to dialogue can become frustrated when interacting outside their dialogue group.  Other people do not understand what the dialoguer is doing, and they respond in a way that the dialoguer does not expect.  When you understand that not everyone else knows how to dialogue, the inquiry and reflection skills can still help you personally.  They can help make your questions able to elicit the responses that lead to understanding.


For Part II of this interview see:  Finding a Shared Meaning, Reflections on Dialogue, Part II