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Finding a Shared Meaning, Reflections on Dialogue, Part II

An interview with Linda Teurfs by Jeanne Weiler

Tower DovesIn 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 II of the interview is reproduced below. 
For Part I, click here

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:  How does dialogue differ from group therapy or a conversation between any group of people? 

L:  In group therapy, the intention is personal growth.  In dialogue personal growth may happen as a result of my simply sharing myself with you, and your sharing yourself with me.  I may come away expanded personally in my own understanding of myself.  The main intent in dialogue, however, is not personal growth.  It is to learn who we are as a collective and to develop collective understanding.

The Twelve-Step Programs, such as those found in AA, are similar to dialogue.  There is a suspension of judgment and people share at a very deep level.  That’s about the only place in society today that, in a formal way, one can participate in anything close to a dialogue.

J:  It seems to be healing for the individual as well as the group.

L:  It’s very healing.  We are used to having relationships, one-to-one relationships; we’re used to being in the family unit; we may have groups of friends, but we really don’t have collective forums for learning how to be together in any way other than the small, one-to-one relationships.  We don’t have any experience of being in community.  Dialogue is about seeing our personal issues as part of the larger community in which we take part.  Patrick de Maré, a British clinical therapist, likens dialogue to social therapy.

J:  For you to solve your own thing, you also need to solve your relationship with everyone.  In a group there are solutions.

L:  That’s right.  Society in the West is hierarchical.  In dialogue, our relationship is one of equals.  We are able to examine our cultural assumptions underlying how we operate collectively.  We can remedy the abuses caused by the power of inequality and hierarchy.  When I think you are better than I am because you are in a higher role than I am, I get resentful.  I build up hatred.  I build up all kinds of things.  In dialogue, we are able to step back and examine a lot of what Bohm calls the cultural “incoherences” about the way we are together.  Then we take the shared understanding out and it transforms us. Roles get in the way.

J:  Dialogue is helpful in this case because everyone in the group can receive feedback from everyone else.  The feedback opens the members of the group to a deeper communication beyond the cultural points of separation. The shared guidelines of dialogue seem to help the group to work together.  Is that right?

L:  Yes.  Dialogue creates a double loop.  We learn techniques which help us dialogue and this creates a kind of culture.  As we dialogue, we examine how we are in the culture outside the dialogue.  In this way, we can transform our relationships and the external culture.

J:  I can see how that could have an effect on people of different cultures coming together.  When they get together in dialogue, they create a culture among themselves, because they have a shared meaning.  That could be useful.

L:  Absolutely.  Dialogue can be useful in handling issues of diversity.  Within organizations today, many issues revolve around diversity.  Diversity is about learning to handle conflicts and about communicating with understanding and sensitivity.  Dialogue is perfect because it provides a field in which people can explore and understand their differences.  They also learn some skills which can help them outside the dialogue.

J:  You work with groups of people to teach them to work together.  Do all dialogues work?  What do you do when a dialogue falls apart and turns into an argument, or does that ever happen?

L:  Sometimes a group might fall back into a discussion.  Someone becomes attached to his opinion and unconsciously starts to stand his ground.  At any time during the dialogue, someone can say, “It seems you are very attached to your opinion.  Is this true?” Or if the group seems to be falling into discussion, someone might ask to have a moment of silence.  This slows the group down and usually helps them to stay in dialogue.

After an hour-long dialogue, we allow a ten to twenty-minute period for reflection on the dialogue.  During this reflection period, we ask questions like “Did this feel like dialogue?”  “Did anyone notice if there were times in this session together that we weren’t dialoguing?”  “And why was that so?”  “What happened?”  So we learn as a group how to dialogue as we go along, recognizing that there will be times that we may fall out of it.

At any time very intense personal and emotional matters might arise.  Dialogue might feel like it is falling apart.  Someone might start yelling because he or she is angry.  We are beginning to explore ways in which we can work with the emotional states that certain conflicts bring by taking the people who are in conflict into the center of the dialogue circle.  We allow them to have the conflict.  We learn about and support each side.  Then we go back into the dialogue and search for the larger meaning of the conflict.  “What was the argument all about and what was its implicit meaning for the whole group?”  We have found that to be a very powerful way of taking what could have been a yelling match and allowing it to come back into meaning by focusing on it.

J:  It must help all people participating, not only the ones who are in the conflict.

L:  Oh, it does.  Usually what happens is that everyone comes to an understanding of both sides of the argument, because we all have both sides within us.  It is not about winning; it’s about learning.

J:  What is the fundamental purpose of dialogue groups?

L:  The purpose is the collective meaning which is created.  We suggest that dialogue can be used for transforming the culture within an organization or a group.  In organizational settings, it can be difficult to convince executives and managers that they should take the time necessary to dialogue.  In a busy day, who has an hour or two to have free-flowing conversation with no purpose?  It sounds terrible; the minute you say “no purpose,” we all ask, “Why are we doing this?”  In Western culture, if we don’t have an outcome, my God, what are we doing?  The fact that we don’t have an agenda doesn’t mean that the dialogue doesn’t have a purpose.  What top managers want to do right now is to create cultures, environments, climates within their organizations that empower people.  Dialogue is extremely empowering.

I recognized that the only way that you are going to make change in an organization is through some ongoing process.  Dialogue does this by working at the behavioral and attitudinal level.  It is ongoing, so as people do it, they are transformed over time.

First there must be an awareness of the need to change.  Many organizations are not at that level where they know they need to make changes.  Those organizations which are aware that their culture isn’t working, that it’s win/lose-oriented and destructive of their employees’ morale and right livelihood, are looking for something.  They might try skills training or team building.  Just as I was finding, this might be useful, but because it is not ongoing, the skills are not practiced and integrated.  If you really want to change the culture in an organization, you have to combine skills with belief and attitude changes.  You can only do this through a process approach, through recognizing over and over again that something is not working in our collective behavior.  We are all social creatures.  We do not form strongly held beliefs and attitudes alone.  Usually they were handed down to us through the culture, so if we examine our cultural beliefs and assumptions together, we have a much greater possibility of changing them.  That’s the magic of dialogue.

J:  That’s beautiful.  What, then, is the difference between dialogue and conflict resolution?

L:  Conflict resolution, the traditional model, is where you look at both sides.  It is discussion- or debate-oriented, more win/lose-oriented.  I am trying to convince you I’m right, and you’re trying to convince me you’re right.  It is pitting two fixed positions against the other with a mediator.  The mediator tries to let both sides fully disclose their position so the common ground is worked out.  Unfortunately, what happens is that a dependency on the mediator develops.  For a common ground to be a lasting solution, the members need to do what the mediator is doing.  That may take a little bit longer, so that is why people will use an outside mediator.

J:  I can see how dialogue would be a technique that gives more opportunities to grow in real communication and understanding of others.  At the same time, it can create new ways of being together.  Does dialogue have any connection with democracy?

L:  Yes, it has.  A concept related to dialogue, coined by Arnold Mindell, a Jungian analyst, is called “deep democracy.”  Deep democracy is about allowing each of a group’s parts to be expressed.  Until that happens, we have an exclusive understanding or agreement.  This means we are not including some role or some part of the whole.  As long as those factions are not included, we do not have a holistic solution.  That is why the world is still so fragmented.  Dialogue may take longer, but it develops deep democracy, which is a more lasting approach to building political and social consensus.  It is all inclusive.

The other notion about deep democracy is that it is in line with Bohm’s idea of a holographic universe.  You realize that each individual person represents the whole.  You realize that while I may seem very different from you and you different from me, we are all an integral part of the whole.  All you’re doing is showing me another side of what is within me.  The notion is fascinating.  If I’m really annoyed with some aspect of you, I can then try to see how I have repressed that part of myself.

We were talking about what people do when they start to see how really different they are.  As long as they have the old notion that difference is bad, then it is hard.  If difference is bad, we don’t want to see our differences.  Our level of conversation is on the surface.  We put on a happy face and ignore our conflicts and differences.  But if I believe (through the dialogue experience) that our differences are going to help me become a more whole, more integrated person, then I start to look at them differently.  I start honoring your uniqueness.  I start to say, “Oh, that’s in me too.  I never knew that about me.  How interesting.”  And it gets me more in touch with who I am and my wholeness, which is in relationship with the group.

J:  That’s an expansive concept.

L:  It’s not an easy one to understand.  When we have been taught something is good or bad all our lives, it is the hardest thing for us to think of the bad as good.  In dialogue there really is no good or bad; it just is.

As some level we are like machines.  We have stored memories and habit patterns that are really hard to break, such as the ones that say, “This is good and this is bad.”  It can be frustrating until you realize that it is possible to make changes through a process approach such as dialogue.

J:  The process is exciting.

L:  It can be deeply satisfying if done consistently over time with the same groups.  While I’ve worked for years on my own issues, I have felt alone.  Change is hard.  When you realize that everyone is working on change together, that it is shared, it doesn’t seem so lonely.