Taking flight: the Dialogue method and Quaker practices.

In everyday life there are many ways humans communicate with one another. We have discussions based on common interests with the purpose of affirming beliefs, supporting or challenging each other. We have debates in which we aim to defend views against one and another and we have conversations for the purpose of entertainment. In Quaker meetings we also communicate through collective silence. Rarely however, David Bohm argues do we actively seek out an open dialogue with our peers in which we discuss deep topics without an agenda or dispute. According to Bohm, the human inability to discuss such topics without dispute signals a ‘pervasive incoherence in the process of human thought [which] is the essential cause of the endless crises affecting mankind’(Bohm, Factor, & Garrett, 1991, p. 1). Given the complexity of the challenges facing the world today, such as climate change, inequality, globalisation and biodiversity loss, there is a necessity to shift from individual thinking to more collective ways of knowing; the dialogue method proposes one way to achieve this goal. In this reflective post I aim to first, go deeper into the meaning and purpose of the dialogue method and second, to compare the dialogue method to Quaker practices which revolve around the experience of collective silence.

‘Dia’ and ‘logos’

The dialogue method has a long history with evidence to suggest people have been meeting in small groups to talk together since the time of hunter-gatherer societies (Bohm et al., 1991, p. 1). However, in modern Western culture the method has been marginalised in favour of more rational conversation structures such as debate. Dialogue questions the validity of purely rational thinking which does not openly acknowledge the ways our thinking is conditioned and biased through previous thoughts and cultural experiences. The root meaning of the word debate is to ‘beat down’ and the purpose of such an exchange is usually to defend one view against another. As a result, deeper inquiry and collective intelligence is not achieved. By contrast, the word dialogue is composed of ‘dia’ and ‘logos’ which together means ‘flow through’, suggesting a free flow of inquiry in which new possibilities can emerge (Isaacs, 1993, p. 24).

The dialogue method is particularly powerful in potential high-energy, conflict situations in which consensus may otherwise be sought. Seeking consensus focuses on outcomes which are the most logically acceptable to the majority by rationally limiting options. Rather than considering the underlying assumptions and patterns of thought that may have led to the disagreement in the first place, the purpose is to find a solution which all members can accept. The outcome is usually not entirely satisfactory as participants tend to hold on to their own beliefs and collective understanding is not explored. Rather than seeking consensus, dialogue looks below the surface with the aim of gaining insight into fundamental assumptions and why they arise. It requires a higher level of consciousness which is built up through the process turning in together to talk openly on topics that arise. Through the lived experience of thinking collectively in the moment, tacit knowledge may emerge. However, in order to reach this point a cooling process must take place. Participants should be supported to slow down inquiry, suspend assumptions, listen attentively and observe thought patterns more consciously within the container of the dialogue.

Quaker Practices

This is where I would like to bring in a comparison to Quaker practices. I aim to write from my own experience of attending meetings in the UK and Finland and acknowledge that my perspective may differ significantly from others from different meetings and geographical locations. According to the Quakers in Britain website, Quakerism is a denomination of Christianity which today finds meaning and value in various faiths and traditions. Quakerism is based on the belief that there is goodness or ‘light’ in all people and through this belief we may encounter something beyond our individual lived experiences. Rather than offering a creed or doctrine, Quakers try to make sense of how we should live through shared experiences and collective action. During Quaker meetings, which usually last an hour, people gather in silence with the purpose of opening oneself up to new insights and guidance. At this time anyone may share a thought or insight with the group, after which the meeting will return to silence. A process of deep listening and inquiry into oneself and the thoughts of others takes place.

Collective Silence

The practice of collective silence is also used to frame Quaker meetings for business and conflict resolution situations. As Quakers believe in equality among all people, decision making within the organisation happens collectively in events known as meetings for business. In my experience of this context, some form of agenda is already decided upon and meeting clerks take the role of dedicated facilitators who present each item on the agenda. Meeting for business’ start and end with silence, with time for silent reflection between each spoken thought. The meeting differs from both a traditional open dialogue and a Quaker meeting for worship in that participants only speak when recognised by the clerk who manages the pace and discipline of the discussion. The purpose is to reach decisions through collective discernment and similar to the dialogue process, no motions, seconds, amendments or votes are taken. The meeting is encouraged to refrain from comments which suggest argument or debate. In order to uphold the collective decision-making process, meetings take place at their own pace with the faith that no action will be taken unless unity for action is found. In this setting, often the process of reaching decisions is as important as the decisions themselves.

Taking flight

While there are some obvious differences between Quaker meetings and the dialogue method; one is faith-based and grounded in silence while the other is not. There are also some striking similarities in purpose and outcome. Isaacs uses the metaphor of a flock of birds suddenly taking flight from a tree in order to illustrate the ‘potential coordination of dialogue’ which he describes as ‘a movement all at once, a wholeness and listening together than permits individual differentiation but is still highly interconnected’(Isaacs, 1993, p. 25). In Quaker meetings I have experienced a similar sense of wholeness through collective silence in which I have felt simultaneously alone with my thoughts and supported and led by the will of the meeting. In Isaacs’ depiction of the levels and stages of dialogue, the act of suspending impulses, thoughts and judgements in order to cool inquiry, can be likened to the process of settling into the stillness and silence of meeting in which one tries to clear the mind from everyday concerns(Isaacs, 1993, p. 31).

William Isaacs: Evolution of Dialogue

In the diagram above, William Isaacs illustrates the ‘Evolution of Dialogue’ through four key stages; Instability of the Container, Instability in the Container, Inquiry in the Container and Creativity in the Container. During the middle stages of dialogue, ‘Instability in the Container’ and ‘Inquiry in the Container’, an initiatory crisis begins in which participants become aware of the incoherence of individual’s thought processes and may feel frustrated by the underlying fragmentation of the dialogue. Assumptions are openly questioned, perspectives become fluid and no solid ‘truth’ may be found. Later during the inquiry phase, conversation may begin to flow better as new insights begin to emerge. This challenging part of the dialogue can be likened to exploratory phases of a meeting for business in which a topic is considered by the group and participants raise different perspectives. While not every topic raises such deep inquiry or potential for crisis, the possibility remains present. These middle stages could also be likened to the stages of my inner dialogue when attending a Quaker meeting for worship. During the hour of silence, I often face frustration with myself as I struggle to develop coherent thoughts. It takes a while for me to settle into the stillness and often it is not until the hour is almost up that I begin to enter into a level of deeper inquiry.

Creativity in the Container

The final stage of dialogue, termed ‘Creativity in the Container’, is perhaps the most significantly similar to the experience of a Quaker meeting for worship. In this stage, the potential for new levels of awareness opens up and ‘subtle and delicate understandings may begin to emerge’(Isaacs, 1993, p. 38). A metalogue may develop in which the existing structures and relationships within the group are temporarily suspended. The content of the exchange and its underlying meaning are brought to light. In this phase, participants may find they are lost for words or that words are not able to adequately explain their experience. Isaac describes how a silence which ‘is not an empty void but one replete with richness’ may fill the room. Isaac refers to the following words by Rumi to describe this final stage of dialogue. In my experience, the poem could equally be used to describe the atmosphere that may emerge during a Quaker meeting:

Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about. – Rumi

One of the largest differences between these two contexts is perhaps the level of discussion. In the dialogue method there is ample room for replying and building on each other’s thoughts. In this way the inquiry may cover ground quickly. By contrast, during Quaker meetings, dialogue is always mediated through silence. The level of collective inquiry develops much more slowly and may not always be outwardly spoken. The purpose of Quaker meetings also differs from the dialogue method. As a form of faith group, Quaker meetings attract particular types of people interested in exploring the spiritual or religious aspect of life. Consequently, there may already be some similarities between the participants and a level of social cohesion. By contrast, the dialogue method may be utilised by a group of colleagues in a business context where hierarchies and tensions between individuals may exit. These differing contexts will influence the types of topics covered during the dialogue as well as the social relations within the group. Nevertheless, there are several similarities between the methods, including; avoidance of consensus, collective inquiry, deep listening and observation of thought patterns.

Through the course of writing this paper I have realised that personally, Quaker meeting for worship could be described as a form of dialogue with oneself in which deeper levels of personal inquiry are sought and discovered, informed by the contributions of others.

Bohm, D., Factor, D., & Garrett, P. (1991). DIALOGUE: A PROPOSAL. 8.
Isaacs, W. N. (1993). Taking Flight: Dialogue, Collective Thinking and Organisational Learning. Organisatinoal Dynamics.

2 thoughts on “Taking flight: the Dialogue method and Quaker practices.”

  1. Fascinating. Thank you. Have you discussed that diagram with your Quaker meeting?

    We seek the Good not our own will. Do people using that dialogue method also set aside ego? This is difficult!


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