Dialogue and The Art of Thinking Together

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Dialogue and The Art of Thinking Together

Description of the book

This book was written by William Isaacs, founder, and CEO of Dialogos (dialogue and leadership development company). It was published in 1999 and the aim of the book is, in its more than 400 pages, to show: What is dialogue? Where should we use it? More importantly, how should we use it? And even more importantly, WHY should we use it?

So Why should we learn about Dialogue?

Dialogue, if used properly, can make something amazing. You can really open your mind, change your behavior and way you look at things, look at others. You can think more clearly. ,,If you and your colleague talk about a certain topic, you will stay focused on the topic and think broadly and widely, but not carelessly. It is in with Dialogue, in a larger group that people find themselves listening more intently, thinking more clearly, and yet working much more spacious and creatively than they ordinary do.” If we focus on what Dialogue can teach us, we will be able to learn to listen more to people, understand their situation, not only what they are saying, but what they mean by it, not judge by the first look, but try to understand more.

(Story about how strong mutual respect can Dialogue make.)

Contents of the book

The book is divided into five chapters.

In the first one What is Dialogue?, you find out the meaning of the word Dialogue, some of the reason they fail, and what can you do about such situation. You will learn that Dialogue, unlike discussion which just makes you look at parts of the problems that you already know, makes you ask to consider the context in which the problem arises.

In the second chapter Building Capacity for New Behavior, the book shows you four essential behaviors required for Dialogue. You can find how to truly learn them there, by asking yourself certain questions or trying some of the practices mentioned for each one.

·        Suspending = taken-for-granted ways of operating in order to develop the capacity to “see the system” and reflect on the structures and forces that produce incoherence.

·        Respecting the ecology of relationships that develop in and around the organization -with suppliers, customers, regulators, investors, competitors, and employees.

·        Listening in order to stay present and fully participative.

·        Finding, enhancing, and strengthening the organization's central voice or story.

In the third chapter, titled Predictive Intuition, you’ll find ways of anticipating and naming the forces that can undermine any conversation. You’ll see ways that you can change that in your own actions. As well as traps that appear in interfaces between people in organizations.

In the fourth chapter, Architecture of the Invisible, you will find out about different ,,fields” of conversation (politeness, breakdown, inquiry, flow) as well as how quality of the setting or climate, in which the Dialogue occurs affects forms of the conversation. You will also find out what is, and how does the ,,container” work. And you will also find out what that the architecture of the invisible is: ,,a function of the quality of energy, experience, and aliveness that each setting gives rise to. It is determined, in each case, by a very precise set of conditions... In other words, while we may have our own visceral sense about a place, it is possible to validate our perception with others who are there.”

(Different ,,fields” of conversation)

In the last chapter, Widening the Circle, you’ll find out how Dialogue is used in certain big companies worldwide (Ford Motor Company, Shell Oil,…).

Why did I chose this book

I chose this book, because I wanted to find out more about how the Dialogue really works and what can I truly achieve by it. Since Dialogue is one of more important parts of Tiimiakatemia, I really wanted to learn, what is needed from me to fulfill it and to make me and my team more effective and open minded.

Also, this book should help me with my semester exam (,,Týmové dovednosti”). Well not just help me, but also to reach points from reading books, needed for this exam.

What did I learn from the book

,,They are not doing anything to me, it’s my set of impulses”

The book mentions a situation when somebody makes you mad. In such state thoughts come to your mind about: ,,How dare they?” and so on. But this whole thing is actually just a stream of thoughts that are triggered by a set of your impulses within you. You are causing this flow. ,,They” are not doing anything to you, it’s your own inner ecology and memories, causing this flow of anger.

What is thinking?

Book describes thinking as ,,reporting or acting out of patterns already in our memory, like a prerecorded tape, these thoughts are instantly ready for playback.”… ,,Like a tape, memory is limited. The parameters of its responses are already set. The emotions are already defined. Thus, when we face novel situations where the instincts of our memories don't apply, we don't know how to respond. Instead, we fall back on the habits that most people learn from hard experience: to protect ourselves from one another's words, actions, and behaviors. Lacking any new way to operate that might let us move beyond the false “solutions” we remember, we cling to our views and defend them as if our lives depended on it. The book tells us that we can train ourselves to do better than this, that we can learn to a new conversational spirit.

Similar thing that attached my mind was the description on how talking and thinking affect each other. ,,What we do in private does impact how we perform in public. How we think does affect how we talk. And how we talk together definitively determines our effectiveness.” … ,,By changing the way we talk, we change the way we think, not just as individuals, but all together. If we could restore our inner ecology in the ways we think, we might have an enormous impact on our worlds. In this lies some of the immense potential of dialogue.

How to treat others to try to understand (respect) them more

The book shows a great example of understanding the meaning of the words. Author says a story about how he remembers his mom, when he was little, say his name in different times. After some time the boy could already know if calling his name meant ,,I want you to do something for me” or ,,You are in big trouble.” This is something we should learn to do even with a person that we don’t know from our birth.

Also the old and simple ,,never judge by a cover” is somewhat shown in the book by a short, but real story. The story tells about the authors college, who went to pick up his daughter from school. As he arrived he saw her talking to weird looking guys in a black BMW, he immediately thought that those are drug dealers, but he didn’t listen to himself with this suggestion, he rather went to talk to them and found out they were gentle, bright and capable local volunteer firemen.

Great practice for learning to respect someone is to ,,Treat the person next to you as a teacher. What is it, that they have to teach you that you do not now know? Listening to them in this way, you discover things that might surprise you.” “Respect is, in this sense, looking for what is highest and best in a person and treating them as a mystery that you can never fully comprehend. They are a part of the whole, and, in a very particular sense, a part of us.”

Another exercise called ,,empathy walk” caught my mind. It was an exercise where you find a person that seems totally different than you (in book marked as homeless people, prostitutes, people with different racial or religious background), and you spend few hours with them. Often students, who were asked to try this, found out they have many things in common.

Why silence is so important?

,,I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen, it doesn't matter to what, whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters, or how you listen in a dialogue with yourself, to your conversation in various relationships with your intimate friends, your wife or husband. If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate, we hardly listen at all to what is being said. In that state there is no value at all. One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence, in which this whole background is in abeyance, is quiet; then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.”

Also the book shows us how what silence makes in different conversational fields. In the first one (politeness), silence is socially awkward, and people cannot withstand it for long. ,,The expectation is for action, for direction.” In the second (breakdown) field, silence makes tension, people will think that others are ,,reloading their next move.” ,,Silence here is conflictual and may seem even dangerous.” In the third (inquiry) field, silence is thoughtful, people tend to reflect and listen for new possibilities. And in the last one (flow), silence is taken as “a whole and, at times, sacred.


Author defines that ,,the set of frameworks, habits, and conditions that compel people to act as they do” as structure. These structures have effect on how we think and act. We can also, by understating how structures of others guide them, predict the way they will tend to behave. The ability to perceive such structures is called ,,predictive intuition”.

What is Container? What is it for?

,,A container is a vessel, a setting in which the intensities of human activity can safely emerge. The active experience of people listening, respecting one another, suspending their judgments, and speaking their own voice are four key aspects of the container for dialogue.”

The goal of a container is that, when the pressure (from bringing differences out) arises, container can hold the ,,fire of creation” and people in it won’t feel that they will get ,,burned”, but rather included and safe. When container cannot hold it people will tend to try to avoid issues, blame one another, resist what is happening.

,,One cannot “outthink” a crisis; one has to go through it.”

,,When people seek to engage in dialogue, this first phase of experience generally demonstrates that they cannot get to the level of shared meaning as readily as they might have hoped. Particularly for action-oriented people, it is quite frustrating to realize that we simply cannot make dialogue happen. This experience often leads to the first of a series of crises that seem necessary in developing a deeper space for dialogue. A crisis is a turning point, distinguishing all that has come before from all that comes after. I think of a crisis in dialogue as a gateway to deeper silence and deeper listening.” … ,,One of the reasons people get stuck and fail to experience what they imagine to be dialogue is that these crises are challenging.”

This whole text evokes in me a thought (that I really like and I try to use as my own mindset), that is actually being written right in the middle of this whole paragraph: ,,One cannot “outthink” a crisis; one has to go through it.”

Roles at dialogue (bystanders, movers, followers, opposers)

This book shows many details about roles at dialogue. It shown how they act, what are their intends and how do they work with each other. ,,When someone makes a move; they are initiating an action. They carry, at least for the moment, the focus of the conversation. Another person listening to this initial proposal might agree and want to support what is being said. This person says so, and symbolically comes close to the first person. The second person could be said to be following the first. A third person, watching these two agree, may think to him-or herself, there is something not quite right with this picture. He or she steps in and opposes them, challenging what they are saying or proposing. Symbolically, this third person might stand between the first two. Finally, a fourth person, who has been observing the entire situation, and who has the advantage of having one foot in and one foot out of the circumstance, describes from his perspective what he has seen and heard. This person may propose a way of thinking and seeing that expands everyone's vision and could be called a bystander.”


At first, I would like to tell, that if anyone finds it bad or disrespectful that in most of what I wrote above is paraphrasing or just copied text, I am really sorry, the only reason so much of it is taken word to word from the book, is that I could not transfer it better to this essay, than how it is written in the book. I really found useful thoughts in what I mention above.

Reading this book from electronic copy proved to be quite challenging, but when I found a way to overcome the challenge (by using an internet app to read me the text as I was reading it, since I can understand said English better than written one) the thoughts that came to me from the book started grouping up. Still probably the hardest part was to pinpoint what exactly to put in this essay, because the sources I made from this book made a lot (I took about 45 screenshots from the e-book).

This book about Dialogue has a lot to offer, and everyone certainly can take something bit different than others. But the big message about the strength of dialogue, I believe, struck everyone reading it. Like tell me, who would not want to try Dialogue after this? … Well I sure look forward for one. 

Kniha: Dialogue and The Art of Thinking Together, Autor: William Isaacs

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Jana Švecová - 23.01.2021 - 14:28

In addition to metioned course, this book can help you with Učící se organizace. Dialogue belongs to the discipline of team learning, which is one of the five disciplines of a learning organization. And probably the book could have helped you to understand systems thinking. It is perfectly fine to use text citations in essays, especially if you have them enclosed in quotation marks. I definitely want to experience the dialogue!

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