Conversation as Win-Win: David Bohm on Dialogue

Today we are governed largely by people who have stopped listening to each other. It’s no accident that election races and and military battles are both called campaigns.

There is an alternative to this spectacle, and it is a radical one — the vision of dialogue proposed by David Bohm.

Bohm was Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of London. He wrote many books, including Wholeness and the Implicate Order and On Dialogue.

Bohm had so much to say about dialogue, all in the spirit of open-hearted wisdom. I could never do justice to his work in a single article. So, I will simply focus on a few key distinctions.

Dialogue transcends righteousness

Imagine entering into a conversation with no position to defend and nothing to win. Also imagine that this the person you’re speaking with has the same attitude. 

This, my friends, is dialogue — a shared state of radical openness and transparency. Have you ever experienced it? I never have, and it is something that I want.

Dialogue calls on us to shed our “righteousness” — the conviction that we are always right, and that other people can be tolerated only as long as they agree with us.

In dialogue, we respond to differing opinions like a good doctor. Well-trained physicians welcome another opinion. During a conversation, we can open our minds in the same way.

When we’re defending a position, we cannot be intelligent. The essence of intelligence is not arriving at final truth, said Bohm. Rather, it is “the softening up, the opening up, of the mind, and looking at all the opinions.”

Dialogue is more than discussion

Bohm saw dialogue as a “stream of meaning” that flows through people. He also drew a sharp distinction between dialogue and discussion:

…which has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion.” Discussion really means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view. A great deal of what we call “discussion” is not deeply serious, in the sense that there are all sorts of things held to be non-negotiable, untouchable, things that people don’t even want to talk about. Discussion is like a ping-pong game, with people batting the ideas back and forth in order to win the game. 

Contrast this with genuine dialogue, in which there is no attempt to dominate or defend a point of view. During a dialogue, people play with rather than against each other.

“In a dialogue,” Bohm wrote, “everybody wins.”

Dialogue is coherent

In ordinary light, the waves are out of phase and scattered — incoherent. In a laser beam, all waves go in the same direction. The light becomes a force of pure coherence and power.

Like ordinary light, discussion is incoherent. Ideas are fractured and scattered in many directions. Opinions conflict and ultimately cancel each other out. No one really listens. No one changes. Nothing happens.

Imagine what would happen if we entered a conversation without defensiveness. What if we were really willing to put all our assumptions on hold? In this state, Bohm said:

…the whole structure of defensiveness and opinions and division can collapse; and suddenly the feeling can change to one of fellowship and friendship, participation and sharing. 

This way of being with each other has focus — and the power to change us.

Dialogue is common consciousness and pure possibility

The aim of dialogue is not for everyone to finish up and leave the room with the same opinion. Far more important is our shared state of mind. When everyone suspends their assumptions and opinions, we share a common consciousness.

In Zen, this is sometimes called the “mind before thinking.” It is a state of pure potential from which something truly new can emerge.

In dialogue, we are open, relaxed, receptive. We stop being experts. We can begin afresh, taking other people along as allies rather than enemies.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” said Shunryu Suzuki, “but in the expert’s there are few.”

I’m going for possibility. Please join me.

To learn more, see Bohm Dialogue and Maria Popova’s graceful presentation of Bohm’s ideas.

Bohm personally demonstrated the power of dialogue in his many conversations with Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Quoted passages in this post are taken from “On Dialogue” by David Bohm, Noetic Sciences Review, Autumn 1992, No. 23, 16–18.