Building Connection While Thinking Together: By-Products of Employee Training in Dialogue

Article excerpt

Many organizational practitioners advocate 'dialogue' as a way of improving communication at work and addressing important organizational issues that seem irresolvable through normal, everyday forms of organizational discourse (Ellinor & Gerard, 1999; Isaacs, 1999; Senge, 1990; Senge, Ross, Smith, Roberts, & Kliener, 1994; Yankelovich, 1999). The most common notion of dialogue present in organizational practice is based on the intellectual foundation of David Bohm (1996), and has been popularized by management consultant and writer Peter Senge and his colleagues (Isaacs, 1999; Senge, 1990; Senge et al., 1994) as part of the operation of a learning organization. Bohm's approach to dialogue can be characterized as epistemological, because it is oriented toward a theory of knowledge. It emphasizes group members' ability to 'think together' (Isaacs, 1999) and 'build meaning' (Bohm, 1996) through collective conversation and provides them with tools to understand their 'mental models' (Senge et al., 1994) and thought processes.

Unlike practitioners, most communication scholars who study dialogue have theoretical conceptions based on more ontological foundations. Although scholarly conceptions of dialogue vary widely (see Anderson, Baxter, & Cissna, 2004; Pearce & Pearce, 2000), much of the academic work on dialogue draws from theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin (e.g., Barge & Little, 2002; Baxter & Montgomery, 1996) or Martin Buber (e.g., Arnett, 1986; Cissna & Anderson, 1998; Cissna & Anderson, 2002; Stewart & Zediker, 2000), whose theories heavily emphasize notions of what it means to be human and the nature of human relationships.

Some theorists have critiqued Bohm's approach and its popularity in organizational practice. For instance, Deetz and Simpson (2004) are critical of what they call the 'humanist' position on dialogue, including Bohm, which has become the 'everyday life, "native" conception of dialogue' found in corporate classrooms (p. 142). They argue that when such humanist approaches to dialogue are put into practice, the theoretical nuances are lost and thus organizational members' experiences with dialogue are not as fruitful as they could be with different theoretical conceptions of dialogue.

Simiarly, Barge and Little (2002) are critical of Bohm's conception of dialogue as a particular form of 'abnormal discourse' involving collective thinking rather than a form of relational practice (p. 376). They argue that Bohm's approach may result in several 'unintended ironies' (p. 378) such as promoting a fragmented view of communication and relationships, underestimating the extent to which dialogue is interrelated with other forms of communication, and limiting the type of communicative moves that count as dialogic. These ironies stem from the fact that such a conception of dialogue focuses attention on 'ways of thinking collectively versus ways of being with one another' (p. 381). As with Deetz and Simpson (2004), Barge and Little note that practitioners implementing Bohm's approach are well intentioned. However, these scholars are concerned that treating dialogue as a special kind of communication that follows predetermined guidelines can undermine the potential for richer understandings of human connection and meaningfulness.

These critiques of Bohm's conception of dialogue are insightful, and the concerns about dialogue theory and practice are central to this paper. It is possible that critics are correct that the ways Bohm's theories are appropriated in organizational practice lead to significant limitations. However, it is also possible that these scholars' critiques underestimate the complexity of meaningfulness that organizational members experience with dialogue practice. This study investigates organizational members' experience of dialogue through examining one organization's attempts to promote dialogue in the workplace. It presents a case study of a Listening and Dialogue employee-training workshop at a large manufacturing firm that I call The Wesler Company and explores how different theoretical conceptions of dialogue are manifested in participants', instructors', and designers' discourse about their experiences in the workshop. …