Sign up to get Steve Denning's FREE newsletter


You'll get tips, tricks and advance chapters from Steve's forthcoming book. Click here to sign-up for newsletter.

Social nature of communications:

David Bohm, dialogue and leadership

To say what something means is to say how it is related or connected to something else. To ask the meaning of an event is to ask how it contributed to the story in which it occurs. It is the connections or relations between events.

Meaning is a social phenomenon. Meaning is produced not only by individuals but by groups, communities, societies and cultures which maintain - through language and agreed understandings - knowledge of the connections betweeedn signifying sounds and signifying events.

Groups, communities, societies and cultures also preserve collections of typical narrative meanings in their myths, fairy tales, legends, histories and stories. To participate in a group, community, society or culture requires a general knowledge of these accumulated narrative meanings. The cultural stock of meanings are dynamic and are added to by new contributions from members and deleted by lack of use.

A physicist called David Bohm speculated that thought itself is not the result of an individual in isolation, but is largely a collective phenomenon. A story creates a dialogue-like space in a free flow of meaning that passes and moves through and between people, in the sense of a stream that flows between the banks. As in dialogue, a group accesses a large pool of common meaning which cannot be fully accessed individually.

If this view is correct, then it points to further ways in which storytelling works by enabling access to the "large pool of common meaning."

Robert Grudin, Professor of English Literature and author of On Dialogue (1996), sees the key ingredients of accessing this pool as reciprocity and strangeness.

"By reciprocity, I mean the give-and-take between two or more minds, or two or more aspects of the same mind. This give-and-take is open-ended and is not controlled or limited by any single participant. By strangeness, I mean the shock of new information, divergent opinion, unpredictable data, sudden emotion, etc - on those to whom it is expressed. Reciprocity and strangeness carry dialogue far beyond a mere conversation between two monolithic sources. Through reciprocity and strangeness, dialogue becomes an evolutionary process in which the parties are changed as they proceed." (1996, p. 12).

The purpose of dialogue is to go beyond any one individual’s understanding. The key characteristic of a dialogue is that each participant is not trying to ‘win’, since all participants win in a genuine dialogue. In dialogue, individuals gain insights that could not be achieved individually. A new kind of mind comes into being which is based on the development of common meaning. People are no longer primarily in opposition, nor can they be said to be interacting: rather they are participating in the pool of common meaning, capable of constant development and change.

In dialogue, a group explores complex difficult issues from many points of view. Individuals suspend their assumptions but they communicate their assumptions freely. The result is a free exploration that brings to the surface the full depth of people’s experience and thought, and yet can move beyond their individual views (Senge, 1993, p. 241).

According to Bohm, a dialogue takes place when all parties come together to explore a subject in a totally open-minded way. The purpose of such a dialogue is to reveal the incoherence in our thought, the lack of connection to reality. Without dialogue, particularly in complex situations, reality can change, while the thought does not change to reflect the change in reality. The mental model rolls on, like a computer program that is out of control, while reality heads off in a different direction. In simple problems involving few participants, the incoherence is more evident and is more easily correctable. In complex problems with multiple participants, when no individual can fully comprehend even the initial situation in all its aspects, let alone the morphing changes that arise over time, incoherence of thought can arise very easily without being perceived by the individual thinker. According to Bohm, dialogue enables individuals to become more sensitive to the incoherences in their own thinking. In dialogue, people become observers of their own thinking, as they “ground-truth” their thinking with the thoughts of others (Senge, 1993, p. 242).

What is a conversation?

In real life, though, it's hard to create the conditions for a pure "Bohmian dialogue." In my experience, it's rare for all the parties to be in a spirit of total openness, particularly when there are important issues at stake. Nevertheless, iti is true that leaders have a special responsibility to get into an interactive relationship with their audiences and in effect have a conversation. Here's an excerpt from The Secret Language of Leadership, chapter 11 which explains what is a conversation:

"A conversation is an exploration in which the parties agree for the duration of the interchange to try to develop a larger understanding of the issues. Conversations allow people with different views of a topic to learn from each other.
"A conversation isn’t a negotiation. A negotiation is a process of resolving disputes and conflicts through talks and discussions. The parties bargain for individual or collective advantage or try to craft outcomes that will serve their common interests. In a negotiation, typically the parties come with the relatively fixed positions and goals and seek to promote those positions and goals,accommodating those of the other parties to the extent necessary. By contrast, the object of a conversation is collective learning.
"Nor is a conversation an argument. An argument is inherently adversarial, in which each party tries to win by persuading the other party to accept their point of view. By contrast, a genuine conversation is inherently collaborative, in which the object is shared exploration and discovery rather than to secure the victory of any preconceived viewpoint.
"Conversation is person-to-person—not role-to-role. Conversation is conducted on the same level, one human being to another, not people acting out roles, saying what they’ve been told to say or what’s expected of them, representing their organization or functions or jobs, or watching over their shoulders to see what the boss wants them to say. Nor is it a bunch of exhibitionists shouting, “Listen to me! Aren’t I just something!” where no one is really listening to what anyone else is saying."

The role of conversation in transformational leadership

Those in authority have a special responsibility for making a conversation person-to-person, because in a hierarchical setting subordinates will assume initially that the interchange is role-to-role, where they’re expected for the most part to listen and obey. Leaders can do several things to launch a genuine conversation:

  • Ask questions.
  • Level with people.
  • Show vulnerability.
  • Build on the inputs of others.
  • Share stories.
  • Encourage others to share their stories.
  • Have participants tell one another’s stories.
  • For more detailed treatment of these issues, see The Secret Language of Leadership, chapter 11-12.


    Stephen Denning: The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass: October 2007)

    Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000.

    Stephen Denning and Margaret Grieco, Technology, Dialogue and the Development Process, Journal of Urban Studies, September 2000.

    David Bohm, (1965) A Special Theory of Relativity. New York: W.A. Benjamin.

    David Bohm, On Dialogue. Edited by Lee Nichol. London ; New York : Routledge, 1996.

    Robert Grudin,.(1996) On Dialogue. Boston: Houghton Muffin Company.

    Donald E. Polkinghorne, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. (1988) Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

    Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline.The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. (1993) New York: Doubleday.

    Read the Introduction
    Watch the video
    & pick up these amazing gifts!

    Join our on-line
    discussion group:

    the World
    of Work"