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MIT Better World

By Liz Karagianis

“It’s the embrace of different points of view — literally the art of thinking together,” says William Isaacs, a leader in the study of dialogue who adds that problems between managers and employees, citizens and elected officials, and nation and nation often stem from an inability to conduct a successful dialogue.

Most of the time, Isaacs says, people are caught up in reflexive reactions to what they believe others said, leading to a momentary self-absorption and blindness. “Dialogue involves learning to let go of these reactions, and become aware of a flow of new possibilities.”

Dialogue is essential to solve the large problems of a multicultural, global society, he adds. Finding a new way to talk, think, and act together makes it possible to talk across our differences and invent new directions for the future.

“Dialogue is often the missing-link that frees people to take a quantum leap in vision and action,” he says. “If everybody got the idea that there’s a different way to talk and think together, the seed of a very new kind of interaction could begin to sprout.” Isaacs, who in 1990 co-founded MIT’s Organizational Learning Center, is now a lecturer at the Sloan School of Management and is director of the Institute’s Dialogue Project.

He is founder and president of DIAlogos, Inc., a Cambridge company that consults with major companies on organizational learning and creation of dialogue. He is also the author of Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, a book based on 15 years of research with corporations, managers, and community leaders. Through his consulting work with companies like Ford, Motorola, Shell, and Hewlett-Packard he tells how good conversation can bridge communication gaps in organizations and communities.

Being open

Rather than bring us together, our talk often drives us apart.

We inhibit ourselves from being honest talkers and good listeners, he says, by talking when we should be asking questions, speaking from our assumptions, having rigid thoughts, and not listening.

A big mistake many of us make, he says, is we come to our conversations well prepared. We know exactly what we’re going to say, leaving no room for surprises. “Most often we know what we want to say and wait our turn to say it. We are closed to hearing the unexpected from others, cutting ourselves off from honest exchanges that leave us enlightened and inspired to take action. This is the antithesis of dialogue.”

One woman Isaacs consulted with told him: “I always was prepared to talk. It never occurred to me to be as well prepared to listen.”

People who think and talk together effectively, he adds, possess the following qualities.

  • LISTENING — We must listen not only to others but to ourselves, dropping our assumptions, resistance, and reactions.
  • RESPECTING — We must allow rather than try to change people with a different viewpoint.
  • SUSPENDING —We must suspend our opinions, step back, change direction, and see with new eyes.
  • VOICING —We must speak our own voice. Find our own authority, giving up the need to dominate.

Real Power is No Power

Apart from mere talk, dialogue is also about shifting the relationship of power, Isaacs says.

“As long as there’s a power difference in your roles — like a conversation between a boss and employee or a professor and student — dialogue is very difficult.

“We must suspend our differences to gain access to new information and action, so the professor can learn from the student and the boss from the employee. All good bosses know that when you’re really leading well, it ’s not clear who’s leading and it doesn’t matter. If I see you as a partner, rather than an employee, suddenly the possibilities for creativity are present.” Isaacs adds that in the new digital economy, conducting successful dialogue is more important than ever.

“The Internet can be an attempt of our isolated culture to somehow return to community,” he writes. “People seem to imagine that if we’re digitally connected, then we would all be in touch, and the great malaise of the age — the isolation and disconnection many of us feel — would be allayed.

“But so far, he adds, the digital revolution is giving us connection but not contact. We can send more information to each other, but we’re not necessarily any more capable of sharing understanding, insight, wisdom, or our hearts.”

Learning to talk and think together in honest and effective ways is an essential element to true partnership, he says. That is what will truly connect us and heal our loneliness.

“I love technology; I have every gadget under the sun,” Isaacs says. “But technology cannot achieve the things that only we can achieve by ourselves. It can help, but it ’s secondary to interaction and the deep connection that people only can have with and for one another.”