Team Learning—Dialogue vs. Discussion

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YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Highlight 1 key point that stands out to you from this paper. Bring your 1 key insight with you to our session.
Dialogue: Critical Skill for Enhanced Communication, Teamwork, Learning & Results

Q:   What is the key reason most improvement efforts (and many businesses) fail?

A:   The failure of the organization’s top management—and the organization as a whole—to learn, apply and embed key learnings and to continue learning.

Organizational learning pioneer Peter Senge quotes from Royal Dutch Shell:

The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be your only sustainable strategic advantage.

Learning faster—and better—requires that we tap the collective genius and energy present in our teams and organizations. Two relevant supporting points from quality pioneer Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points for the Transformation of Management and Leadership are:

8. Drive Out Fear.   

9. Break Down Barriers Between People and Departments.

The aim of this reading assignment is to introduce the science of dialogue, a powerful communication tool for breaking down barriers, driving out fear and optimizing collaboration and teamwork. As Dr. Deming’s work has clearly shown, fear in the workplace—both overt and covert—kills creativity, innovation, imagination and learning. A culture of fear, typified by the common top-down command-and-control structure of most organizations, also sets the stage for people to compromise their ethics. Understanding and utilizing dialogue, balanced with appropriate discussion, is a golden key to optimal communication and success. A classic example of this principle is from the film Dances with Wolves. In the film, a Native American tribal council is faced with a critical strategic decision which will affect their future, perhaps their very survival: how should they deal with an Army officer (Kevin Costner) who’s taken up residence in an abandoned military outpost on the western plains, near their encampment? The elder council chief calls together his various leaders into a circle to explore the situation. One by one, each leader expresses in turn their view as to what course of action to take. While one speaks, all listen with respect.

All points of view are thoughtfully considered. The leading warrior favors quick, decisive action: kill the white man now, while they have the chance. The medicine man favors coming in peace, with a desire to understand where this white man is coming from. Another chief proposes taking no action: perhaps the white man will move on. After all are heard and the various issues and concerns are explored, a decision is not immediately clear. So, the tribal leader calls a recess for the day. They will come together again the next day to explore the issue further, seeking to reveal and agree together on the best decision. The resulting decision upon which the film revolves resolved the individual views and concerns of the tribal council members into a unified course of action. Care was taken not to rush to judgment around a decision of such magnitude.

The above is a simple example of what is today known as dialogue. It is a win-win communication, learning and decision-making process for exploring complex issues and integrating diverse points of view to reveal a “higher truth” and best course of action. This higher truth is only accessible through the collaborative efforts of people committed to tapping the collective genius of the team. It is not about one person’s point of view or agenda dominating or “winning.” Dialogue is common to many indigenous people around the world. Dialogue, as a modern practice for enhanced communication and issue resolution, was pioneered by Nobel Prize-winning physicist David Bohm, a colleague of Albert Einstein. In our time discussion is the usual, prevalent mode of communication. Discussion is most often about analysis and breaking things down. Usually this means breaking down opposition to a point of view or proposed course of action not desired by a dominant participant. In discussion, the usual aim is to “win”—to have your view prevail over another’s. Discussion generally does not seek to explore or integrate divergent points of view. Instead, discussion is all too often a drive to quick decision, one that’s usually advanced by the dominant party.

While there are of course many times that reaching quick decisions is necessary, driving to quick decisions without adequate data and balanced input from those affected by the decision never results in optimal outcomes. It’s vital that we remember in these increasingly accelerated times of change that there is great value in not rushing to judgment, especially around important decisions that will impact our future. We’ve all experienced those “defensive” occasions during a discussion where our opinion was not invited or heard around an important issue, where our point of view was “beaten down,” disregarded or even ridiculed. You’ve also likely been on the “offensive” side, where your way had to be the way, regardless of input from team members. Both of these approaches usually result in a lose-lose compromise at best. There is a better way: the more win-win resolution that results from dialogue. The key here is to balance appropriate discussion with dialogue. Both are necessary pieces of the communication and issues/opinions resolution puzzle. The challenge is, we’ve come to rely almost exclusively on discussion and debate as our primary modes of communication. This is in large part because most everyone was raised from a young age with discussion/debate as their basic communication models.

Dialogue is about win/win synthesis and integration. It strives for resolution vs. compromise. The dialogue process explores and integrates diverse points of view, with the aim of resolving them into a more coherent and meaningful whole. It seeks to reveal and explore higher truths and opportunities that simply cannot be accessed via the common win/lose discussion model. In dialogue, we move from either an offensive or defensive position to one of openness: openness to new ideas and new paradigms that may challenge or even conflict with our own. The ultimate results are vastly greater agreement, alignment and commitment. The following excerpts are an illuminating look into both Bohm’s and organizational learning pioneer Peter Senge’s thinking around dialogue. These are from Senge’s highly recommended book The Fifth Discipline: “By design and by talent,” wrote basketball player Bill Russell of his team, the Boston Celtics, “[we] were a team of specialists, and like a team of specialists in any field, our performance depended both on individual excellence and on how well we worked together. None of us had to strain to understand that we had to complement each others’ specialties; it was simply a fact, and we all tried to figure out ways to make our combination more effective…  Off the court, most of us were oddballs by society’s standards – not the kind of people who blend in with others or who tailor their personalities to match what’s expected of them.” Russell is careful to tell us that it’s not friendship, it’s a different kind of team relationship that made his team’s work so special.

That relationship, more than any individual triumph, gave him his greatest moments in the sport: “Every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game,” he wrote, “and would be magical. The feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level … It would surround not only me and the other Celtics but also the players on the other team, and even the referees… At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened.   The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself… The game would move so fast that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken … To me, the key was that both teams had to be playing at their peaks, and they had to be competitive…”  Russell’s Celtics (winner of eleven world championships in thirteen years) demonstrate a phenomenon we have come to call “alignment,” when a group of people function as a greater whole. In most teams, the energies of individual members work at cross-purposes.   If we drew a picture of the team as a collection of individuals with different degrees of “personal power” (ability to accomplish intended results) headed in different directions in their lives, the picture might look something like this:

The fundamental characteristic of the relatively unaligned team is wasted energy. Individuals may work extraordinarily hard, but their efforts do not efficiently translate to team effort. By contrast, when a team becomes more aligned, a commonality of direction emerges, and individuals’ energies harmonize. There is less wasted energy. In fact, a resonance or synergy develops, like the “coherent” light of a laser rather than the incoherent and scattered light of a light bulb. There is commonality of purpose, a shared vision, and understanding of how to complement one another’s efforts.

Individuals do not sacrifice their personal interests to the larger team vision; rather, the shared vision becomes an extension of their personal visions. In fact, alignment is the necessary condition before empowering the individual will empower the whole team.

Empowering the individual when there is a relatively low level of alignment worsens the chaos and makes managing the team even more difficult. Jazz musicians know about alignment. There is a phrase in jazz, “being in the groove,” that suggests the state when an ensemble “plays as one.” These experiences are very difficult to put into words-jazz musicians talk about them in almost mystical terms: “the music flows through you rather than from you.” But they are no less tangible for being hard to describe. I have spoken to many managers who have been members of teams that performed at similarly extraordinary levels. They will describe meetings that lasted for hours yet “flew by,” not remembering “who said what, but knowing when we had really come to a shared understanding,” of “never having to vote-we just got to a point of knowing what we needed to do.”

Team learning is the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire. It builds on the discipline of developing shared vision. It also builds on personal mastery, for talented teams are made up of talented individuals. But shared vision and talent are not enough. The world is full of teams of talented individuals who share a vision for a while, yet fail to learn. The great jazz ensemble has talent and a shared vision (even if they don’t discuss it), but what really matters is that the musicians know how to play together.

There has never been a greater need for mastering team learning in organizations than there is today. Whether they are management teams or product development teams or cross-functional task forces -teams, “people who need one another to act,” in the words of Arie de Geus, former coordinator of Group Planning at Royal Dutch/  Shell, are becoming the key learning unit in organizations. This is so because almost all important decisions are now made in teams, either directly or through the need for teams to translate individual decisions into action. Individual learning, at some level, is irrelevant for organizational learning. Individuals learn all the time and yet there is no organizational learning. But if teams learn, they become a microcosm for learning throughout the organization. Insights gained are put into action. Skills developed can propagate to other individuals and to other teams (although there is no guarantee that they will propagate). The team’s accomplishments can set the tone and establish a standard for learning together for the larger organization.

Bohm points out that the word “discussion” has the same root as percussion and concussion. It suggests something like a “Ping-Pong game where we are hitting the ball back and forth between us.” In such a game the subject of common interest may be analyzed and dissected from many points of view provided by those who take part. Clearly, this can be useful. Yet, the purpose of a game is normally “to win” and in this case winning  means to have one’s views accepted by the group. You might occasionally accept part of another person’s view in order to strengthen your own, but you fundamentally want your view to prevail.” A sustained emphasis on winning is not compatible, however, with giving first priority to coherence and truth. Bohm suggests that what is needed to bring about such a change of priorities is “dialogue,” which is a different mode of communication. By contrast with discussion, the word “dialogue” comes from the Greek dialogos. Dia means through. Logos means the word, or more broadly, the meaning. Bohm suggests that the original meaning of dialogue was the “meaning passing or moving through … a free flow of meaning between people, in the sense of a stream that flows between two banks.”‘ In dialogue, Bohm contends, a group accesses a larger “pool of common meaning,” which cannot be accessed individually. “The whole organizes the parts,” rather than trying to pull the parts into a whole.

The purpose of a dialogue is to go beyond any one individual’s understanding. “We are not trying to win in a dialogue. We all win if we are doing it right.” In dialogue, individuals gain insights that simply could not be achieved individually. “A new kind of mind begins to come into being which is based on the development of a common meaning … People are no longer primarily in opposition, nor can they said to be interacting, rather they are participating in this pool of common meaning, which is 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.   When they are productive, discussions converge on a conclusion or course of action. On the other hand, dialogues are diverging; they do not seek agreement, but a richer grasp of complex issues. Both dialogue and discussion can lead to new courses of action; but actions are often the focus of discussion, whereas new actions emerge as a by-product of dialogue.

A true learning team masters movement back and forth between dialogue and discussion. The ground rules are different. The goals are different. Failing to distinguish them, teams usually have neither dialogue nor productive discussions. A unique relationship develops among team members who enter into dialogue regularly. They develop a deep trust that cannot help but carry over to discussions. They develop a richer understanding of the uniqueness of each person’s point of view. Moreover, they experience how larger understandings emerge by holding one’s own point of view “gently.” They learn to master the art of holding a position, rather than being “held by their positions.” When it is appropriate to defend a point of view, they do it more gracefully and with less rigidity, that is without putting “winning” as a first priority. Part of the vision of dialogue is the assumption of a “larger pool of meaning” accessible only to a group. This idea, while it may appear radical at first, has deep intuitive appeal to managers who have long cultivated the subtler aspects of collective inquiry and consensus building. Such managers learn early on to distinguish two types of consensus: a “focusing down” type of consensus that seeks the common denominator in multiple individual views, and an “opening up” type of consensus that seeks a picture larger than any one person’s point of view. The first type of consensus builds from the “content” of our individual views — discovering what part of my view is shared by you and the others. This is our “common ground,” upon which we can all agree.

The second type of consensus builds more from the idea that we each have a “view,” a way of looking at reality. Each person’s view is a unique perspective on a larger reality. If I can “look out” through your view and you through mine, we will each see something we might not have seen alone. If dialogue articulates a unique vision of team learning, reflection and inquiry skills may prove essential to realizing that vision. Just as personal vision provides a foundation for building shared vision, so too do reflection and inquiry skills provide a foundation for dialogue and discussion. Dialogue that is grounded in reflection and inquiry skills is likely to be more reliable and less dependent on particulars of circumstance, such as the chemistry among team members.

Bohm identifies three basic conditions that are necessary for dialogue:

  1. All participants must “suspend” their assumptions, literally to hold them “as if suspended before us”;
  2. All participants must regard one another as colleagues;
  3. There must be a “facilitator” who “holds the context” of dialogue.

These conditions contribute to allowing the “free flow of meaning” to pass through a group, by diminishing resistance to the flow. Just as resistance in an electrical circuit causes the flow of current to generate heat (wasted energy), so does the normal functioning of a group dissipate energy. In dialogue there is “cool energy, like a superconductor.” “Hot topics,” subjects that would otherwise become sources of emotional discord and fractiousness become discussable. Even more, they become windows to deeper insights.

Balancing Dialogue and Discussion.  In team learning, discussion is the necessary counterpart of dialogue. In a discussion, different views are presented and defended, and as explained earlier this may provide a useful analysis of the whole situation. In dialogue, different views are presented as a means toward discovering a new view. In a discussion, decisions are made. In a dialogue, complex issues are explored. When a team must reach agreement and decisions must be taken, some discussion is needed.

A Facilitator Who “Holds the Context” of Dialogue.  In the absence of a skilled facilitator, our habits of thought continually pull us toward discussion and away from dialogue. This is especially true in the early stages of developing dialogue as a team discipline. We take whatever “presents itself” in our thoughts as literal, rather than as a representation. We believe in our own views and want them to prevail. We are worried about suspending our assumptions publicly. We may even be uncertain if it is psychologically safe to suspend “all assumptions” – “After all, aren’t there some assumptions that I must hold on to or lose my sense of identity?” The facilitator of a dialogue session thus carries out many of the basic duties of a good process facilitator.”

Above features selected short excerpts from Chapter 12, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge, a must-read for all leaders and managers interested in excellence and lasting success. Also recommended is the book On Dialogue by Einstein colleague David Bohm.

Dialogue vs. Discussion – Brief Overview (see pdf)

Dialogue vs. Discussion/Debate: Some essential distinctions

Collaborate Debate
Colleague Opponent
Cooperate Compete
Learn, WIN-WIN Dominate, WIN-LOSE
Issues explored Decisions made
Suspend your assumptions Hang on to/defend your assumptions
Collective; “WE” Individual; “ME”
INTEGRATE into a greater whole,SYNTHESIZE SEPARATE, break into parts,ANALYZE
More non-linear, holistic More linear, bits and pieces
More inclusive More exclusive
Tear down walls/silos Build up walls/silos
Invite, explore new knowledge Recycle only what is already known
Include, unify (ideas, concepts) Exclude, fragment


DIALOGUE THEORY  (Remember, a theory is only as good and as useful as its ability to reliably predict future outcomes)

There is a body of collective intelligence and team genius accessible only through the joint, collaborative interaction of human minds. Together, we are a body of pure intelligence of undefined and undefinable magnitude.


  1. Suspend all assumptions (literally “hold them out in front of you,” like a balloon).
  2. Treat each other as esteemedcolleagues (Mutual Respect is Rule #1 for dialogue).
  3. Have a trained facilitator (that is, specifically trained in the skill of dialogue).
  4. Trust the process. There may be times when we think we will never get through it all and “complete” dialogue around a topic at this time. We must be willing to trust and allow it to happen. If we don’t “finish it” by the end of this meeting, it’s OK. Indeed, there are times when it may be best for the team to walk away from a tough, charged issue and literally sleep on it, returning the next day with a fresh perspective.


We can access and expand our awareness of this higher intelligence, this “collective genius,” through the process of dialogue. By both integrating and operating from it, we can communicate better, make better decisions, navigate more strategically and achieve vastly better results.

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