The word “dialogue,” comes from the Latin dia (through) and logue (meaning). As David Bohm writes, “It is the meanings that we share that form the very basis for understanding one another at all.” Bohm, a renowned theoretical physicist, suggested that dialogue is a “stream of meaning” that flows through and between us. Conversation is between at least two people. Even if you’re in conversation with yourself, there are still two of you: the self that wants to go one way, and the self that wants to go the other. You are having a dialogue about an inner struggle. With ourselves or with others, we have the opportunity for “constructive discontent.”
Constructive discontent is looking for the change, for the opportunity. We are taking down or deconstructing something in order to build something else up, and we are bringing others along. Sociologists refer to this as constructivism. For instance, we have a process in place that is not good enough. It is not effective, or it is not efficient. Rather than settling, we take that “discontent” and collectively create ways to tear it down in order to develop a new, better process.
How do you know when you are having one of those rich, constructive discontent conversations? The conversation is about the stuff – the process, the problem, the challenge, or the opportunity – rather than about the individual. It is about moving forward and achieving a different outcome. This is as much about what participants say or don’t say verbally as what they say nonverbally. A conversation, achieving meaning through each other, means that we must listen with our entire bodies, and we must watch and reflect. We have to be observers of our own and others’ behaviour.
If, for instance, someone starts speaking and a colleague picks up her cellphone and begins to text, this moves the conversation from constructive to destructive. It becomes about the individual and about selectively hearing what others are saying rather than respectful listening. A conversation is not just about the words; it is about coming from a place of curiosity and willingness to engage.
Dialogue is about listening to and observing people and asking: How impassioned are they about this topic? Do they believe this or are they delivering a line? What is it that they’re saying that is for me to discover?
It’s important to stay in the place of question, and to suspend judgment. Judgment is worthwhile, after we’ve really listened. While judgment helps us to decide it can rob us of rich discussion and shut down the conversation prematurely. To sustain a conversation and suspend judgment you might ask yourself this:
- How might I build on their idea?
- What is getting in my way?
- Before I make my rebuttal what are three positive statements I can make about this idea?
Constructive discontent brings us from what is to what could be. By being aware of our words and body language, and that of others, and focusing on the “stuff” while suspending judgment we have true dialogue, a stream of meaning that helps us together create new and more favourable outcomes.