Bohmian Dialogue and Decision-Making

Towards the end of his life, the physicist David Bohm became extremely interested in the possibility of tapping into the collective intelligence of small groups of people. He felt that the group as a whole had the possibility to achieve a level of insight or intelligence, not only far greater than that of each separate individual, but even beyond the sum of their individual intelligences. This has since been borne out by research. Bohm saw dialogue as a primary tool for accessing collective intelligence. As such, he thought, it could help us find ways to address the urgent and intricate challenges we face (which have only grown more acute since Bohm’s death). In terms of Bohm’s concept of the implicate order, dialogue is a means of perceiving a level of collective consciousness which is more enfolded or implicate than our ordinary consciousness, which is more directed towards the explicate order.

Bohm contrasted dialogue with discussion. He thought the latter was an ineffective means of arriving at insights and understandings. He noted that the word discussion includes the same root as the word percussion, which involves hitting or striking. We use discussion, Bohm said, as a means of verbal sparring. We listen with a view towards our counter-blow, when it comes our turn to speak. Our goal in discussion is to win, by bringing others around to our point of view. Because each of us is attached to or vested in our opinions and perspectives, we are satisfied by winning and disappointed by losing. Thus, in a discussion, there are always winners and losers. If a compromise position is reached, no one is truly satisfied and everyone is at least vaguely disappointed. More than this, the quality of insight is no better than that of the winning position―that is, of one individual perspective. The collective intelligence has not been engaged.

In dialogue, we do not cling to and seek to substantiate our views, but do the opposite. We suspend our own judgments and conclusions, and instead adopt an open and interested attitude, one that seeks the fullest understanding of what each person is saying and what lies behind their opinions. Thus, we look more at underlying assumptions than at the viewpoints that are built on them. The perceptions and emotions that contribute to a viewpoint are also seen as inherently valid and important. By focusing on what is behind another’s point of view, rather than on advancing our own opinions, we open ourselves to the unfamiliar ideas and experiences that underly another’s perspectives. In the process, we find that our opinions undergo changes and adjustments, as other ways of seeing things—other considerations that we have not previously thought of or felt—enrich our understanding of the issue at hand.

However, achieving an attitude of genuine openness is not easy! Bohm was influenced in his latter years by his personal acquaintance with the philosopher Jiddhu Krishnamurti. Bohm felt that a process of inner development, such as that described by Krishnamurti, was helpful in the act of recognizing and suspending one’s own preconceptions and judgments. The quality of awareness achieved in contemplative practice is of great assistance for the practice of Bohmian dialogue. In meditation, one can achieve a more unitary level of consciousness, in which the distinction between self and other dissolves. (In Bohm’s description, this is a perception of, or participation in, the implicate order.) Thus, as the distinction between one’s own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions and those of another falls away, both are seen as valid and essential expressions of a greater underlying consciousness and wholeness. The more points of view that we can identify with and appreciate, the fuller our understanding becomes.

In the practice of Bohmian dialogue, participants spend most of their time listening intently. They don’t think ahead to the response they wish to make, but stay completely in the moment, in the flow of the conversation that is taking place within the encompassing whole. At times this conversation calls for a contribution from them, which fits the precise need of that moment, just as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle fits exactly into place. At other times, they are aware that others have asked the question that was on their minds or made the statement that they were considering. On the other hand, they may find that others have brought new ideas, which render the questions or statements they had been considering irrelevant. Thus, Bohmian dialogue can explore territory that is new to every participant, and can give rise to ideas and understandings which no one participant would have reached alone. This is why, no matter how smart or informed we may be, the practice of dialogue is always beneficial.

Bohm did not think that his form of dialogue should be used in decision-making processes, but rather for freely exploring issues, with no onus of an imminent decision hanging over the conversation. In my experience, dialogue of the type Bohm describes often brings to light possible courses of action that seem right and obvious when they emerge, but which have not been thought of (or not in that particular way) hitherto. Thus, I believe Bohmian dialogue can be very helpful to a decision-making process, in which the underlying assumptions of the various options are fully examined, while participants stay open and inwardly uncommitted to any particular outcome. Admittedly this is not easy, and a great deal of practice with such dialogue, without the expectation of agreement on a particular course of action, would be helpful before using dialogue in a decision-making process.

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