Global Sensemaking

Tools for Dialogue and Deliberation on Wicked Problems


I'm pleased to now be a part of GlobalSensemaking. For over 30 years I've largely worked where the rubber hits the road and people aren't communicating well or even living well, as in race relations and low-income neighborhoods, or where people are working to set little patches of wicked things right, as in ecological restoration sites, politics or dispute resolution. I've lived largely outside of web-based communication and dialogue networks as I worked in these mostly marginalized realms.

Recently I decided to make the leap and consciously connect with the rest of the diversity of players in the world of dialogue. In the world of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, if you sense your partners in the dance moving, you move with them. So, here's my tai chi walk in your direction in a well-practiced state of diffuse attention and readiness for the sensing hands dance to begin. Sensing hands is sparring tai chi style; as debate is to dialogue, or combat to nonviolent action, sparring is to sensing hands (as we practice it a our center). Sort of. That ought to spark some discourse :) I've had a mediated tool in mind for years, two of them in fact. Maybe we will cocreate and use them on behalf of our precious planet.

Below is a (pretty basic) academic paper I wrote in 2005 for the joy of it. What did you think? Was I making sense? I complied with some given parameters (15pp, 1p references, abstract, publishable) but nevertheless included popular culture and personal content, and in other ways strayed from the strictures of academic disciplinary jargon and jury-readiness quite regularly, as you will read. I'm now wondering about using another term because of the baggage associated with dialogue...

Back when I was in grad school, I promised myself that future word streams from me would be accompanied by the elegance of poetry whenever possible, a conscious act of creating balance. I change the last three lines from time to time:

we are we and i
where lichen plex rock and air
boulders breathe and grow
pool our fires afresh
we midwife new life
and it is in our common care

Lynne Johnson 2005


This paper reviews ten years (1995-2005) of English language literature on the topic of dialogue, for this purpose defined as two-way, face-to-face, sustained topical communication. The discourse in five selected areas is highlighted: physics, business/organization development, communication studies, environmental science and human behavior, and popular culture. The frequent lack of consistency between positive public attitudes toward effecting environmental conservation and ineffective environmental protection behavior in the United States is discussed. Action research and chaos and complexity theory are related to dialogic practice and suggested as useful tools for academicians.

This paper will use representative examples of five strands of inquiry chosen from the current body of literature on the subject of dialogue to illustrate patterns that have emerged, particularly over the past ten years. Each author was chosen because their work illuminates either important aspects of dialogue, or of the perceived civic disconnect from effective environmental conservation behavior; because it emanates directly from communications scholarship and is comprehensive; or because it points in a direction that could be important for creating more effective environmental behavior, communication campaigns and education programs. There is not yet a body of literature or research specific to the use of dialogue in environmental communications, therefore this paper will be largely exploratory, theoretical and synthetic. I will identify some trends and gaps in existing scholarship on dialogue, discuss the emerging change theory that is most congruent with theory and practice, suggest areas for expanded study. For this paper, I define dialogue as two-way, face-to-face topical communication where, in-process, two or more people make new meaning and can discover common cause from among diverse understandings and experiences. During dialogue, both individual differences and common interests are respected and brought to bear on a chosen concern; it is a process of discovery amidst complexity and is active by nature. The perceived public disconnect between positive attitudes toward environmental protection and their non-conserving behavior in relationship with our environment is regularly traced by American polls; its existence is an article of faith among environmental conservation and communications professionals. I will suggest that this may more fruitfully be described as a paradox, a fertile emptiness, rather than as a problem, and that a growing edge of “the public” may ahead of “the experts” or their leaders at this time. The principles and practice of dialogue can have relevance for campaigns created to close that civic gap however it is construed, as well as for creating meaningful connections among communications professionals, other disciplinary scientists, and the multiplicity of players in the marketplaces of capitalism and our developing democracy; I will offer examples. Applying dialogue to mediated communication or to the classroom, or covering the growing international scholarship and other interesting lines of inquiry that are beginning to appear in literature are beyond the scope of this paper, but heartening.

The scope of this paper is to describe what is found in current scholarly literature and other selected sources on the subject of dialogue, as it relates or could contribute to scholarship and practice in life sciences communications. I will report the body of work that I reviewed, which came to include resources from popular culture, by identifying strands, patterns and gaps in recent literature, and I will identify the change theory most closely associated with the practice of dialogue. Throughout, I will raise questions and offer personal observations. The paper will conclude by offering suggestions for future work, with particular reference to life sciences communications and environmental information campaigns and education programs.

Review of the literature on dialogue results in plentiful sources that range broadly among diverse disciplines. Only a few are directly related to, and many more are far-flung from scholarly work or professional practice in the life sciences, or more specifically, environmental communications. Although dialogue has not yet taken root in the latter, it has recently grown profusely all around the edges of life sciences communications. The first book-length collection of essays on the theory and praxis of dialogue in the broad field of communication studies was published in 2004. (Anderson, Baxter and Cissna, 2004)

I recently caught a few moments of a radio program as someone was saying that the iteration that is most true to the origin would be found on the outermost periphery of the concentric rings created by an event, because it would carry with it the original creative impulse emanating from the center. Because I’d recently purchased a book about dialogue and the collective wisdom it engenders, its cover picturing a water droplet sending its rings toward the edges, I listened with interest. And it was at this point that it ceased to concern me that the literature strands of physics, business or pop culture that were dominating my research findings for this paper seemed far-flung from the world of conservation communications, because I remembered that in the world of ecology, everything is connected. It was as a result of this and another NPR sound bite, as well as my visits to numerous helpful websites, that I decided to expand this paper’s coverage to include examples from popular culture (where “the public” lives), including a few authors’ efforts to translate science or the environmental concerns of disciplinary professionals into citizen efficacy by including them in the communication loop.

My literature searches, appropriately, were truly processes of discovery, of asking questions that raised more questions, feeding key words that generated different key words (I did not begin with, but rather chose dialogue as my key subject), of reading readings that led to more readings -- which eventually gave me the “prepared mind” that my second radio sound bite talked about, the mind that could accept the ecology of my situation. In the discovery process, what follows the prepared mind is getting stuck, which I did, which has its parallel pattern in the chaos and complexity of the dialogue process. Stuck is when what is hidden bubbles up, or when you catch your first full sense of the elephant in the middle of the situation room, having formerly been just another one of the blind people touching only a foot, tip of trunk or handful of wrinkles and insisting that what you knew was reality -- that is until you engaged in dialogue with the other sightless souls and swapped stories. This could have a parallel with public disconnect; perhaps citizens, or some citizens, have prepared minds and are simply stuck. But then, the third phase of discovery can occur, a change in view point can come. And if you entrain the elephant, dialogue and sustain deep attention to the topic, collective discovery can give rise to informed change possibilities.

And so, for me, dialogue bubbled up and this paper traces my entrainment to date. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus mostly on book-length literature about dialogue from the past ten years, and particularly on those publications that are peripheral, seminal, comprehensive, or in the rare case, right on communications or conservation point. I will treat the 1996 publication of the book On Dialogue by physicist David Bohm as the “first drop” in this newest body of work on the subject, and organization development from the business management realm as the “first wave” from that original center. (Bohm, 1996)

Presence, a book by four bards from the world of business (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers, 2004 and 2005) and Dialogue: Theorizing Difference in Communication Studies (Anderson, Baxter and Cissna, 2004) will be considered as if they were the double helix backbone capable of supporting connections between the worlds of communication and business, or as if they could seed a tree of scholarship and grow a practice of public dialogue about ecology for the benefit of all of us. I use the term ecology because by definition it means organisms and their environments in one living system. ( Presence is along that first ring, part of the business world strand of literature emanating from Bohm.

Because we are talking about living systems wherein we are all dependent on one another, I am suggesting in this paper that it is natural for the communications fields in general, and life sciences communications in particular, to be in congruence with this new line of inquiry into dialogue as a living system. Dialogue is an organic process. I believe that practitioners, the American people, beings on the planet, could all benefit from its use as a tool for praxis; it is already a wave of the future and out on the growing edge. Marketing technology is another relatively recent crossover from the field of business that connected to the field of communications, and it, too, enhanced environmental education campaigns and programs. It is nevertheless important to take care when working with crossovers and transplants.

For this paper, I will define dialogue as two-way, face-to-face topical communication where, in-process, two or more people make new meaning and can discover common cause from among diverse understandings and experience. During dialogue, both individual differences and common interests are respected and brought to bear on a chosen concern; it is a process of discovery amidst complexity. Dialogue is related to storytelling and narrative and shares their qualitative analytical strengths, but in my community resource development experience and as organization development professionals have practiced it, it is more action oriented than either of these. It has some similarities to focus groups or other structured group processes, but asks for more sustained attention. As a research tool, it may be particularly complementary to action research.

And so, the great majority of current scholarship on dialogue is found outside of communications literature. Perhaps because I have professional background using dialogue in various ways: as a needs assessment and/or evaluation tool in formal education and non-formal community settings; in arenas where communication can be particularly challenging, as when you are working cross-culturally, across broad economic or educational disparity, within gender and race relations or other power imbalanced situations; and even in dispute resolution, I initially scanned the wide disciplinary representation of work that I found on the subject with curiosity born of diverse experience, and at last settled in with a satisfying sense of an emerging whole.

My interest in dialogue as the focus for this paper began with reading the article “Come Together” by Craig Hamilton, which he begins with the question, “Can we discover a depth of wisdom far beyond what is available to us as individuals alone?” In that article, he mentioned an organization called the Global Leadership Initiative which was said to have their efforts aimed at nothing less than to generate tipping point change in humanity’s ability to address its most critical concerns by launching ten international projects to address inherently global challenges, including water and climate change. (Hamilton, 2004) That got my attention. I had been largely out of touch with dialogue for a few years and was not until that moment aware that group wisdom was making a viral debut. Such grounded earthly concerns openly associated with spiritual wisdom? Remarkable. And to my surprise, I was to discover that dialogue was now power-suited up and dancing in the halls of business and academe.

By following the researchers named and websites mentioned in the article, I learned that research and discourse on dialogue, sometimes going by other names like appreciative inquiry, collective wisdom, or collective intelligence, was blossoming, and that this was particularly true during the past ten years. I found that in 2001, Centered on the Edge: Mapping a Field of Collective Intelligence and Spiritual Wisdom was published by an ongoing research team to pull together the fragments of the emerging field. (, 2001) Sheryl Erickson next headed the Fetzer Institute team into an even more comprehensive project called The Collective Wisdom Initiative. Collective wisdom is one name for what results from the practice of dialogue. (Hamilton, 2004) The Collective Wisdom Initiative website is full of resources related to dialogue, although only a few focus on the environment. I will return to this popular culture strand of resources later in this paper.

I divide the last ten years of work that I reviewed into five major strands that I have chosen to cover in this paper: an enlightening and seminal segue into physics; examples from a large and useful body of work in business; a small but important representation from communications scholars; examples of recent environmental discourse; and a few relevant popular culture publications, websites, media sound bites, or private communications. I chose comprehensive, usually book-length work to represent the essence of each strand. I found concepts from the literature of other disciplines to be useful: from biology, the concept of living systems; from business, the ideas of whole-systems and continuous improvement; from education, lifelong learning and the teachable moment; from medicine, healing; from mathematics and physics, chaos and complexity theory; from political science, civic science; and from psychology and sociology, conservation psychology and conservation sociology. Women's Studies and Indigenous Studies call for balance. Native Science embraces sensation, perception, imagination, emotion, symbols, and spirit to learn about the natural world, in addition to logic and rational empiricism; feminist critique encourages attunement to diversity, relationship and full citizenship. These concepts can be fruitfully related to improved public conservation communications through the practice of dialogue, and could result in interesting and useful cross-disciplinary research topics and translations into work with publics. Longstanding traditions with differing definitions of dialogue exist in teaching, literary and language analysis, and more recently, media studies scholarship. All of these are related in the helical ecology of life on the planet.

Many sources credit the late physicist, David Bohm, with the current interest in dialogue. He began writing on the topic in the early 1970’s, and On Dialogue came out in 1996. It is a small book of seven chapters: On Communication; On Dialogue; The Nature of Collective Thought; The Problem and the Paradox; The Observer and the Observed; Suspension, The Body, and Proprioception; Participatory Thought and the Unlimited. He explains our pool of knowledge accumulated throughout human evolution as independent of any one individual and as viral in behavior. Indeed, he presupposes some of Malcolm Gladwell’s discussions in Tipping Point. (Gladwell, 2002). Bohm’s little book was also the jumping off point for a flurry of scholarship and practice in the world of business. (Bohm, 1996).

From the On Dialogue Forward by Lee Nichol:

What is called for, says Bohm, is to begin to attend to the movement of thought in a new way, to look in places we have previously ignored. Using the analogy of a river that is being perpetually polluted at its source, Bohm points out that removing pollution downstream cannot really solve the problem. The real solution lies in addressing what is generating the pollution at the source.

And now we are in the territory of paradox, since we, our minds, are the source. According to Bohm, we can get at the assumptions that are tacitly formed and upheld best at the collective level. He points out that in the practical or technical realms, we can proceed by defining a problem, and systematically applying a solution. In the realm of relationship, to do this creates a fundamentally contradictory structure because psychological difficulties have no independent “thing” we can solve independent of us. (Eradicating “the problem” essentially means extincting ourselves.) A paradox, on the other hand, has no discernible solution. Rather, a new approach, sustained attention to the paradox itself is what is required. (Bohm, 1996) This then is another way to describe dialogue; sustained attention to the paradoxes, or elephants among us. As communication is a relational activity, I would suggest that the infamous public disconnect may be less a problem, or may be less usefully described as a problem than as a paradoxical lack of civic opportunity to, together, sustain attention to the paradoxes evident in our relationships with one another as human beings and in our relationship with the rest of our environment.

I was not surprised to find myself immersed in a physicist’s world when researching a tool for life sciences/environmental communications, because it was another such broad search that unearthed a book translating the new physics for lay readers that gave me the main metaphor I sought as I wrote my personal philosophy of adult and community education while a graduate student at UW-Madison some twenty-five years ago (the one line beginning "the Wu Li Masters" below).

Here are quotes from that book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters:

If we were to stand behind a master weaver as he (sic) begins to work his (sic) loom, we would see, at first, not cloth, but a multitude of brightly colored threads from which he (sic) picks and chooses with his (sic) expert eye, and feeds into the moving shuttle. As we continue to watch, the threads blend into one another, a fabric appears, and on the fabric, behold! A pattern emerges.

What is a master? A master teaches essence. When the essence is perceived, he (sic) teaches what is necessary to expand the perception. The Wu Li Master does not speak of gravity until the student stands in wonder at the flower petal falling to the ground. In this way,

the Wu Li Master dances with his (sic) student.

Most people believe that physicists are explaining the world. Some physicists even believe that, but the Wu Li Masters know that they are only dancing with it. (Zukav, 2001)

One Master quoted in The Dancing Wu Li Masters is a T’ai Chi Master. He was asked by the author how he teaches. He replied, “Every lesson is the first lesson, every time we dance, we do it for the first time. (Zukav, 2001)Yes, I thought; at last, an adult and community education mastery metaphor as close to my humble collaborative philosophy as I would find. And expressed with elegance. Is the public yet standing in awe as the petal falls? What pattern is emerging? Who decides?

And what is Wu Li? Because Chinese is a tonal language, there are multiple possible translations for Wu Li. Wu Li = Physics, Wu Li = Patterns of Organic Energy, Wu Li = My Way, Wu Li = Nonsense, Wu Li = I Clutch My Ideas, and Wu Li = Enlightenment. (Zukav, 2001) Because dialogue is organic and full of human inflection, and because it is relational, is meaning making and learning in-process, it began to make sense to me as I conducted my literature review for this paper that it would be multiply translatable and bound to be found in many disciplines.

Reading Zukav’s book sent me into what now have been over twenty years of T’ai Chi classes where we dance for the first time each time, and twenty years of learning to listen to people as if every time we are together, I am listening as if it were the first time we ever communicated. After all, we may again be on the same riverbank, but the water running by has changed. For communications professionals who wish to practice mastery, these lessons may have meaning. I am suggesting here that it may be useful to enter into the t’ai chi dance with the public, to engage in face-to-face, two-way -- even many-way dialogic inquiry, and that we give our common sustained attention to just what is the “disconnect”? As my Sudanese grad school colleague and friend once observed, “All we have are stories and compassion.” (Hussein, circa 1983)

Let’s move from physics to where the first growth spurt occurred, from the patterns of organic energy at the physics center, to the periphery or growing edge of business and organization development, the next literature strand. The team of people involved in the Global Leadership Initiative mentioned earlier in this paper recently published a book about that sustained attention, or dialogue, that David Bohm wrote about. I am using their book, Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society, as one of two excellent examples of work on dialogue coming out of this area of business scholarship. (Senge, Scharmer, Jawarski, Flowers, 2005) The other work I have chosen is being done by Lawrence M. Miller for his forthcoming books, The Discipline of Common Sense (Miller, forthcoming) and (tentatively titled) The Power of U – How to Unite Energy and Effort in a Fractured World. (Miller, forthcoming)

Selections from Miller’s “Dialogue: Learning To Think Together”:

We have a crisis of conversation. It is going downhill rapidly and if it continues we may all be watching ourselves on “Crossfire”…Our ability to make effective decisions depends on our ability to listen, to gain understanding, to explore ideas and to consider alternatives while getting beyond our preconceptions – in other words, to genuinely engage in dialogue in a spirit of humility and common interest. Wisdom is not achieved through the combat of debate, but from the exploration of dialogue.

Questioning is the foundation of science. The ability to ask questions…is the first skill in acquiring wisdom.

In our advanced culture with easy access to knowledge and every resource of technology, it is only common sense that when we make significant decisions we think deeply, considering not only the immediate effects of decisions, but the secondary and tertiary results, as will any good chess player. Once again, common sense is uncommon.

When is dialogue needed? When we are considering issues of significance. (Miller, forthcoming)

I would put the quality of air, water, land and life on the planet in that category of significant. Communications professionals could enhance their competence by not only repeatedly telling the public about environmental issues, but also by asking, listening and engaging diverse colleagues, scientists and citizens in dialogue about the conservation concerns that we share.

Miller outlines four stages that a group or organization goes through as they make decisions, and he places dialogue within that framework for us; we could translate this as deciding how to communicate with the public and/or deciding how to take environmental action: Following the (1) initial determination of purpose, agenda, who needs to be there, and roles and responsibilities, comes (2) fact finding and analysis, and then (3) dialogue, prior to (4) deciding, planning implementing or evaluating. (Miller, forthcoming) Skip dialogue, and what of decision and action? I would add that dialogue can be useful from day one as you consider purpose, inclusion, and roles, depending on the context for using dialogue as a tool (see also the string of pearls description below).

Miller defines dialogue as a particular kind of conversation that explores the meaning and the nature of an issue in an effort to create insight and understanding on a deeper level. It seeks to gain the insight of all parties and create collective wisdom, unity or a new way of looking at an issue. It is distinguished from discussion or debate by the level of shared purpose and the effort to learn and serve, rather than to convince, teach, share or understand. It is the “we”, or thinking together, beyond the tired old win-lose way of you v me. He outlines seven skills that will help as we engage in dialogue:

• Practice Deep Listening
• Practice Inquiring versus Acquiescing
• Practice Suspending Judgment
• Avoid Dismissive Categorizing
• Look at the Whole System
• Seek Diverse Input
• Seek Your Authentic Voice

(Miller, forthcoming)

In “Creating the Unified Organization”, Miller reminds us that “organization” is related to “organism” and “organic”, that we are, live and work within living systems. He also refers to Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of “thin slicing”, which is a focused intuitive knowledge that allows an apparent unthinking judgment. Miller puts forth the idea that what he calls “broad slicing” may be more important for leadership or cultural contexts that include values and ways of life. Broad slicing is the ability to see connections, the whole, and the ability to create unity of effort. (Miller, forthcoming) Broad slicing could also be an important concept to keep in mind when considering public communication if it is connection, and not furthering disconnection that is our goal.

Miller offers his “Whole-System Design: A Model of a Complex System” in this second paper. The human body is a complex whole system with a need for internal alignment, according to Miller, and continuous learning helps to create alignment (likewise, the organic organization and its communication program – this is akin to adaptive management). He offers a model of whole-system design and asks a key question: Who designs the system? This is an important juncture where public environmental communications campaigners can connect with Miller, and “the public” could “reconnect” with desirable conservation behavior. In Miller’s model, all along a developmental string, from fact based analysis and goals to fact based evaluation and feedback, are working groups and feedback loops. (Miller, forthcoming) We could translate: places to work with the public in the process of creating a healthier, more aligned living system, body Earth. I have not reproduced this model because I have not sought permission from the author. And I do not assume that communications professionals need to include or “let” the public in; they’re already entering, as we will see in the fifth strand of work that I will review.

So to picture the model: picture a strand of pearls (a string of topical teams) aglow, pearls called fact based goals and fact-based evaluation at either end, and discovery, dream, design, development, and implementation pearls/teams between, with little gemstones of feedback between each, connecting them. It is feedback, gems of dialogue connecting colleagues, coworkers, and publics, that gives the strand its luminescence, the string its numinescence.

We now move to the book Presence which begins this way:

It’s common to say that trees come from seeds. But how could a tiny seed create a huge tree? Seeds do not contain the resources needed to grow a tree. These must come from the medium or environment within which the tree grows. But the seed does provide something that is crucial: a place where the whole tree starts to form. As resources such as water and nutrients are drawn in, the seed organizes the process that generates growth. In a sense, the seed is the gateway through which the future possibility of the living tree emerges. (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers, 2005)

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, the authors remind us, calls the underlying organizing pattern of all living, or self-organizing systems its formative or morphic field. This generative field extends into an organism’s environment and connects the two. Every cell contains identical DNA information for the larger organism, yet cells differentiate as they mature because they develop a social identity according to their immediate context and what is needed for the health of the larger organism. Living systems create themselves, and continually grow and change along with their environmental elements. When the morphic field deteriorates, a cell’s awareness of the larger whole deteriorates. A cell that loses social identity reverts to blind undifferentiated cell division, ultimately threatening the life of the larger organism. (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers, 2005)

According to the authors, as most of us grew up we were taught to cherish logical, machine-like thinking, and that once-normal way of thinking cheats us. It is divisive, fragmented and it is not the only way; it is not even the healthiest way for living systems. And so rather than attributing the changes sweeping the world to a handful of all-powerful individuals or faceless self-perpetuating systems, they suggest that we could remember that organisms have the potential to grow, learn and evolve. But until that potential is activated in the body politic, out-of-touch industrial age institutions will continue to expand blindly in their machine-like manner, unaware of their part in the larger whole or of the global consequences of their growth, much like Sheldrake’s cells that have lost their social identity and reverted to growth for its own sake. (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers, 2005) The world of medicine has a name for this kind of growth; it is cancer.

Recently I remember asking myself, “Do we need to renegotiate our social contract in this country?” I now think, yes, we do, and I am reminded that someone once said we’d need a revolution every forty years to keep the nation a living system of a democracy. Well, the 1960’s were, let’s see, 40something years ago… Are apathy, disconnect, and growth for growth’s sake paradoxically signs of a call for a new social contract, healing, and an end to cancerous growth? I don’t claim to know, but I think it’s a question worth asking and creating dialogue about. I doubt that more information fed to an info-glutted citizenry, another expert interpretation of what they ought to do and how they ought to do it, or more well-intentioned but one-way “education” will save our messed nest. Encouragement to care for our home ground is good practice for sustainability. (McCann, 10/05/05) I would add that it may be time to hold a dance from time to time, students and teachers moving together as if for the first time, coming together in dialogue and a pooling of our resources. Asking lots of questions. The health of the planet is in question.

In Presence, the U Theory is pictured as a way to deepen learning beyond the old reactive learning model of dichotomous thinking and doing. The U is a “cup” wherein as awareness deepens, action that increasingly serves the whole arises (like a water level). The authors remind us that our actions are most likely to revert to what is habitual when we are in a state of fear or anxiety. The key to the deeper levels of learning is that the larger living wholes of which we are an active part are not inherently static. Two of the authors’ questions are, “Can living institutions learn to tap into a larger field to guide them toward what is healthy for the whole? What understanding and capacities will this (deep learning) require of people individually and collectively?” They call the core capacity “presence”, a deep listening, being open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense. This, then, is another name for what is at work when we cross the civic disconnect and enter into dialogue, when we tap into group wisdom. They describe it as beyond a “letting go”, rather, as a “letting come” and a conscious participation in a larger field for change. (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers, 2005)

Two more of the questions that they address in the book are, “Why don’t we change?” and “What would it take to shift the whole?” One answer given is, “When it comes to seeing systems like the environment, empowerment starts with the instrument or organ of perception. You can’t just analyze such systems from the outside to get at the root causes of such things that are so big that people tend to feel powerless just at the thought of them – you have to feel them from within.” So, where is “within” located? These authors remind us that in cultures around the world, when people want to indicate a point that has deep meaning to them, they gesture toward their heart, and this is common to industrial, agricultural and pre-agricultural societies. The oldest Chinese symbol for “mind”, for example, is a drawing of the heart. It may well be that seeing with the heart is not only more than a metaphor, but is exactly what lies behind the extension of awareness that characterizes seeing from the whole. (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers, 2005) Perhaps indigenous science and women’s studies will help us with this.

The book also reminds us that it is hard for people to see the effect of their behavior on the environment. A corporate decision made on one side of the planet can literally change lives on the other side. The way we live in the USA affects people around the world. We have great difficulty seeing these effects. When people in other countries oppose or challenge us, we have great difficulty understanding their actions. This is the technical definition of complexity in systems thinking, when cause and effect are no longer close in time and space. As complexity grows, the need for wisdom grows. This is why these authors are involved in the Global Leadership Initiative referenced earlier in this paper, and why they wrote this book about the importance of presence, dialogue and collective wisdom. Their on-point approach to dialogue as a way to deeply and effectively communicate about environmental concerns is why I use them as a seminal example in this review of literature on dialogue. (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers, 2005)

It’s time to pick up another strand. Dialogue enters the communications literature, my third strand, in a substantive way with the 2004 publication of Dialogue: Theorizing Difference in Communication Studies. It is the first collection of original essays on the theory and praxis of dialogue in the broad field of communication studies. The editors trace contemporary interest in dialogue to work done since about 1990. They maintain that dialogue has emerged as a fulcrum concept of the human sciences, one that bridges interpersonal, rhetorical, cultural and mass media studies. With it, they contend that communication studies could become an even more practical discipline, stimulating meaningful theoretical critique in addition to suggestions for better or more effective actions, and be better able to address communication processes that are not explained by linear, conduit-based, positivistic or excessively individualistic and agentic accounts of human action. (Anderson, Baxter, Cissna, 2004)

The book takes a balanced, critical approach to covering the philosophies, history and current theory and praxis of dialogue. I found Chapter 6 particularly interesting because essayists McNamee and Shotter offer the transcript of conversations they had about dialogue, creativity and change, the topic of their essay/chapter, as a way to walk the talk of topic and embody text with their voices in-dialogue. (Anderson, Baxter, Cissna, 2004) This was the approach two colleagues and I took to developing a dialogic process that we called “Creative Questions” (CR) which we first used in a graduate school international program development class setting. We taped our original theoretical discussion and CR question set creation process, wove in the contributions of colleagues as we used CR in-dialogue, and then taped our evaluation following that original use and shared this with the group. Over the years, we used this dialogic process to develop Creative Questions question sets for use in dialogues for the purposes of needs assessment, education, training, program development and evaluation, and community, organization and professional development, and with a wide variety of topics and settings for inquiry. McNamee and Shotter conclude their chapter by saying that they believe that dialogue has a future as a means for social transformation. They echo the work of the physicists and organization development authors already covered in this paper by identifying dialogue as embracing chaos, complexity, diversity and the unexpected, and remind us that this leaves open the possibility for change and creativity. (Anderson, Baxter, Cissna, 2004)

In Chapter 16, Anderson, Baxter and Cissna also include text of a dialogue among themselves about their book, after acknowledging there is no tidy or definitive way to summarize the sprawling research on dialogue in communication studies. They note some common themes, those of dialogue as: creation, conversation of voices in tension, relation of self-and-other, and difference. They call dialogue an encounter that is a unity of different voices, a dance celebrating difference. Discussing resonance with postmodernism in terms of meanings that are emergent, contingent and in flux, as language-in-use, they suggest that a constructive conversation could develop among dialogic and postmodern scholars. They note that a productive conversation could also be had among dialogic scholars and feminist theorists, theorists of racism, and others who theorize and chronicle the politics of power. Dialogue suggests new ways to theorize power, such as power as an emergent process of mutual influence, or power as seated in the talk among people. (Anderson, Baxter, Cissna, 2004)

What is not covered in their book can begin a long list of promising lines for inquiry, not because the book is lacking, but because in this arena, scholarship is. A key here seems to be a move away from a conception of communication as one-way influence, say these authors. A gap that they note is research applying dialogue to concrete contexts like healthcare, education, organizational change -- and I would add, public environmental communications and conservation campaigns. Baxter states that researchers are choosers, and that with notable exceptions, few efforts to systematize the connections between dialogue and communication research exist. These three authors contend that dialogue scholarship could be framed as engaged scholarship, researching actual communication encounters. This parallels my thought that action research and dialogue could be a good fit. The book notes that because dialogue is a mutual process, the lines between researcher and researched are likely to get blurry. (Anderson, Baxter, Cissna, 2004) The best way to close scholarship gaps is for researchers, theorists and communications professionals to choose differently. As for fuzzy lines, in this case that could mean joint efficacy with the researched, formerly disconnected public.

We now enter the literature focused on our environment and human behavior, a fourth strand, although to-date unfortunately one not connected with the practice of dialogue. Lutzenhiser reminds us that strong favorable attitudes about conservation may have little to do with what anyone subsequently does, and that the circumstances of the choice are often more important than attitudes in predicting outcomes. (Lutzenhiser, 2002) This sounds like a good candidate for in-environment-situated dialogue. Gardner and Stern give a review of Environmental Problems and Human Behavior in their recent book. It is an overview of the related psychological and other social science literature. They outline three global problems, give examples of successful community management of shared resources and acting for the common good even at personal sacrifice, outline four types of behavioral and ideological solutions, review psychological theories and research about people making environmental choices, give examples of behavior solutions in context, and then turn to technologies like simulation. (Gardner and Stern, 2002)

The book closes with a sobering or energizing agenda, depending on the state of mind of the reader, which includes: a call to slowing, controlling and stopping growth in population; controlling and limiting economic and material growth; and making concomitant changes in core social beliefs, morals and values concerning growth, wealth and well-being. (Gardner and Stern, 2002) Stern is one of the most consistent and prolific voices in the area of human behavior and the environment. Although he does not enter the realms of social psychology or dialogue, for example, he is perhaps the most persistent researcher paying attention to the disconnect.

In a different voice, Bruce Morito elaborates on similarly expansive themes to Gardner and Stern’s agenda from his frame of reference as a philosopher in his book Thinking Ecologically: Environmental Thought, Values and Policy. It is a deep, broad and critical look at how we think about and value the environment in the West. It is just such careful exploration of our assumptions, particularly in dialogue with one another, that can reveal paradox beneath problem, and allow change to emerge. (Morito, 2002) It was this rare quality of inquiry that characterized my graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and made it a precious place to be at the time.

The book Hands-On Environmentalism represents the most recent popular publication reporting on the emergence of collaborative citizen environmental efforts variously called civic, participatory or hands-on environmentalism; they also provide how-to information to perhaps seed or support more such action. They serve as cultural translators by chronicling civic science in motion, with sometimes whole communities engaged in the dance. Although the terminology “dialogue” isn’t used, it is lived in the stories told in the book of successful collaborative actions among formerly disconnected farmers, businesspersons, fishers, tribal elders, local officials and other citizens.

From the book:

Across America…new environmentalism is bubbling up…citizens are building a participatory environmental movement that emphasizes community partnerships going beyond segmented “stakeholder” conversations. It’s not free market environmentalism, which depends entirely on the whims of the individual and the economy, but it’s certainly not command-and-control environmentalism…It’s called hands-on environmentalism and it’s working…Because it’s based on values such as local control, personal responsibility, government accountability and economic opportunity…is rooted in the belief that the core environmental responsibilities and rights must rest with…the local citizens and steward closest to the resources. (Haglund and Still, 2005)

I found this encouraging, since environmentalism was so recently declared dead. (Shellenberger and Nordhaus, 2004)

And now we have come full circle, back to the popular strand of literature and other resources that are available on dialogue and disconnect. To get a mediated, simulated immersion in the creativity, chaos, complexity and emergent nature of dialogue, visit The Dynamic Map of the Collective Wisdom Field ( On that website also you will also find an article entitled “What Can Science Tell Us About Collective Consciousness” with an enormous set of bibliographic endnotes. (

On the topic of the change theory most closely associated with dialogue, chaos and complexity systems, two scholars from Madison, WI, members of an ongoing cross-disciplinary seminar that meets regularly at the UW–Madison, recently published a book called Images of a Complex World: The Art and Poetry of Chaos. It is not only a beautiful book, but Sprott, a physicist, and Chapman, a communicative disorders professional, have translated the subject matter for the rest of us. (Chapman and Sprott, 2005)

Finally, at the very end of Presence, the authors discuss the book The Hidden Messages in Water. Its author is a medical scientist who has developed a way to apply magnetic resonance imaging to photograph the crystals formed when water freezes. His images are of how thought, music, language and environment can change the crystalline structures; remembering that Bohm identified our minds as the source of paradox, it is an intriguing new line of inquiry. Human beings are mostly water, so is the surface of our earth. The crystals pictured in the book each mirrored their current environment; for example, water crystals in the presence of gratitude, invitation or the picture of a dolphin created a lovely snowflake-like crystal, and in the presence of insult or threat they grow murky, deformed, become fragmented or have gaping holes in the form. Polluted water creates what I can only call visually repulsive and vacuous form; the same water following an hour of an elder’s prayer for its well-being once again can create lovely crystalline form. (Emoto, 2004) What does this mean for how we communicate? Let’s dialogue on that.

And so, does thought create reality as the water crystals and Presence authors suggest? Are Stern and Morito right and do we need to change our minds about some very basic assumptions? Are people connecting or disconnecting? Which people? About what ecological issues? Where and when? How and why are communication professionals missing the opportunity to dialogue with citizens about these things? We are at a very baseline level in this realm of dialogue and disconnect and choosing to research answers to such questions. I hope that scholars choose to take up the topic of dialogue and weave with many different strands, colors and textures of thread; the loom is almost empty. I hope that as dialogue is picked up as a useful tool, that we walk the talk and chronicle and translate all along the way. I look forward to seeing what we weave, to dialoguing about what I see, what you see, what it means.

I recently received an e-mail from an environmental educator as I searched for sources for this paper in which she said that she’d found that environmental educators from different disciplinary backgrounds have difficulty speaking the same language. (Martin, personal communication) This is precisely the territory for dialogue. If we can’t talk to each other, no wonder the public seems disconnected from our topics of environmental concern, off in that fertile field and far from connecting with our professional conservation communications. And yet, hands-on is happening. Paradox.

We are at the beginning of a connection that has not yet been made. Not only is there not a body of theory specifically relating dialogue and environmental information and education campaigns and programs, but all of life sciences communications is generally still perceived as one-way. Dialogue is by nature at least two-way, and (herein) not at a distance. And so, we must begin with this very basic shift in perspective (remembering that this happens after getting stuck), begin to engage others, our colleagues, the public, in our practice. And the local grocer. The tribal elder, teachers union, manufacturing lobbyist, real estate developer, T’ai Chi teacher, local hunter, mother of Dick and Jane, Uncle Sam and his playmates.

If we do not think that there is time or money for this, we may be laboring under false economy, because time after time when campaigns and programs are evaluated, it is personal contact that worked the best. Another good line for research. We need not give up our marketing tools or media efforts. I suggest that we do need to also make the effort to ask each other questions and to listen with sustained interest for the answers. There will be more than one, they may appear chaotic and complex at times, but they might breathe the breath of living systems into environmental communications practice.

Is the public yet standing in awe as the petal falls? Are communications professionals? What pattern is emerging where threads do grace the loom? I have offered some of what I see. Who decides or describes the field of the future? Whoever chooses, extends a hand, and enters the dance.

For the use of dialogue already in regular current practice, not in the realm of healing people and their relationship with the planet but of healing racism and peoples’ relationships with one another, we could look to the program of The Institute for the Healing of Racism. (Newkirk and Rutstein, 2000) and locally (RICHARDDAVIS.COM) A friend of mine who recently completed a local iteration of that program became interested in what I was doing with this paper about the time I got stuck. An advertising and marketing professional with 20 years’ experience in non-profits, she heard underneath my stuckness to the essence of what I was after in my research. On her own, she composed the following and gave it to me:

Notes on deep listening circles for education on environmental issues:

I recently completed an 8 week healing racism workshop facilitated by Richard Davis in Madison, WI. For this workshop participants got together for 2 hours once a week. During the first hour we watched video clips and listened to a lecture on a single facet of racism. Then the facilitator posed a question about what was being discussed that week, followed by ten minutes that were set aside for personal reflection. We then paired off to talk about our answers. Each person had 5 minutes of uninterrupted time, during which the partner doesn’t speak, comment, make gestures or provide feedback, so that each person is able to be listened to without judgment. This allows each to also listen to themself and bring out thoughts and images they might otherwise censor out. After this the larger group reconvenes, guidelines designed to increase respectful sharing are read, and the floor is opened to all. The recommended text went over this format; reading it reconfirmed my past and present experiences in similar processes -- the care taken in such high quality listening experiences results in dialogue that brings up deeper and sometimes subconscious mindsets. A shared thought process brings out a wider range of ideas and naturally comes to greater group wisdom. These are powerful results that would cross over well into groups working on environmental issues, to raise awareness as well as to create action. Although people are aware of problems facing our planet and environment, they are not acting in their own best interests. I believe this is because they feel unable to create meaningful change and/or because the consequences are too great. It is easier to bury fear and hope for the best. To get through this denial, environmentalists need to do more that just inform people about what is happening. They need to provide a forum for people to explore their fears and resistances together where they are then empowered and offered opportunities for meaningful change. The format for the “Healing Racism” workshops provides a model that has been successfully duplicated thousands of times in many different settings. (Napoleon, personal correspondence)

Because I set up the Race Relations Education Program on the UW-Madison campus, collaboratively ran the Training Institute, and have consulted in this area for many years, I recognize that my friend's words represent the transformative experience of many people who partake in dialogue on issues of import. The Healing Racism format is similar to ones which I have used and like my friend, I can easily imagine translating it into environmental education and other life sciences communications contexts. A list of publics to include in dialogue about conservation might include: farming and food coops, faith communities, lobbyists, speakers’ associations, neighborhood and owners’ associations, campus groups, K-12 school staff, watershed organizations, natural resource user groups, local governments, community non-profits, environmental groups, businesses associations – and the list is goes on. And of course Uncle Sam and his and her playmates. Your neighbor. Your "enemies" and your friends.

Recently, I read an article in “On Wisconsin” about the reclaiming of the land formerly occupied by Badger Ordinance Works near Baraboo, WI. According to the article, a plan hastily devised by an appointed group to divide up the property floundered and fell. Then the storytelling began. Everyone started out with their own view, but an alliance grew out of that – a cooperative spirit. A series of lectures was set up. “I think people were hungry for an opportunity to learn, listen and talk about this place and the background of the issue”, a local resident was quoted to say. According to another person quoted in the article, one of the most difficult problems was getting people to perform a demanding leap of imagination…through countless hours of meetings. Translate: people getting stuck, eventually entraining, and then ultimately there comes dialogic breakthrough or bubble-up or a great leap. The point here is that they leapt, in dialogic, hands-on fashion, and this once flat-on-its-face situation has transformed into a developing success. This article is very clearly describing one sort of dialogic process. (Smith, 2004).

When life science communicators and environmental educators want to convey a need for action to the public (as it has traditionally been construed), or when the public is demanding particular environmental actions from professionals and those professionals choose to respond, if we will be there with them in dialogue, with dialogue as an integral part of any plan, program or response, I propose in this paper that the depth of commitment to attitude and behavior change that is needed for the health and wellbeing of life on the planet will be facilitated. And we will all become the wiser for having done this.

Anderson, Rob and Leslie A. Baxter and Kenneth C. Cissna. Dialogue: Theorizing Difference in Communication Studies. Sage Publications, Inc., 2004.

Bohm, David. On Dialogue. Routledge, 1996.

Chapman, Robin and Julien Clinton Sprott. Images of a Complex World: The Art and Poetry of Chaos. World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 2005.

Emoto, Masaru. The Hidden Messages In Water. Beyond Words Publishing, Inc., 2004.

Gardner, Gerald and Paul Stern. Environmental Problems and Human Behavior. Pearson Custom Publishing, 2002.

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. Little, Brown and Company, 2002.

Haglund, Brent M. and Thomas W. Still. Hands-On Environmentalism. Encounter Books, 2005.

Hamilton, Craig. Come Together.

Hussein, Mohamed. Personal correspondence.

Lutzenhiser, L. Marketing Household Energy Conservation: The Message and the Reality. New Tools for Environmental Protection. National Academy Press, 2002.

Martin, Jennifer Adams. Personal correspondence.

McCann, Libby. Presentation, 10/05/05.

Miller, Lawrence M. Dialogue: Learning to Think Together, excerpt from forthcoming book, The Discipline of Common Sense.

Miller, Lawrence M. Creating the Unified Organization, excerpt from forthcoming book (tentatively titled) The Power of U – How to Unite Energy and Effort in a Fractured World.

Morito, Bruce. Thinking Ecologically: Environmental Thought, Values and Policy. Fernwood Publishing, 2002.

Napoleon, Mary. Personal correspondence.

Newkirk, Reginald and Nathan Rutstein. Racial Healing. The National Resource Center for the Institutes for the Healing of Racism, 2000.


Shellenberger, Michael and Ted Nordhaus. The Death of Environmentalism. Essay released at Environmental Grantmakers Association meeting, October 2004.

Senge, Peter, and C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers. Presence. SoL, 2004 and Doubleday, 2005.

Smith, Susan Lampert. Reclaiming Badger. On Wisconsin. Wisconsin Alumni Association, Summer, 2004.

Zukav, Gary. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. Harper Collins, 2001.

Views: 120

Comment by Jack Park on July 2, 2009 at 16:40
Thank you for this contribution. I hope others read it. Let me point to where deep listening is also encouraged. Others here at have mentioned Theory U, Bohm, and so forth; this paper ties a lot of threads together in a useful way.
Comment by Lynne Johnson on July 2, 2009 at 20:36
Thanks, Jack. Yes, I'd noticed U Theory as I clicked around initially. And indeed, it/that little paper was my effort to weave a few strands into a strong case for the potential usefulness of dialogue in the world of environmental communications. And it was of course my delving back into a passion which I'd neglected for a few years. I was aware of the world cafe and for the life of me am not sure why I haven't checked in there yet. Thanks for the reminder. Between a family emergency and a job search since joining GlobalSensemaking, I've not taken the time to read yours and others' contributions on our site yet. The family health crisis is over, so now I will take job search breaks and get at reading! I actually have a couple fiends here already though, so that's a start. Thanks. Lynne

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