Monthly Archives: November 2013

Thinking about Dialogue… Part 2

Several areas of my recent readings about dialogue prompted me to think about ideas I had wrestled with while reading Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget including collective wisdom, fragments and bits, and of course the cephalopod.

Collective Wisdom

Both Edgar Schein and Nancy Dixon discuss the benefit of dialogue as resulting in a better and more creative solution than any one person could have contemplated. While I tend to agree with this, I do see that when taken to extremes, collective wisdom can become group think which can lead to what Lanier calls the noosphere or hive mind. Lanier argues quite emphatically against the idea that quantity, at an extreme scale such as you would find on the Internet, will produce quality. While Schein and Dixon are not talking about dialogue on a scale that large, it begs the question that Lanier asks “whether it is possible to map out where the one is smarter than the many” (p. 56).

In support of the collective wisdom of the group, I give you Gamers who come together in online communities and have solved some of the most perplexing problems through cooperation and collaboration. For a quick overview, read this blog post; for a more exciting look into this online community, view Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk. (I wonder what Schein would think of these groups and their prowess at problem-solving as I’m reading now his ideas on the interpersonal processes involved in building and maintaining groups… perhaps something to explore in a later post.)


I was quite taken with Dixon’s summary of David Bohm’s theory, and I was pleased to see that Schein based much of his discussion on Bohm’s work. As a physicist, Bohm views the world as an “unbroken flowing whole” (as quoted in Dixon, p. 10). Dixon goes on to describe Bohm’s frustration with the way people see the world not as a whole but as bits or fragments. Bohm’s “objection to a fragmentary view of the world was that it disposes people to think of the divisions between things as absolute and final rather than as having a limited utility and validity” (p. 11).

Lanier spends a great deal of time laying out his ideas about how we present ourselves in bits and fragments to the point where “the deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits” (p. 20) and “this information underrepresents reality” (p. 69). It would seem to me that Lanier might agree with Bohm (and Schein) that “dialogue is a way to apprehend the meaning of others and to thereby experience the wholeness of the world” (Dixon, p. 11).

The Platypus and The Cephalopod

Schein retells the story of when the platypus was discovered and the ensuing controversy about how to classify it — was it a mammal, a reptile, or perhaps a bird? While this speaks to the natural inclination of people to look at things as fragments, trying to fit something new into an existing schema, this story also reminded me of two areas Lanier discusses — language and what Lanier calls post-symbolic communication.

The more direct comparison is with Lanier’s discussion of language, which he describes as “built up from entries in a catalog, not from infinitely morphable patterns” (p. 165). He goes on to say that “while language has become richer over time, it has never become absolutely precise” (p. 169), thus our inability to define the platypus. This leads me to one of my favorite quotes from Lanier’s book: “it seems pointless to insist that what we already understand must suffice to explain what we don’t understand” (p. 51) — an idea I think Bohm would support as he claims that “we have to have enough faith in our world-view to work from it, but not that much faith that we think it’s the final answer” (as quoted in Dixon, p. 11).

Which brings me finally to the cephalopod and Lanier’s ideas of postsymbolic communication which could “give rise to a vivid expansion of meaning” (p.190). Watch as this cephalopod morphs into its surroundings:

Suppose we had the ability to morph at will, as fast as we can think. What sort of language might that make possible? Would it be the same old conversation, or would we be able to ‘say’ new things to one another (Lanier, p. 190)?

And what implication might that have on dialogue?


Dixon, N. M. (1996). Perspectives on dialogue. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

Lanier, J. (2011). You are not a gadget. New York: Vintage Books.

Schein, E. H. (1999). Process consultation revisited. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

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Posted by on November 17, 2013 in ADLT 610


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Thinking about Dialogue… Part 1

As I read both Schein’s and Dixon’s views on dialogue this week, I was making connections back to two of the more influential authors I’ve read during my coursework in this program — Jane Vella and Jaron Lanier. As often happens when I think about Lanier’s work, I’m still trying to wrap my head around how to integrate his views on language, communication, and how we process information with what Schein and Dixon say, so I will start with the connections I made to the work of Jane Vella.

Dialogue and Education

In her book, On Teaching and Learning, Vella introduced me to dialogue education, which she defines as “a state of mind, moving us to listening, respecting, doubting, reflecting, designing, affirming, considering options, and celebrating opposites” (p. 11).

The dialogue Vella advocates is not between teacher and student, but amongst the learners, one of whom is also the teacher. However, Vella is quick to note that this is not a learner-centered model, but a learning-centered model. As with much of what I read about dialogue from Schein and Dixon, it is about creating the process by which decisions can be made, problems can be addressed, or as Vella would advocate, learning can be achieved. The teacher or consultant takes on the role of facilitator rather than expert, leaving the real work to be done by those participating in the dialogue.

A Safe Environment

According to Vella, “dialogue education springs from a place of goodness, integrity, and commitment to equity” (p. xii). Only in such an environment are learners willing to share their experiences as freely as they are to admit to their questions. How many times have you stifled a question because you didn’t feel safe to ask it?

Both Dixon and Schein discuss the notion of safety as a cornerstone of creating successful dialogue. Dixon describes the outcome of dialogue as unpredictable and warns that “if a forum is created in which dialogue can occur, it must be accepted that some of the beliefs that people hold sacred will be challenged” (p. 31). Her view is that dialogue is a relationship “in which the other is valued, trusted, and an equal whose ideas are respected if not always agreed with” (p. 28).

Schein speaks to this idea of the safe environment more from a perspective of creating equality within the group by incorporating basic group dynamic principles:

  • Group members need to feel equal in that setting even if there are status differences outside of that setting
  • Group members should be given equal time to speak and contribute to the discussion (although once the actual dialogue starts, Schein says it is okay to “suspend” or refrain from talking if you are taking note of how you are processing the dialogue in terms of your own tacit assumptions and are open to hearing differing opinions)
  • Group members will likely need to draw on personal experience to begin to frame the idea of dialogue (p. 206)

This last point reminded me of what Vella calls induction or “anchoring the new content into their context” (p. 62). Dixon points out that dialogue is not an unfamiliar idea. She and Schein both base their theories on the assumption that everyone can recall a time when they had good communication. It is from that shared understanding that they build their theories about how dialogue can be brought into the workplace.

The Collective Good

Is the group greater than the sum of its parts? Schein states that “an important goal of dialogue is to enable the group to reach a higher level of consciousness and creativity” (p. 203), and Dixon talks about how through dialogue “the result is likely to be an understanding of the issue that is richer, more integrated, and more creative than any one individual… is likely to produce” (Johnson and Johnson as cited in Dixon, p. 35).

While Vella feels that the responsibility for learning always lies with an individual, she says that “learning is supported and nourished by the small group” (p. 67). In her discussion of learning tasks, she says it’s not about the group working together to complete the task as much as it is about creating learning for all through the task (p. 68). This echos the idea of promotive interaction — “individuals encouraging and facilitating each other’s efforts to achieve, complete tasks, and produce in order to reach the groups’ goals” (Johnson and Johnson as cited in Dixon, p. 18).

Preview of Part 2

This idea of the collective good is where I think I may start when I tackle the post about integrating Schein’s and Dixon’s theories of dialogue with Lanier’s feelings about collective wisdom. And I will be remiss if I don’t take the opportunity to springboard off Schein’s discussion of naming (and the platypus story) to share Lanier’s views on communication, computationalism, reality… and cephalopods. (How’s that for a teaser!)


Dixon, N. M. (1996). Perspectives on dialogue. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

Schein, E. H. (1999). Process consultation revisited. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Vella, J. (2008). On teaching and learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Posted by on November 3, 2013 in ADLT 610


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