Thinking about Dialogue… Part 1

03 Nov

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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2 responses to “Thinking about Dialogue… Part 1

  1. searchingforknowledge

    November 24, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Wow, what a thorough blog post! And thank you for reminding me of why I enjoyed Vella so much last year. Now I want to re-read her book again! Her words are comforting. Her principles of dialogue and learning are so personal that it makes me want to create that atmosphere in the classroom or train the facilitators in Vella. I am still contemplating the difference between discussion and dialogue. True dialogue transforms, right? A perspective, an idea or maybe even a person. It’s a lofty goal for the classroom. Dixon also touches on it in her writing, but Vella really paints the picture for me. Thank you!


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