Dialogue is people talking together. The important thing is that the people agree to do just that and nothing else. They are not concerned with winning arguments, coming to conclusions, solving problems, resolving conflicts, achieving consensus – or anything else other than talking. This gives them an opportunity to delve into talking and what it does.

Talking plays a big role in creating and sustaining human culture. Culture is built out of the words, metaphors, points of view, ideas, beliefs, etc. that people exchange. This is true in any kind of meeting, whatever its purpose. The process of talking underlies the business meeting as well as idle conversations in the pub. It is shared by men and women, by young and old, by people from the east and from the west.

Talking deliberately, yet without any explicit purpose, is at first felt as strange. But, most people rapidly adjust; after all, talking is a natural human activity. It helps us to find meaning. However we talk, we are immersed in meaning, even if we have no apparent purpose.

There is a meaning which comes into effect as we talk and does not have to be ‘thought-up’ before we talk to guide us (having an agenda and chairperson, etc.). So, the meaning that is emerging as we talk can guide the way we talk.[1] This was the idea of David Bohm, who did so much to spread the way of dialogue. He said that the very word ‘dialogue’ means ‘to go through meaning’: dia – ‘through’ and logos – ‘meaning’. Dialogue is then the ‘way’ of meaning, the Tao of the logos! It is an art and skill that allows the natural process to unfold. Just as people used to consider the nature of a forest or jungle as wild, untamed, irrational so do many people today regard the process of dialogue as anarchic, chaotic and unproductive.

To practice dialogue, to take the way of meaning, is a conscious work. It requires whatever alertness, sensitivity, maturity, love and intelligence we can muster. But, whatever the degree of our experience, dialogue involves the unknown. The dialogue process challenges itself. [2]

There are a few informal ‘rules of etiquette’ which can be helpful.

  1. Listening. We are used to reacting to what others say and engaging in a back-and-forth style of conversation, trying to make our point. In dialogue, whatever anyone says has first of all to be listened to and allowed to stand just as it is. There is no such thing as a ‘wrong idea’. But, there may well be contradictory ideas, or just different ideas. The different ideas are put forward to stand side by side with each other. So, our first discipline is to listen to what is said by everyone.
  2. Diversity. The more diverse the people and their points of view, the better. The only way in which we can see into our own assumptions is to be confronted by views that differ from our own. Dialogue does not seek to resolve differences, only to clarify them. The general outlook is that each of us sees the reality but only partially. There is the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man feels a part of the elephant and interprets what it is accordingly. Maybe, if they exchanged their ideas they would come to some understanding of the real elephant. But, is there an elephant at all!
  3. Closure. The dialogue process takes place within a certain compass of space and time. By and large, people are encouraged to stay together in the same room and only leave or separate when they all agree to do so. This means, in practice, that the ending of the event is a delicate matter. The process of dialogue may arouse inner questioning into previously undisturbed areas and the group needs to be sensitive to this. It needs to look into whether the process is adequately finished. Once the dialogue is agreed to be over, it is advisable not to refer to issues raised in it afterwards in other kinds of conversation. This can spoil things.
  4. Present moment. As far as is reasonable and possible, the more the conversation concerns what is happening ‘now’ the better. This makes it more alive. We are used to having conversations based on things that have happened to us the past, or on thoughts we have had in the past. It may take some time to adjust to having a present moment conversation that is related to the process in hand. This process concerns how we think, believe, experience, judge, conceive, etc.
  5. Facilitation. There is no facilitator. Or, everyone is a facilitator. No-one is more an expert than anyone else. Each is considered as an ‘expert’ in their own specific way. Everyone is responsible for what happens. Anyone may intervene as they see fit. The most important factor can be: those who tend to speak choosing not to speak, and those who tend not to speak choosing to speak.
  6. Patience. There is some requirement to be patient. Sometimes, people feel that the process is bogged down or going nowhere. They may even experience frustration. This is not ‘bad’. Whatever happens is what the people have made happen. If people stay with the process it evolves itself, even though we may not be directly aware of this on the time-scale of our present moment.
  7. Application. People who become inspired by dialogue may want to apply it in their work situation or in other kinds of meeting. The general advice here is not to attempt this. Whatever one gains out of dialogue will spontaneously find its way into the way one enters into ordinary conversations. One is able to listen and think in a different way.

Dialogue concerns individuals acting together with maximum diversity. Since the process cannot be described in mechanistic terms, the preparation for dialogue must concern the education of expectations. It is very important that people do not gather under false pretences: as if for a discussion, or to solve some problem or reach agreement. As far as possible, all who gather should clearly realise that very little is guaranteed. [3]


[1] This means that dialogue is a process that involves intrinsic rather than extrinsic controls. It is a self-organising process such as consciousness itself.

[2] A group that claims to take up this challenge is the School of Ignorance. ‘Ignorance’ is not simply the negative of knowledge but an independent factor necessary for creative action. In some ways, it corresponds to the ‘media’ factor spoken of by Edward Matchett.

[3] The theory of dialogue involves reference to what Bohm calls the ‘information field’. This is not a field of energy, yet has an influence on all events which ‘pass through’ it. When a group meets for dialogue, their gathering entails a specific information field that will unfold through the energies of interaction between the people.

Background Reading:

David Bohm’s ‘On Dialogue’ (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1996) is the most important reference. Included in this volume are important essays on the nature of thought and consciousness.

A more technical book is Patrick de Mare’s ‘Koinonia: from hate through dialogue to culture in the large group’ (London: Karnac Books, 1991) which comes from a psychoanalytic background.

Anthony Blake’s ‘Structures of Meaning’ (Bridgewater, New Jersey: UNIS Institute, 1996) gives a far-ranging survey and deals with associated methodologies.

School of Ignorance

The School of Ignorance is associated with the Union of International Associations (UIA) and the initiative of Anthony Judge in particular. In ‘Structures of Meaning’ Anthony Blake includes a report on School of Ignorance dialogues in 1994 and 1995. In its most recent manifestation, there is a call for an ‘impossible meeting of impossible people’ as outlined in the following document.


Self-organised on the initiative of the School of Ignorance


The proposed gathering is an exercise in undertaking the impossible with impossible people. It is a high-risk gathering of serious intent in response to the conditions of the times. It is intended for those who see the need for demonstrating the viability of new approaches to meeting organisation as a model for new approaches to social organisation.

The event is also intended to be intriguing to those jaded by the boredom of conventional meeting processes — especially to those in search of more meaningful and fruitful gatherings. It should also be fun.

As a self-organising event, it will constitute an arena for the interaction of differing projections concerning how such an event should be organised, and on what it should focus. It is inspired by the belief that responsible participants are capable of navigating any initial chaos at the gathering in order to reach new patterns of dialogue that have not been predetermined.

The informal School of Ignorance, as initiator of this event, will endeavour to give it a measure of stability without predetermining the structures and processes that may emerge. Essentially all that they will bring is the shared confidence that a gathering can successfully survive lack of prior structure, process, agenda, leadership and facilitators. This confidence recognises that participants collectively have the resources to detect and correct any imbalance in meeting processes.

Call for imaginative projections

There are many ways to imagine such an event. This is a call for your vision on how you — as a potential participant — would endeavour to configure it. What is the minimum you consider should be pre-arranged?

Put differently, what kind of gathering would you want to make happen to make a difference at this critical period? Or, alternatively, what would it take for you to want to attend such an event? Who do you think should attend? What sort of context would make it possible for the impossible people you respect to attend — without totally disrupting or paralysing the event?

In a self-organising event, your vision would be one of a spectrum of approaches which would together condition the gathering as a whole. It is from the pattern of interference between these approaches that the significance of the gathering as a hole will emerge. What would guarantee that it is more than an exercise in collective indulgence?


The gathering is intended for those who have already experienced many international events and recognize that new approaches are required.

It is not a place to simply highlight what is going wrong, nor to draw attention to preferred strategies and initiatives. It is not a place to “call for action”, to make declarations, to indicate what “should” be done, to deplore what is not being done by others, or to celebrate what has been achieved. Nor is it a place for “show and tell” (although display tables, etc. will be available). All these all have their place in other arenas. What else is possible?

The gathering is intended for those who are seeking other approaches — less obvious, second and third order responses. It is for those:

  • who are weary of being subject to persuasive argument and manipulative agendas and facilitation
  • who want a way beyond “being positive” or “being negative”
  • who recognise that, without the possibility of sharing doubt, there can be no meaningful dialogue
  • and for others that you may consider appropriate

Impossible people?

Why “impossible people” — because it is they who tend not to conform to the practices of conventional meetings. They also tend to resist forms of organisation for which they are not directly responsible.

Although highly creative and often influential, it is usually difficult to benefit from their presence at conventional gatherings. Some of them need to be carefully “managed” by friends. Some are eccentric by any standard. Some find it impossible to convey their insights to others in any meaningful way.

You are receiving this communication because it is believed that you will enjoy considering yourself to be in this category — or that that you have appreciation for such people.

Stars and Planets

Stars on the conference circuit are usually Very Impossible People (VIPs). This gathering is not planned around such stars because of the inflexibility and costs that they tend to impose on event organisation. However if they choose to come under their own auspices and financing, they will of course be welcome.

But there are various international groups whose key figures would be interested in the event. Their stars will be invited to name a younger person in their solar system to represent them. You may care to indicate names of such stars or their groups.

In general, participants will be representing themselves, rather than movements or schools of ideas.

Images of the gathering

For those with jaded attitudes towards new meetings, the most attractive feature of such a gathering would be surprise. Less information is then better than more.

Various groups of participants will share different expectations. The event itself will be born of the interactions between these expectations.

Some images might include: an experiment in self-organisation; a Taoist Crazy Wisdom conference; a psychodrama; a collective meditation; etc. It should expose us to the reasons as to why together we cannot achieve more. It will also be a gathering of friends — or, at least, friends of friends. It should be serious fun.

The event will have elements comparable to the Organisation Transformation (OT) gatherings or to Open Space initiatives. It may even include participants from such series. However, in this case, participants will be coming from a wider range of backgrounds and commitments. Anthony Judge, c/o UIA, 40 rue Washington, B-1050, Brussels, Belgium.