Dialogue: A book review by Bob Morris

DialogueDialogue: The Art of Thinking Together Hardcover
William Isaacs
Crown Business (September 1999)

The Power of Interactive Humanity

Note: I posted the review that follows 14 years ago and recently re-read the book while preparing to review Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company’s Deep Smarts and interview one of its co-authors, Dorothy Leonard. Obsessed as many people are to know (if not read) the “latest, newest” business bestseller, according to what “they say,” the fact remains that many books published ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago offer even greater value now than they did then. That is why they are viewed as “classics.” Dialogue is an excellent example.

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According to the subtitle, Isaacs provides “a pioneering approach to communicating in business and in life.” This he does with insight and eloquence. There is a great need for what this book provides, especially now as organizations are (finally) beginning to appreciate the importance of supporting (indeed nourishing) the personal as well as the professional development of their “human capital.” The word “dialogue” denotes conversation between two or more persons. Moreover, the original meaning of the word “conversation” is to turn around, to transform; later, the word’s meaning evolved to “living, dwelling, and associating with others.” Today, most of us think of conversation as “talk.” Some of us think of it as a “lost art.”

Isaacs obviously has both words clearly in mind as he introduces his “pioneering approach.” His purpose is to explain HOW effective dialogue, dialogue which is “about a shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together”, can increase and enhance human dignity and understanding. How important is face-to-face communication? My own opinion is that it is more important now than ever before. However, again my opinion, the quality of face-to-face communication has rapidly deteriorated in this age of high-speed electronic “connectivity.”

Isaacs’ book is organized into five “Parts”:

1. What Is Dialogue
2. Building Capacity for New Behavior (i.e. listening, respecting, suspending, and voicing)
3. Predictive Intuition
4. Architecture of the Invisible
5. Widening the Circle

For me, one of the most important of Isaacs’ themes is so obvious, so simple: Show your respect for others by listening carefully to what they say. Dialogue worthy of the name is based on mutual respect. Hence the importance of attitude. Dialogue worthy of the name requires mastery of certain skills that can be taught. Isaacs provides all manner of practical suggestions as to HOW (a) to establish the proper attitude within any organization and (b) to strengthen the specific skills needed to sustain that attitude.

Near the end of his brilliant book, Isaacs observes: “Dialogue enables a `free flow of meaning,’ which has the potential of transforming the power relationships among the people concerned. As this free flow emerges, it becomes quite apparent that no one person owns this flow and that no one can legislate it. People can learn to embody it, and in a sense serve it. This is perhaps the most significant shift possible in dialogue: that power is no longer the province of a person in a role, or any single individual, but at the level of alignment an individual or group has with Life itself.” If the comments expressed in this brief excerpt speak to your own needs and/or the needs of your organization, you don’t need my endorsement. You already know what to do: Buy the book.

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