Rumi-Quotes-10Dialogue is an over-used and much abused term for a very specific means of communication that we rarely employ effectively today.  As a practitioner of dialogue, I have studied and learned from three thinkers who represent three different traditions and are woven together into what I offer to students today.  The three thinkers are:

  1. Professor David Bohm, physicist
  2. Dr. Peter Senge, MIT professor and business consultant
  3. Gregory Kramer, teacher of Insight Dialogue

For instructions on the practice, see:

Insight Dialogue

Thinking about Dialogue 

While the word “dialogue” is often used today as a substitute for polite discussion or conversation, it is used here to signify a specific discipline with a particular meaning and intent.  A dialogue is a group communication process in which participants practice certain techniques to enhance their individual and collective learning.  In dialogue there is a shared commitment to inquiry without necessarily reaching a decision or taking a specific action.  In fact, the expectation or even a hope that a decision will be achieved by consensus or otherwise is enough to derail the dialogue process, especially among beginners.

It may be useful to think about what a dialogue is not.  As stated above it is not a decision-making process, although it can result in relationships among group members that make decision-making much easier.  It is not a tool for planning action, yet it can produce the kind of mutual respect and understanding that improves the likelihood of successful group action.  A single individual does not lead it, however a facilitator is needed to help get it started and guide the process.

The root of the word “dialogue” is from the Greek “dia” or through and “logos” or word or meaning.  Therefore, the dialogue process is a stream of meaning that flows through and among the participants.  On the other hand, the word “discussion” has the same root as percussion and concussion.  A useful image of a discussion might be a ping-pong game using words that bounce back and forth. In dialogue, members of the group can explore but go beyond any individual understanding.  New insights may be gained that were not possible through thinking in isolation.  Participants help each other observe the incoherence in each other’s thought as people learn how to think together, sharing thoughts, emotions, and feelings while reflecting on their own.

Early in the creation of a dialogue group, a decision should be made regarding its intent.  This is important to avoid creating expectations that will go unmet and subsequent disappointment and criticism of the effort that is sure to follow.  Ask the question, is the primary purpose of this work to make a decision or take some action or, is the intent improved individual and collective exploration and understanding of a situation (which may or may not result in a decision or action).  This is important.  If the primary intent is exploration and learning through inquiry, insight dialogue is in order.

Our Dialogue Class

STOCKSCH 391A – Dialogue on Agricultural Issues

The Stockbridge School of Agriculture offers a one credit, pass/fail class called Dialogue on Agricultural Issues.  The class is open to all students but is designed to help Sustainable Food and Farming majors practice mindful communication while thinking deeply about sustainable agriculture.

Syllabus – Fall 2018

Brief Description: Sitting in a circle, students will practice the technique of insight dialogue while developing an individual and community-based understanding of current issues affecting food and farming systems.  This course is open to any interested student.  No prerequisites.

Purpose: To provide you with an opportunity to explore your understanding of agricultural sustainability in an environment where you are encouraged practice mindfulness communication techniques.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will become aware of issues related to agricultural sustainability that are currently of concern to citizens, businesses and scientists, and express their own opinions and ideas relating to these ideas.
  2. Students will learn communications tools such as suspended judgment, identification of assumptions, whole-body listening, and parallel thinking while exploring the relationship between perception and thought.
  3. Students will increase their knowledge of diverse perspectives, develop their own understanding, clarify their personal values, and explore a community-based ethical framework which affects how they think and act related to these issues.

Class Format: One or more readings (or a video) will be offered to students each week on a specific topic.  The technique of insight dialogue will be taught and practiced during a once-a-week meeting of students and instructors.  The dialogue will focus on the content of the reading while allowing students an opportunity to practice the insight dialogue technique.

Readings: Readings will be made available online (linked below).  There is no textbook.

Grades: Grading is pass/fail only and is based on attendance and class participation.  Attendance is required, and more than 2 unexcused absences will result in failure.

Time: Tuesday; 2:30pm – 3:45pm

Instructor: John M. Gerber, Professor of Sustainable Food and Farming

Contact: jgerber@umass.edu


September 4 – Welcome: Introduction to Dialogue and Each Other

In which we get to know each other, learn about the practice of dialogue and decide to continue or to drop this class…

September 11 – Building Membership and Practice Dialogue in Class

Homework – read before class the description of Intro to Dialogue and examine the first three steps under “Practicing ID” (1. Pause, 2. Relax, 3. Open)

In which we continue to build membership, establish group norms and practice dialogue following a short video.

September 18 – Practicing Dialogue with Dr. Norman Borlaug

Homework – read before class– Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity

In which we learn about the scientist responsible for the Green Revolution.

September 25 – Practicing Dialogue with Dr. Vandana Shiva

Homework – read before class – Nothing Green about the Green Revolution

In which we learn from one of the major critics of the unintended consequences of the Green Revolution.

October 2 – Practicing Dialogue with John Ikerd

Homework – read before class – Sustainable Agriculture is NOT optional

In which we hear from one of the leading academic voices advocating for a more sustainable agriculture.

October 9 – Monday Class Schedule (no class)

October 16 – Practicing Dialogue with Starhawk

Homework – read before class – Excerpt from the Fifth Sacred Thing

In which we hear from one of the leading activist voices advocating for a more resilient world.

October 23 –Practicing Dialogue with farmer, Elizabeth Henderson and blogger, Lindsey.

Homework – read before class – 5 Reasons I Buy Organic Foods at Walmart


Organic Food: Where do we go from here? 

In which we explore the meaning of the word “organic”, hearing from one of the leading farmers advocating for a broader understanding of organic and a consumer celebrating industrial (affordable and accessible) organic foods. 

October 30 – Practicing Dialogue with Richard Heinberg

Homework – read before Class – FIFTY MILLION FARMERS

In which we examine a likely future for agriculture in the U.S. and the need for more intelligent farmers from diverse backgrounds and experiences. 

November 6 –Practicing Dialogue with John Gerber

Homework – read before Class – Thought is Not Enough

In which we examine the nature of thinking and feeling and their relationship to the way we choose to live.   We will also review our progress practicing dialogue.b  

November 13 –Practicing Dialogue with Todd Leake

Homework – read before class – Breadbasket of Democracy

In which we learn about a North Dakota wheat farmer who took on and won a battle against Monsanto.

November 27 –Practicing Dialogue with the Earth Mother

Homework – read (slowly) before class excerpts from The Place Called Attar

In which we learn about the lessons the Earth Mother is trying to teach some of her children, and how humans seem to need to learn “the hard way”

December 4 – Closing, Grading and Evaluation

December 11 –  No class (snow day in case classes are cancelled on Dec. 4)

Best references

  • Bohm, D. On Dialogue. Routledge: London. 2004
  • Ellinor, L. and G. Gerard. Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Kramer, G. Meditating Together, Speaking from Silence: Experiencing the Dharma in Dialogue.  Metta Foundation, Portland OR. (info@metta.org).
  • Senge, P.M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. Currency/Doubleday. 1990.
  • Wheatley, M.J. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. Berrett-Koehler.
  • Web Page –https://metta.org/insight-dialogue-3/. This web page provides detailed instructions on practicing Insight Dialogue.

Best related references

  • Bohm, D. Thought as a System. Routledge: London. 1992.
  • Bohm, D. and D. Peat. Science, Order, and Creativity: A Dramatic New Look at the Creative Roots of Science and Life.  Bantam Books. 1987.
  • The Awakening of Intelligence. Harper/Collins. 1973.
  • Krishnamurti and D. Bohm. The Ending of Time.  Harper/Collins.
  • Peat, D.F. Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Reading, MA. 1997
  • Schon, D. A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Harper/Collins. 1983.
  • Varela, F.J., E. Thompson and E. Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. 1996.