What is personal mastery? And how does it relate to dialogue?
When talking about personal mastery in the context of dialogue, it is impossible not to mention L. Freeman Dhority. Alongside Peter Senge, Dhority founded the Dialogue Project at MIT and chaired the department of critical and creative thinking at the University of Massachusetts/Boston until 1995.
Personal mastery incarnates a kind of self-awareness which applies to our body and our mind. One of the aims in dialogue is to slow down our thought processes in order to observe them. Bohm called it proprioception:
„The word proprioception is used in biology and medicine and means essentially the same as self-perception or self-awareness. It is more or less the same as what technical people call “feedback”. In a psychological sense, proprioception amounts to a kind of awakening of awareness to itself i.e. awareness becoming aware of awareness. Proprioception means that awareness now also considers its own operations as something to be taken into account.” David Bohm
The reason behind this, is to distinguish between “thoughting” and thinking. Thoughting refers to already thought out thoughts, which we repeat absent-mindedly without ever questioning their validity or relevance within our present context. In a dialogue we are asked to examine our assumptions and opinions; in short, our thoughts. This helps us to uncover their origins and to understand the connections between our thoughts, communication and behaviour.
„There are three principles in a man’s being and life: The principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say.“ Martin Buber
In a conversation, we usually think that our reaction is directly caused by another person’s behaviour. There is a skill in dialogue which is called observing the observer. It is a process of introspection, during which we become aware that emotional responses can sometimes be triggered simply by the sound of someone’s voice; The memory of which f.ex. reminds us of a past event, bringing up specific images or feelings. Realizing that thoughts have patterns that are sometimes tied incoherently to our emotions, thus creating similarly incoherent behaviours, is key to Bohm’s concept of wholeness.
Practicing and understanding personal mastery within dialogue promotes our listening ability, contributes to more coherent behavioural patterns and improves interactional processes, like building trust, creating new thought content and so on.
Freeman Dhority and his partner, Steffi Dobkowitz have been giving yearly seminars on personal mastery at St. Arbogast in Austria for nearly a decade now. Both are exceptional dialogue facilitators who have a long history of working with dialogue all over the world. As a first time attendant I can highly recommend their seminar which lasted a weekend and was equally satisfying, both as a participant and as a dialogue facilitator. The dialogue sessions were simultaneously stimulating and profound. There was an immediate wish for trustworthiness. As a facilitator myself, I gained a deeper understanding of what personal mastery entails and how paramount it is to creating trust within a group.
Most importantly the seminar acted as a reminder, of how powerful dialogue can be. It brings forth this intangible connection human being have with each other. Although half of the participants knew each other, the other half were total strangers. Dialogue enabled a space, where we were able to meet each other truthfully and candidly without judgement and prejudice.