Creativity & Dialogue

Creativity & Dialogue


According to Bohm, creativity is an essential part of dialogue:

“All of this is part of collective thought – people thinking together. At some stage, we would share our opinions without hostility, and we would then be able to think together (…). An example of people thinking together would be that somebody would get an idea, somebody else would take it up, somebody else would add to it. The thought would flow, rather than there being a lot of different people, each trying to persuade or convince the others.” (D. Bohm, 2004)

In a group context, creativity is often referred to in terms of creative ideas. Robert Sternberg, a psychologist who has contributed a great deal to the study of creativity argues that for ideas to be creative, they have to be novel and valuable (R. Sternberg, 2006). For him, it is a process of deciding to generate ideas, to analyse them and promote them (Ibid.). As a consequence, creativity by its nature is propulsion (Ibid.) Groups have a better chance at supporting and fostering the conditions under which creativity can arise – yet conversely, are capable of hindering the creative process.

When I work with groups, I often notice, especially in the beginning, two interconnected phenomena: The first is that people in groups tend to immediately get comfortable in fixed roles. For example, there is always someone who enjoys speaking more than the rest, just as there is always someone who is quieter than most. Now within the first meeting of the group, these two people are likely to embody two roles within the group that for them will be hard to shake off: the dominant/leader and the timid/follower. This, in turn, will likely lead to adversarial dynamics within the group’s work processes, leading to attitudes of stubbornness/defensiveness, pride of authorship and dominating. The second phenomenon is a direct consequence of this and is noticeable in the language and communication that the group subsequently creates and uses. The characteristics this language and communication will engender, are prone to propagating disparagement, constant criticism and discord between its members. All of which hinder creativity and ultimately obstruct working as a group.

So, how do we avoid the trap of these “two roles”?

If you aren’t familiar with my previous posts, this might come as a shocker: By introducing dialogue as a main communicational attitude.

One of dialogue’s major attributes is that it favours non-hierarchical structures within groups. This is achieved by establishing the four main dialogic skills: deep listening, suspension, total respect and articulation. Let’s do a brief examination of these four essential skills and see how they can facilitate creativity within a group setting.

When David Bohm conceived the concept of dialogue, he drew inspiration from the philosopher and pedagogue Jiddu Krishnamurti:

“I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen, it doesn’t matter to what, whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters, or how you listen to a dialogue with yourself, to your conversation in various relationships with your intimate friends, your wife or husband. If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate we hardly listen to what is being said. In that state, there is no value at all. One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence in which this whole background is in abeyance, is quiet; then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.” (from Talk and Dialogues Saanen 1967 1st Public Talk 9th July 1967)

In order to really listen to the members of the group, we need to let go of our own opinions, preoccupations and prejudices. Only then are we able to truly listen to someone and giving them our full attention. In doing so, we are able to empathize with the people around us. This, in turn, will override our urge to constantly defend our ideas and opinions. Defensiveness often shuts down creativity within a group because an idea is kept from developing and unfolding with each member adding something to it.

Which brings us to the second dialogic skill, that of being able to suspend our opinions.

“People will come to a gathering from somewhat different cultures and sub-cultures, with different assumptions and opinions. And they may not realize it, but they have some tendency to defend their assumptions and opinions reactively against evidence that they are not right, or simply a similar tendency to defend them against somebody who has another opinion.” (D. Bohm)

The group dynamic this creates can be described as pride of authorship. It starts with being too attached to our own ideas and opinions to the point of identifying ourselves with them. We then are no longer able to listen to others because our main concern is to keep track of who said what or who had which idea. This dynamic destroys not only the collective creativity within a group but also hinders some people to freely express themselves. Yet if we suspend our assumptions and opinions, “… the whole group becomes a mirror for each person. Seeing this whole process is very helpful in bringing out what’s going on.” (D. Bohm) Indeed, suspending our opinions and assumptions facilitates holistic dynamics like synergy (i.a. Peter Senge) or flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

Respect is the third dialogic skill, which also helps to facilitate group creativity. Contrarily to its common use, respect is actually a rather active course of action. When we respect someone, we see him or her as an entirety and act accordingly. William Isaacs described respecting someone, as a constant endeavour to look for their origin of experience. Respecting each other within a group setting means doing away with external hierarchies and instead treating each other as equal human beings. The positives of this course of action include that there is not one dominant figure, which towers over the rest of the group members. Instead, the group will win as a whole, because with total respect comes equality in status and ideas/opinions will flow freely and openly. The risks of depreciation, intimidation and constant criticism are creativity’s main suppressants and are likely to cease in a respectful environment.

Respecting others usually starts with respecting oneself, which includes owning a bit of confidence. When we express ourselves, we create. This is why articulation is important in dialogue and its fourth main skill. Communicating is itself creative since it connects our thoughts to language which in turn guides our actions. Articulating what is on our minds and/or in our hearts is a very complex skill to get right. It presupposes honesty and truth toward ourselves and the people around us. Finding our voice engenders infinite rewards because it gives others the chance to see into our own world. By articulating our thought processes, which can include emotional tracks or memories, other members of the group will get a better understanding of who we are as a person. With the deepening of this knowledge, comes the freedom and security to express what might have been otherwise hidden ideas which can lead to new creations.

Dialogue is about collective thought processes roaming freely within a group. It is therefore important that we articulate what is in our minds and hearts with the utmost respect towards the group as a whole. This includes suspending our own pre-set opinions while simultaneously carefully listening to the people in our group. A challenge, certainly. But infinitely rewarding in its essence.