Dialogue Guidelines to Deepen Awareness (Part 2)

This is the second of three posts in which I share some insightful guidelines for expanding individual and group consciousness by highlighting certain dynamics during dialogue exercises. For more information and background about this remarkable approach, see the first post in the series.


by Jeff Groethe and Tom Atlee

(For full explanatory material see Part 1.)


Several interrelated principles remind us of attitudes we want to sustain in Dialogue:

• Learning (covered in the previous post.)

• Presence (covered in this post)
• Respect (covered in this post)
• Responsibility for Experience (covered in this post)

• Shared Inquiry (to be covered in the next post)
• Non-efforting (to be covered in the next post)
• Wholeness (to be covered in the next post)

The guidelines provided below under Presence, Respect, and Responsibility for Experience give us ways to challenge ourselves to understand and live each principle more fully, especially in formal Dialogue practice.  They give shape to our aspiration for mindful, present, authentic shared awareness and communication.

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Principle Two


Present experience, sensed fully enough, contains everything we need to deepen our inquiry. We could, then, define Dialogue as inquiry into present experience. A number of factors contribute to our presence in Dialogue:

7) Maintaining engagement

How engaged do we feel? If we find ourselves disengaging, we can become present with our disengagement. We can notice any factors contributing to it (e.g., general fatigue, unfamiliar terms or concepts, lack of opportunity to speak). Simply recognizing our disengagement may re-engage us. We can also speak up or ask a question. Interestingly enough, describing to the group our sense of disengagement engages them in our world and us in theirs, evaporating the disengagement.

Noticing and speaking our disengagement can, by itself, help us keep engaged.

8) Relaxed whole-experience alertness

Attention that focuses outward can dissociate us from our “inner” experience, while attention that focusses inward can dissociate us from our “outer” experience. Can all aspects of experience stay included in present sensing rather than creating a focus/dissociation split?

In a relaxed, alert whole-experience state nothing in experience gets “lost” through focusing.

9) Staying present while listening

How often do we notice ourselves preparing or waiting to speak and not really listening to others speaking? If our good listening prevents us from speaking, it may indicate a need to slow down the speed of the Dialogue or practice some turn-taking technique (e.g., through circles or enforced pauses).

Noticing how our attention moves from what others are saying to what we want to say can help us remain alert and support such alertness in our group.

10) Staying present with the past

Our sense of the past manifests in the form of present-time thoughts, feelings and images. One technique for growing into the present involves describing our sense of the past in the present tense. For example: “When I think of what you said, I feel anxious.” Or “The image I have of our last meeting is one of real harmony.” Or “I assume that my parents wanted a daughter when I was born.”

We can stay in the present more successfully when we speak from the reality that the past exists only in our present thoughts and feelings.

11) Accepting our experience

Presence involves “being with what is” – a willingness to feel what we feel and experience what we experience. Avoidance and denial lead to stuck feelings and blind spots in our thinking. When we accept our experience, it informs and animates us. When we push experience away, it pushes back, degrading our awareness, health and relationships.

Dialogue calls us to embrace as much of our experience as we can.

12) Speaking and acting with authenticity

Accepting and staying engaged with our whole experience generates a reality from which we can speak and act. Authenticity involves remaining true to that reality and inviting others to share in it. It is living into fuller coherence between our inner experience and how we present ourselves to the world.

Becoming present means challenging ourselves to greater and greater levels of authenticity.

Principle Three


A respectful attitude in Dialogue means not just granting others the right to be who they are, but especially respecting the whole that we form together. Rather than stepping outside of that whole to relate to someone, we listen to the voice of the whole speaking within and around us and appreciate what each of us brings to that whole. We try to use descriptive or additive – rather than negative – language when responding to one another. To the extent we do this, we will all feel drawn into and held by the whole rather than pushed or drifting into separation.

13. Exploring present experience rather than giving out feedback

Thoughts and feelings that arise in relation to others can enrich the Dialogue. However, in order to respect the whole that we form together, I don’t “give out” feedback as if to give you a gift of my insight or experience, nor do I push or hit you with it. I may explore feelings, perceptions and interpretations that arise in me in response to something you said or did, but that exploration has to do with my inquiry and my learning as an intrinsic part of the group. I don’t focus on you, attempting to get you to learn or understand something.

We can re-perceive feedback – given, received, or witnessed – as potential insight arising from the whole group’s interactions to inform the whole group’s consciousness.

14. Shared intention regarding directiveness

Occasionally one may have creative flashes and want to lead the group or an individual in an experiment or in a certain direction. One may also want to shift the attention of the group to look at some underlying dynamic one sees going on, or wish to ask a question expecting a direct answer. Such directiveness can serve the group, but only if all involved agree to its value. Of course disagreement can also be a stimulus for inquiry and exploring assumptions.

When one part of the whole group seeks to direct the attention or action of another part of the whole group – or direct the group as a whole – the spirit of respect is honored by inviting shared intention and readily letting go of the impulse if it is not shared.

15. Empathy

Empathy means listening from the inside, not from the outside as an observer. Whoever speaks, speaks as a voice of the whole of which we are a part. Hear as if you spoke those words; as if you had the experience from which the words come. Refrain from reassuring, critiquing, or solving, which tend to produce self-consciousness or resistance. Don’t do anything (such as probing with questions) that diverts attention from the process that needs to unfold.

Listening into shared experience paradoxically both respects and dissolves boundaries among the participants.

Principle Four


From particle physics to psychology experiments in perception and memory, we’re discovering how powerfully the limitations and structures of our mind and senses shape what we believe we have perceived and what we think we know.

Our experience will unfold as a function of what we’ve brought to that experience. Our models and postulates will condition what we discover. Change the model and we see something different which may be equally valid. Reality becomes more a function of personal and collective thought patterns. We evoke reality at least as much as we are affected by it.

There is always way more going on – both inside us and around us – than we can actually comprehend. Experience indicates how we’ve organized meaning rather than what “is” objectively real. (In some ways, “reality” could be said to be illusory, as many mystics claim. However, Philip K. Dick provides a useful balance to that: “Reality is what’s still there when you stop believing in it.”)

We can together embrace more of what’s real – and reframe what we think is real – by seeing through the lenses of our diverse experience (a phenomenon known as intersubjectivity). Dialogue involves an effort to take in more of what’s available to be seen – especially to notice the ways we limit and structure our experience and to take responsibility for that as active participant-observers.

16. Suspending judgments

By the word “judgment” we mean a particular type of classifying characterized by dividing things and experiences into evaluative categories like true/false, good/bad, and right/wrong. And by “suspending” we mean both “to set aside” (so our judgments don’t dominate our seeing, thinking and feeling) and “to hang in our midst” (so they can be collectively observed and questioned).

A trap with judgmental labels is that using them makes it very easy to forget or discount the biases we bring to evaluations. We assume an “objective observer” stance and pass judgment as to what “is” or “isn’t” true, right or good.

With the ending of clearly accessible objectivity – driven by modern science as much as by philosophy – we can no longer assume the existence of truth in any absolute sense. Our cherished beliefs – without the assumption of truth or the investment of our identity – become postulates that we can question freely without any feeling of personal threat. We evaluate a postulate as to its usefulness and its role in larger understandings rather than its “truth”.

Evaluations based on usefulness do not imply the “objective stance” of judgments because the questions “useful to whom?” and “useful for what purpose?” immediately come up. The contribution of the evaluator’s intention as well as the assumptions and values underlying that intention immediately become plain.

Stage of development can also serve as a basis for making non-judgmental distinctions. It adds the implication of change over time which helps avoid the conclusiveness of judgment. Things can be tentatively concluded based on more or less comprehensive information or the extent or stage of their unfolding or their place in the larger evolving scheme of things.

Dialogue invites us to that dynamic place of relationship that the Persian poet Rumi described vividly – “Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there” – and adds that the field also lies beyond notions of true and false, good and bad, and other evaluative approaches. Dialogue’s invitation is as open as we want it to be.

17. Suspending assumptions

An assumption is an assumption because we assume it: we take it on as the way things are. It is transparent: We see through it since it is a lens that helps us make our sense of the world. So it is very hard for each of us to identify our own assumptions. However, since we don’t all share the same assumptions, it is not so hard for me to notice yours and for you to notice mine – at least if we consciously pay attention to that.

Feelings of disagreement often harbor hidden assumptions at their roots and can thus direct our attention in that direction. Dialogue among diverse people can thus help us all see the assumptions underlying what we believe, say and do.

In this guideline “suspending” emphasizes the second definition described in #16 above – “to hang up” as if for all to see. So suspending assumptions simply means noting or articulating them for the group. In Dialogue practice, “suspending” also implies a lack of identity investment or ownership of the assumption (whether it is ours or someone else’s) so that the group can now feel free to explore it or question it without offending anyone.

Dialogue is perhaps most uniquely about identifying and holding up assumptions that separate us, en route to understanding and experiencing the more fundamental common ground of our shared consciousness.*

18. Responsibility for feeling

Typically we confuse feelings and perceptions with “reality” and discount our participation in forming what we feel and perceive. While feelings and perceptions may not establish “objective” reality, they do accurately reflect how we’ve organized meaning.

In Dialogue we take responsibility for feeling by locating its source in our assumptions and interpretations rather than making the codependent assumption of “I or it makes you feel ____” or “you or it makes me feel ____”. We can say, for example, “When you say that, I feel ___ because I’m assuming _____ (or telling myself a story that _____)”.

Taking responsibility for feeling by locating its source in the realm of our assumptions and interpretations leads to a greater sense of personal freedom.

19. Interest in disturbance

Surfacing and questioning deeply held assumptions and habits of consciousness often feels disturbing. Interest in disturbance means using it as a cue for self-exploration and unraveling stuck parts of our consciousness rather than indulging in avoidance and blame.

A feeling of disturbance lets us know the limitations of the coherence of our current understanding. It points to areas ripe for fresh insight, for aspects of life with which we have not yet fully engaged.

To embrace disturbance as a cue for self-exploration, we must resist the conditioned urge of fight or flight.

* Our Dialogue facilitator Jeff Groethe recalls that “the exercise to suspend (articulate) at least one assumption you are making each time you speak often led to lots of laughter.  We named it the Hahayana.  For literally weeks and weeks on end we spent a good portion of our time laughing.”

= = = =

In the third and last post we will explore the indicators for
• Shared inquiry
• Non-efforting and
• Wholeness

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I have a strong sense that the future we build will be greatly enhanced if we develop our ability to engage in open dialogue – a conversation with a centre, not sides. Our willingness to suspend our personal views long enough to listen deeply, with an intent to understand, will help us to find the common ground – the place we can move forward from, with energy.

—  James Samuel

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
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