Dialogic Perspectives

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Multiple intellectual traditions exist within a dialogic perspective toward organizational communication. These intellectual traditions share a common set of theoretical inclinations that distinguish a dialogic perspective by focusing on discourse, holism, and tensionality (Stewart et al. 2004). First, dialogic approaches emphasize the centrality of discourse. A dialogic perspective focuses on both “little d” and “big D” discourse, with the former centering on language-in-use and the latter spotlighting enduring systems of thought, feeling, and action that structure the way organizational members make sense of and act in their social worlds (Fairhurst & Putnam 2004). Second, dialogic approaches are holistic as they emphasize the interplay among communication, context, action, and meaning. Third, dialogic approaches view human systems as riddled with tensionality, which requires theorists and researchers to articulate the tensions constituting a system and how individuals attempt to manage them.

Dialogic perspectives are also marked by difference, as some intellectual traditions use dialogue as a descriptive term and others employ it as a prescriptive term (Stewart & Zediker 2000). A descriptive approach to dialogue views all human life, communication, and meaning-making as dialogic whereas a prescriptive approach views dialogue as a particular type or style of relating and communicating. Three intellectual traditions toward dialogue have emerged within organizational communication: (1) dialogue as a form of critical thinking and deliberation, (2) dialogue as a form of relational practice, and (3) dialogue as a form of discursive coordination.

Dialogue as a form of collective thinking and deliberation is best reflected in the work of David Bohm (1990) and the MIT learning organization project (Senge 1990). Dialogue is conceptualized as a special form of meeting that occurs at particular moments when people gather to explore how their thought patterns control their interactions. Dialogue as a form of collective thinking allows individuals and groups to explore how each makes meaning in situations, to become aware of the incoherence in their thoughts, and to establish a common pool of meaning that facilitates learning. Dialogue is a prescriptive phenomenon that emphasizes the importance of setting ground rules to create safe space for conversation and mastering the abilities of inquiry and advocacy (Isaacs 1999). Organizational members who wish to create dialogue maintain a tension between accepting and rejecting their own thoughts, beliefs, and feeling through a process known as suspension.

Dialogue as a form of relational practice is best reflected in the work of Martin Buber. Buber (1998) characterizes dialogue as an ability to stand one’s own ground while being profoundly open to the other. Dialogue facilitates organizational members creating I– Thou relationships where they enter into authentic communication with one another. Dialogue is a prescriptive form of interaction that emphasizes individuals being authentic, present, and accepting with others while communicating. Buber’s work has been particularly useful for exploring the notions of otherness and spirituality within organizational communication processes and how organizational members can create genuine meeting with one another (Black 2005).

Dialogue as a form of discursive coordination is highlighted in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin as well as Kenneth Gergen. Bakhtin (1981) is concerned with the dialogic qualities of language where dialogue is used as a descriptive term to highlight interrelatedness among self and Other in language and being. Dialogic practices are aimed at furthering meaning-making and creating patterns of coordination by managing the tensions among multiple voices and Discourses. Organizational members must learn how to make wise choices about how to structure their discourse and what Discourses need to be foregrounded and backgrounded if they are to orchestrate successfully working relationships (Barge & Little 2002).

Most recently, Gergen et al. (2004) contend that all communication is dialogic, involving relational coordination as people organize their activity from within the flow of communication. Gergen et al. have developed a descriptive approach that articulates different patterns of dialogic interaction. Generative dialogue occurs when the meaning-making potential of a previous communication is elaborated by subsequent communications, whereas degenerative dialogue occurs when the meaning-making of a previous communication is negated by successive communications. Generative dialogue is the basis for successful organizing because the process of successive affirmation creates a stable, yet fluid, image that individuals can co-orient around and so sustain their activity. One important exemplar of dialogue in Gergen et al.’s approach is an appreciative approach to organizational development and management that emphasizes picking up and spotlighting life-generating qualities of previous organizational activity and leveraging them to create new forms of meaning-making and action (Barge & Oliver 2003).


  1. Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  2. Barge, J. K., & Little, M. (2002). Dialogical wisdom, communicative practice, and organizational life. Communication Theory, 12, 375–397.
  3. Barge, J. K., & Oliver, C. (2003). Working with appreciation in managerial practice. Academy of Management Review, 28, 124–142.
  4. Black, L. W. (2005). Building connection while thinking together: By-products of employee training in dialogue. Western Journal of Communication, 69, 273–292.
  5. Bohm, D. (1990). On dialogue. Ojai, CA: David Bohm Seminars.
  6. Buber, M. (1998). The knowledge of man: Selected essays (trans. M. Friedman & R. G. Smith). New York: Humanity Books.
  7. Fairhurst, G. T., & Putnam, L. L. (2004). Organizations as discursive constructions. Communication Theory, 12, 1–22.
  8. Gergen, K. J., Gergen, M. M., & Barrett, F. J. (2004). Dialogue: Life and death of the organization. In D. Grant, C. Hardy, C. Oswick, & L. Putnam (eds.), The Sage handbook of organizational discourse. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 39–60.
  9. Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue and the art of thinking together. New York: Currency.
  10. Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.
  11. Stewart, J., & Zediker, K. E. (2000). Dialogue as tensional, ethical practice. South Communication Journal, 65, 224–242.
  12. Stewart, J., Zediker, K. E., & Black, L. (2004). Relationships among philosophies of dialogue. In R. Anderson, L. A. Baxter, & K. N. Cissna (eds.), Dialogue: Theorizing difference in communication studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 21–38.

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