Respecting and Suspending: Practices for Coherence and Awareness in Dialogue

This is a past event

17 people went

Free Library - Independence Branch

18 S. Seventh St. · Philadelphia, PA

How to find us

This branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia is at 7th St just south of Market St. We will be in the only meeting room, on the first floor, past the rest rooms and through the hallway; wheelchair accessible.

Location image of event venue


Respecting and suspending are two basic building blocks for effective dialogue both in group conversations and within our own thinking. How and why is respecting important for coherence? How and why is suspending important for awareness? How can we improve our practice of respecting and suspending in dialogue? How can we foster better respecting and suspending in group explorations?

Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together

In my interpretation of the optional William Isaacs' book "Dialogue", dialogue is the practice of Thinking Together: the art of apprehending and creating perspectives, meanings, and possibilities by gathering together ideas and their relationships from the flow of a group conversation around a center of exploration or by the flow of thinking in our own minds.

The book identifies four principles for Thinking Together: participation (tuning in to the possibilities in each others' experiences), unfolding (developing the ideas and relationships in our subject, in ourselves, and in others), awareness (recognition of the dynamic processes and multiple perspectives that underlie everything), and coherence (the realization that all distinctions are merely parts of an integral coherent whole).

The Practice of Respecting and the Principle of Coherence in Dialogue

"To be able to see a person as a whole being, we must learn another central element in the practice of dialogue: respect. Respect is not a passive act. To respect someone is [to] look for the springs that feed the pool of their experience. The word comes from the Latin respecere which means 'to look again.' Its most ancient roots mean 'to observe.' It involves a sense of honoring or deferring to someone. Where once we saw one aspect of a person, we look again and realize how much of them we had missed. This second look can let us take in more fully the fact that here before me is a living, breathing being." — William Isaacs, "Dialogue", pp. 110–111.

"At its core, the act of respect invites us to see others as legitimate. We may not like what they do or say or think, but we cannot deny their legitimacy as beings. In Zulu, ... the word Sawu bona is spoken when people greet one another and when they depart. It means 'I see you.' ... To say 'I see you' is to sustain you in this world." p. 111

"Respect also means honoring people's boundaries to the point of protecting them. If you respect someone, you do not intrude. At the same time, if you respect someone, you do not withold yourself or distance yourself from them. I have heard many people claim that they were respecting someone by leaving them alone, when in fact they were simply distancing themselves from something they did not want to deal with." p. 114.

"Treating the people around us with extraordinary respect means seeing them for the potential that they carrry within them. [Consider the] practice: Treat the person next to you as a teacher. What is it that they have to teach you that you do not now know? Listening to them in this way, you discover things that might surprise you. This does not mean being blind to gaps in what they might say and what they do, nor does it mean being overly slavish in pointing out their faults. Respect is, in this sense, looking for what is highest and best in a person and treating them as a mystery that you can never fully comprehend. They are a part of the whole, and, in a very particular sense, a part of us." pp. 116–7.

"The Principle of Coherence[:] There is an already existing wholeness to life. The universe is an undivided whole, whether we are able to perceive that or not. Embracing this principle in dialogue, I am more likely to look not for what needs to change, but what Humberto Maturana might say needs to be 'conserved,' that is, how the existing system works now and what aspects of it I wish to sustain. By looking for the coherence in difficult situations, I am able, when I am with people with whom I disagree, to pay attention to the underlying forces that have brought me and the others I am with to this pass. I learn to take seriously the possibiity that what is happening is unfolding from a common source. In dialogue, I cultivate this in practice by developing my capacity for respect—for myself, for others, for difference, and for those in particular who oppose what I have to say." p. 117

The principle of coherence in dialogue teaches us to experience the wholeness or lack thereof in conversation ... [that is] perceiving relative degrees of wholeness within conversations. Typically most people do not know how to listen to the whole flow of a conversation; we select out pieces of it, aspects that matter to us or perhaps that irritate us. But we can learn to listen to the whole, and participate within the whole. This requires that we step back from the details, soften our focus, and hear what is going on in the overall space of the conversation." p. 120

"Peter Garrett, who developed the process of dialogue in England with David Bohm ... said ... 'Inquiry and violence cannot coexist.' ... he was referring to the stance of deep respect and inclusion that must lie behind inquiry for it to have any real effect. ... Says Garrett: 'The impulse behind intentions is pure, even though the intention may be distorted and the impact not what was intended. Inquiring deeply enough to reach the original impulse will always reveal wholesomeness. This provides the confidence to enter the loudest confrontation and the darkest territory without fear that it will get forever worse.' p. 121

"The core questions to help us learn to respect involve asking ourselves, How does what I am seeing and hearing here fit in some larger whole? How does this belong? What must be sustained here that others are missing? What is happening right now?" pp. 121–2

"Respect also implies taking seriously the fact that there is an underlying coherence in our world, and that we fit into this scene. We are participants, not observers. Accepting this means taking responsibility for ourselves. In this state, it is no longer possible simply to blame others for what happens. our fingerprints are all over our world. The adage coined by Walt Kelly in a Pogo cartoon applies here: 'We have met the enemy and it is us.'

"[A practice to] increase respect is to listen to others from the vantage point that says, 'This, too, is in me.' Whatever the behavior we hear in another, whatever struggle we see in them, we can choose to look for how these same dynamics operate in ourselves. We may be tempted to say that a given behavior is all 'theirs'—I do not have anything like that in me! Maybe so. But ... If you can perceive it, it is also in you, you are bringing it forth whether you realize it or not. ... The art of thinking together invites us to a different level of thought, to notice that for us to perceive something, it must somehow be in us, or it literally would not connect to anything in us. Even something that we feel is an enemy is connected to an image or perception in us of that enemy. ...

"To listen in this way is to take seriously that what goes on around us exists not merely in others, it is also—however hard it is to see at the time—within us all as well. We get a clue about this most directly when we find ourselves irritated with others. We then know for sure that there is something in us too; it is in some ways already under our skin, or else we would not be feeling the disturbance! The challenge is to come to the point of acknowledging it.

" of the secrets to the dialogic way of being is the willingness to forgive that which we see in another and come to the point where we can accept it as being in us. This implies coming to a place of respect both for others and for ourselves." pp. 124–7

"[T]o enable a dialogue, a group of people must learn ... to respect the polarization that arise without making any effort to 'fix' them." There can be two very different points of view in a group where neither asks the other to change and where everyone's views are openly shared. This can build "a sense of mutual respect and understanding." pp. 128–9

"Making deliberate space for people who have a different point of view is vital to learning to share in dialogue. Respectfully encouraging people to speak can bring about a balance in the conversational ecology that otherwise might not have occurred. This requires a willingness to hold the space open for inquiry once new perspectives come out.

"This can seem a crazy move in a setting where people are angry or on the warpath. But someone must find a way to integrate these voices or they inevitably will interrupt and seek to destroy the gathering." p. 130

"One of the most challenging things a group can learn in a dialogue is to hold the tension that arises and not react to it. Typically, when faced with this kind of cross-current in the conversational ecology, people begin to 'vote' on which person or perspective they feel is 'right'. This relieves the tension for them, but, ironically, intensifies it for the rest of the group, since this reduces the space in which a new understanding can emerge. One of the group competencies of dialogue is the capacity to sustain respect for all the perspectives that arise, long enough to inquire into them.

"Related to this is the acceptance of the multiplicity of voices that we find within ourselves and in expression through others. A dialogue with a group of people can begin to be a mirror of the different things that go on inside everyone. As these voices emerge, we can choose either to reject them or recognize that they may have some relevance and place 'in here,' in me. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have many different voices in ourselves—some of which we have inherited from places we no longer recall, some of which we created for ourselves.

"Holding tension means accepting without intensifying the deep divisions that we sometimes feel within ourselves." pp. 130–1

"When we do not respect, we impose on others. ... The projection of many different opinions and points of view all at the same time often evokes the opposite of respect. It brings out the experience of conversational violence ... the opposite of respect. In these moments there is a breakdown of the kind of mutual respect people aspire to have.

"The loss of respect manifests in a simple way: My assessment that what you are doing should not be happening. The source of the trouble lies in my frame: My belief causes me immediately to look for a way to change you, to help you to see the error of your ways. It causes me to avoid looking at my own behavior and how I might be contributing. People on the receiving end of this attitude experience violence—the imposition of a point of view with little or no understanding.

"Remaining aware of those parts of us that do not respect others may be the most instructive thing we can do to help become aware of how to deepen our capacity for respect." pp. 130–2

The Practice of Suspending and the Principle of Awareness in Dialogue

"When we listen to someone speak, we face a critical choice. If we begin to form an opinion we can do one of two things: we can choose to defend our view and resist theirs. First we can try to get the other person to understand and accept the 'right' way to see things (ours!). We can look for evidence to support our view that they are mistaken, and discount evidence that may point to flaws in our own logic. This produces what one New York Times editorial writer called 'serial monologues' rather than dialogue.

"Or, we can learn to suspend our opinion and the certainty that lies behind it. Suspension means that we neither suppress what we think nor advocate it with unilateral conviction. Rather, we display our thinking in a way that lets us and others see and understand it. We simply acknowledge and observe our thoughts and feelings as they arise without being compelled to act on them. This can release a tremendous amount of creative energy." pp. 134–5

"To suspend is to change direction, to stop, step back, see things with new eyes. This is perhaps one of the deepest challenges human beings face—especially once they have staked out a position. It is difficult in part because we tend very quickly to identify what we say with who we are. We feel that when someone attacks our idea, they are attacking us. So to give up our idea is almost like commiting a kind of suicide. But nonnegotiable positions are like rocks in the stream of dialogue: They dam it up. One of the central processes for enabling us to enter into dialogue is the practice of suspension, the art of loosening our grip and gaining perspective." p. 135

"The word suspend comes from a Latin root suspendere, which means 'to hang below.' But its most ancient root is the Indo-European (s)pen, which means 'to draw, stretch, or spin.' From this root we get the words spider and spinner. To suspend something is to spin it out so that it can be seen, like a web between two beams in a barn." p. 135

"The absence of suspension ... is certainty. The word certainty comes from a root that means 'to determine' or 'to distinguish.' It has come to mean a rigidity about the distinction we have have made. Some ideas have absolute certainty or necessity attached to them—they carry a nonnegotiability to them. These 'noble certainties' are part of everyone's experience and are one of the limits to dialogue. What are your 'noble certainties'? What makes you so darned sure you are right? Only by asking such questions will you be able to practice suspension." pp. 135–6

"Most conversations are conducted by people who know what they think and why they think it. These people cannot get to dialogue. Dialogue is characterized by people who surprise themselves by what they say. They do not have all of their thoughts worked out in advance but are willing to be influenced by the conversation itself. They come with questions to which they do not yet have answers. And they do not demand answers of others." p. 136

"To access your ignorance [Edgar Schein] is to recognize and embrace things you do not already know. The range of possibilities before you opens dramatically. This can be scary. But fear can be a helpful rather than a hurtful element in suspension." p. 137

"Donald Schön ... described ... 'reflection-in-action' [as] the ability to see what is happening as it is happening. Schön [argued] that this kind of ability was not only an intimate part of what we call spontaneity, but necessary to it. Reflecting in this way means we are able to free ourselves from habitual ways of responding and stay fresh and alive. ... Typically, [we] are not all that aware of how our thoughts are produced. Suspension is the act of looking at these thoughts." p. 141

On pages 142–144, Isaacs identifies two types of suspension: "to disclose, to make available for yourself and others the contents of your consciousness so you may see what is going on" and "to make ourselves aware that our thoughts do not simply arise from nowhere but have an origin of a very particular and deterministic sort." Isaacs suggests that this leads to realizing: "In a very real sense, I am causing this line of thoughts to flow. 'They' are not doing anything to me. It is emerging strictly from within me, in particular from my inner ecology and the memories I have about these experiences. ... This is one of the central transformational vehicles of dialogue."

"Underlying the practice of suspension is the principle of awareness. To be aware is to allow our attention to broaden and expand, to include more and more of our immediate experience. The central idea here is that we are capable of coming to understand what is happening as it is happening. ... [One] view holds all aspects of experience have an 'interpretive' element. It says, in other words, that human beings experience the world through the structure of their consciousness, not 'directly.'" p. 144

Some cognitive scientists think "we do not simply observe the 'world,' we actively create our experience of it through the structure of our nervous system and consciousness combined with stimuli from the environment. ... The world participates in us, and we in the world." This idea suggests the idea "that only by entering into a dialogic relationship with the situation that we seek to change may we discover the ways in which the existing structures affect us and might evolve. This implies, practically speaking, that you would not seek to 'manage' an organization but, rather, cultivate the conditions under which it might evolve and change. [Through suspension in dialogue] you would seek to inquire into the way the system works, the principles that guide it, and the underlying coherence within it." pp. 145–6

"Learning to suspend, which is at the heart of the process of dialogue, is a discipline in itself. [All practices for learning how to suspend invite] us to stop and ask: How is this working? What is going on here? How does this problem work? Suspension asks us to put on hold the temptation to fix, correct, or problem-solve what we see so that we can begin to inquire into what we observe. For those of us addicted to problem solving, this can be a challenging skill to develop." p. 147

"Suspension requires that we relax our grip on certainty. ... How do you let go of the conviction you have about something? You might begin by asking yourself, Why are you so damned sure about this? What is leading you to hold on to it so intensely? What could the payoff be to you? What would happen if you let it go? What is at risk if you do? What might you lose? What do you fear you would lose?" pp. 147–8

"[W]e need good questions. The power of dialogue emerges in the cultivation, in ourselves, as well as in others, of questions for which we do not have answers. Identifying one good question can be vastly more significant than offering many partial answers.

"In cultivating a dialogic stance, I encourage people to develop a capacity to 'mine for the questions.' By this I mean to look for the really important, hard questions that keep people up nights and go to the heart of our concerns. ... Finding good questions is not always easy. What immediately comes to mind is not always relevant." pp. 148–9

Many questions are "statements in disguise" and others are "judgments in disguise". Very few of our "'inquiries' are genuine questions. Real questions are often notable for the silence that follows their utterance. People may not know the answer! In fact, it becomes clear that finding an answer too quickly is not necessarily a wise goal." p. 149

"Finding a question is one thing. Allowing oneself to tolerate the tension that arises with its articulation is another. This ability to let oneself see what emerges instead of leaping out of the discomfort of an unanswered question is crucial. ... To mine for questions is to cultivate the suspension of answers and to open the way for the dialogic way of being." pp. 149–150

"The idea that we must take a position in order to get our view across is seemingly built into our culture. ... While it is popular, it greatly limits the potential intelligence and inquiry we might obtain from a conversation—particularly one with tough issues. ... [T]he positions that people voice are always partial, always limited, and almost always call up the opposite point of view. Thinking positionally polarizes. It tends to lead us down a path that says things are either this or that. To find the order between we must recognize that positions in this sense are always false, because they are pieces from a whole cloth. ... Suspension is the art of finding the 'order between' the positions that people take." pp. 150–1

"Suspension is also the art of trying to see people in a different light. The term 'frame experiment,' coined by Don Schön, refers to a way of bringing a different perspective to the fore and trying it out on a situation to see what we might learn." p. 151

"Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to suspend thought is to ask the questions. What is it that I am or we are systematically leaving out of this conversation? What are we ignoring completely or failing to pay sufficient attention to? Inevitably, some see this more clearly than others do, and so this practice is often best cultivated with a group of people." pp. 153–4

"Asking How does the problem work? opens an inquiry into the problem itself. You're really asking, How have things come to be this way? Why this way and not some other way? What impact does it have? How do people feel about it?" p. 155

Collective suspension [in groups] means raising to the surface issues that impact everyone in a way that all can reflect on them. Suspension at the group level, like at the individual level, has to do with interrupting the habitual functions of memory and inviting a fresh response. ... Collective suspension is the practice of shifting the ecology of a group so that it can begin to see it has alternatives, to understand that it no longer needs to be limited to a single point of view. A group can develop this ability over time by talking together. It can also be assisted by a facilitator." pp. 155–6

"A practice that is well worth cultivating is one where you learn to think of the people in a meeting as aspects of a single whole. You approach this group with a curiosity about its collective behavior. You can ask yourself, How is this group as a whole behaving? How is what is now happening impacting the least powerful person in the group? the silent ones? the strong ones? Learn not to personalize every emotion but to look around and see what is happening with others. Ask the question What is this group seeking to 'conserve'—to sustain? [As well as asking] what is changing[?]" p. 157

"When do you hold only certainty? When do you look only for answers, not questions? Can you recall a time when you were unable to see things from any other point of view? Or when you realized you never asked yourself, 'What am I missing?' These questions will give you a sense of those times when you are not able to suspend your thought, and may help you to activate this ability." p. 158

This topic was inspired by my reading of the introduction to part II (pp. 79–81) and chapters 5 (pp. 110–133) and 6 (pp. 134–158) in William Isaacs 1999 book "Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communicating in Business and in Life". Although Isaacs' book has many good ideas, its business-school-book style may not be useful for everyone. We considered the first three chapters of the book in the 3 March 2019 event on "Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together" ( and Chapters 4 and 7 in the 5 May 2019 event on "Listening and Voicing: Practices for Participating In and Unfolding Dialogue" (