Sunday, 30 January 2011

Conversations, Bohm and [be] Careful with that Axe Eugene

Tomorrow is the last day of the first month of 2011 – the first 31 days of the year will have passed, and the first month done. Like many of the previous 23 days, the last seven have also been extremely hectic, full on in terms of people and places to see and have been days filled with 100s of different conversations.

These were conversations to comfort the sick, or those that involved whispering the answers to difficult questions into the ears of others; there have been conversations that have challenged ideas and perceptions (mine and those of others), happy and humorous conversations that helped make light of difficult contexts, rhetorical conversations (I attended an action learning set on Monday), networking conversations with peers across the UK, snatched conversations spoken in code, relaxed conversations over a glass of wine (or two), and one slightly surreal conversation with a lady who made sandwiches for a living.

One of my favorite contributors to our thinking on conversations is the late David Bohm. Bohm, a quantum physicist was also interested in philosophy and in this context developed an approach to conversation that draws on the notion of dialogue. For Bohm, dialogue presents the opportunity for preconceptions, prejudices and the characteristic patterns that inform our thoughts, opinions, beliefs and feelings to be examined and explored in the context of the roles we choose to inhabit. For Bohm, dialogue represents ‘a flow of meaning’, whereas discussion implies 'a shaking apart'. Dialogue starts with 'listening and speaking with', discussion with 'talking, and talking to'.

In the year that I was born, Bohm published a work that examined the notion of thought as a system – this is a concept that resonates with my view of the world, although I have struggled and struggled at times in really understanding this aspect of his work. It was only when I re-discovered Bion (thanks Sue) that I began to have some idea as to what Bohm might be saying. I am fascinated by Bion’s notion of thoughts (being) in search of a thinker, and this is perhaps an idea as close to Bohms thesis as it is possible to get.

One of Bohms earliest influences would have been Albert Einstein, with whom he worked for a number of years in the US. And of course it was Einstein who noted: ‘that to raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science’. Perhaps what Einstein was talking about, is the ability (or not) for any of us to see imagination as being more important than knowledge.

And much to my later discomfort, one of the conversations I had this week involved a colleague saying they could not imagine me doing such and such a thing, to which I somewhat thoughtlessly responded by saying this was probably because they didn’t have any imagination. I have pondered on this encounter since, and my discomfort remains. It was Gareth Morgan (of Imaginization fame) who once said that most of us are not very good at workplace conversations. We say things which we ought not to say and we do not say things which we ought to say.

Morgan’s work was highly influential in shaping what the linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson had to say about how we use metaphors to define our reality and then how we proceed to act on the basis of these metaphors. They argued that we draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.

My personal metaphor of the week draws upon the unknown but powerful axe wielding figure in Pink Floyds Careful with that Axe Eugene. This is an instrumental piece of music that only features an organ and base guitar. The music slowly builds upon an almost hypnotic rhythm which culminates in the song's only lyrics (the songs title) being whispered menacingly, once, followed by Roger Waters issuing a piecing scream. As it’s my metaphor, its meaning, in the context of my week, remains mine.

Finally, my youngest daughter congratulated me on my carbon footprint savings this week. These savings resulting from the choices I had made in travelling to Edinburgh for the Council of Deans of Health meeting on Monday and Tuesday. It appears that by catching a train there and back I only used 43 kilograms of CO2 compared to 92 if I had driven, or 111 by plane – a saving equivalent, apparently, to the CO2 emission of 170 TVs being left on for 24 hours. How quickly our children grow up.