Bohm’s Dialogue and Reciprocal Trust

Аргументация, публична и стратегическа комуникация

Argumentation, Public and Strategic Communication

DOI: 10.55206/URAP6864


Mariselda Tessarolo

University of Padua


rhetoric journalAbstract: The intention to communicate builds the architecture of inter­subjectivity that involves the staging of the individualistic world of the subject. The mutual intentionality and awareness are present in the commu­nication process in which the communicative intention of the broad­caster becomes mutual and shared knowledge. Trust is hardly declared; it is usually learned from the regularity of the communicative exchange actions that take place in the meetings. It can be distinguished between personal commitments and anonymous commitments. The former concern relation­ships of trust supported by or expressed in social ties established in cir­cumstances of coexistence. The assumption of trust is also generalized for meetings with strangers in public places and also for virtual meetings on social networks. The predominant situation of modernity is the pluralist position: man as a social animal prefers to share agreement more than dis­agreement. Pluralism undermines false assurances in favour of uniform but also reasoned social consensus. We will focus on dialogue because trust is important in meeting people who have to decide and make agreements. Therefore, taking into account the generalization of the fiduciary relation­ship in dialogue, two ‘theories’ will be considered: that of Bohm (On dialogue) and that of Moscovici and Doise (on Consent and dissent). Dialogue, especially in business meetings, must be identified with the ‘politics of dialogue’. Trust is assumed in every initial meeting in which a perception of “established trustworthiness” is implemented. We are in an era of democracy in which the need for choice and dialogue is strong: in Bohm’s dialogue there are rules that serve to move forward by listening, discussing, deciding nothing, suspending judgment and for this very reason new ideas and hypotheses have always the chance to emerge.

Keywords: mutual trust, conflicting individualism, constitutive trust­worthi­ness, generalized assumption of trust.



The intention to communicate builds the architecture of intersubjectivity that involves the enactment of the subject’s individualistic and social world. Communication is the basis of human coexistence that takes place within a system shared with others as members of the same linguistic and social community, who are capable of producing and understanding messages by interacting with other subjects. [1] Dialogue allows us to exchange points of view with others, to come to an agreement, to solve generational and cultural problems of various origins. The most important instance in which we experience others is the face-to-face situation: this is the prototype of social interaction. Every other situation is assimilated to the communication taking place in a direct encounter that allows the interchange of the expressiveness of the two communicants, who perceive each other through reciprocal typization patterns. The symmetry between subjective and objective reality, however, is not complete because these two realities correspond, but never coincide completely. [2] The structure of conversation preserves reality, but at the same time continually modifies it. Conversation is what allows the reality that is already inherent in the linguistic objectification to be generated. In conversation, “there is communicative cooperation between the interlocutors who adapt themselves to the commu­nicative game, so much so that the second communicator understands more than what the first communicator says, precisely because of his/her fear of not understanding enough or not understanding in the right way”. [3] The mutual intentionality [4] and awareness are present in the communication process in which the two communicants’ communicative intention becomes mutual, shared knowledge. Some scholars [5] observe that when there is just one listener, discourse inevitably transforms into dialogue. [6] Furthermore, dialogue should not be a debate in which established and opposing beliefs are defended by supporters; an honest and unbiased discussion is the best solution to a controversial problem. [7] Dialogue generally takes place with face-to-face communication, and this modality promotes (and is promoted by) the mutual adaptation that happens with feedback. [8] However, dialogue can also take place online thanks to modern technologies that allow distance meetings. The Web 2.0, blogs or social networks offer the possibility of contacting others with the same technological means, in order to join social groups that enact both the expression of intolerance and the deliberation of communicative action. In online communication, the presence or absence of the communicator is staged, but also their private and public life, thus building very broad interpersonal relationships. The Internet is not responsible for individualism, but it has given social media users the opportunity to form a suitable material support by making it a dominant form of sociality.

Technology has given rise to a horizontal society and the horizon is its characteristic feature, whereas offline communication is more varied. Physical and digital spaces intersect and merge into each other. Mobile technologies are hybrid: calling on the telephone, writing, moving around a city, in a region, taking photographs, etc. With the Web 2.0, the Internet has become an expansion of the human possibility to communicate. Communication of the mediated experience is not conditioned by physical proximity, but sharing is provided solely by access to the same information technologies. Organising the virtual environment requires physical and cognitive effort, and the construction of virtual commu­nities demonstrates the need of individuals to create social relationships mo­tivated by the desire to be together through a shared discourse. However, the network is a form of interpersonal sociality in which what prevails is not the societal sense of belonging (conviviality), but rather that of a society of participation (virtual sociality). The lack of face-to-face, direct contact in online communication is a limitation, even though distance communication adopts the same rules of face-to-face communication as its criterion of measurement. [8]

Bohm’s dialogue

Among the various types of dialogue, the choice fell on the one proposed by Bohm [9] who understood dialogue as a multifaceted process, looking far beyond the typical notions of conversation and exchange. Dialogue is a process that explores a wide range of human experience, precisely because the latter is for the most part verbalizable. Therefore, dialogue is a “free flow of meaning between people in communication”. So, an exchange of ideas, of information, is dialogue, and it stands in contrast to disinformation. For Bohm, dialogue does not necessarily have a predefined purpose and its only agenda is to investigate the movement of thought that is necessary to be able to explore the process of thinking together (collectively) in order to come to an agreement.

The very fact that such dialogue has no planned agenda – and therefore no set goal – makes its space open and free. A dialogue without an agenda is generally used when one wants to signal the need to support collective leadership; it is also a way of fostering mutual understanding.

Bohm presents the concept of “tacit ground”, which is what holds a society together and impels it to change. Shared thought emerges from the “tacit ground”, which makes shared meaning homogeneous. The unspoken meaning at the tacit level is the awareness of the dialoguing group on what the end point is, and what the group wants to achieve – although this is not declared. Bohm focuses discussion on dialogue so that the incoherence that would be caused by a defence – i.e. anchoring oneself to beliefs and opinions that would not be part of what Bohm calls “truth” [10] – does not emerge. Instead, for him it comes from the instinct of defending one’s ideas. [11] Agenda-less dialogue signals collective leadership, i.e. deeper listening, and more open communication that shows the underlying “tacit ground”.

As a physicist, his life was dedicated to understanding a participatory universe in which meaning is constantly unfolding and is never final. The policy to be used is not about winning or losing; it is not enough to talk, it is necessary to find alternatives both within and between institutions of all kinds. [12] Society is held together by the tacit level and that is where changes should occur. The ‘tacit ground’ needs to be coherent and shared, it is the “cement” that holds people and society together. Society possesses an incoherent set of meanings, and incoherence occurs when one accepts a dialogue that allows multiple points of view even when defending one’s beliefs. This is not dialogue; it is only the source of incoherence that does not allow us to live in an ever-changing world.

Collective and coherent ways of acting emerge when there is a flow of meaning that begins to make room for many visions, and this approach is precluded by a defensive attitude. For Bohm [12], we will never arrive at ‘truth’ as long as the overall meaning is incoherent. Truth does not emerge from opinions but must emerge from something else, from a freer movement of the ‘tacit mind’; we need to make meanings coherent if we are to ‘take part in truth’. The fundamental problem for Bohm is that ‘the whole is too much’. But what does it mean to understand wholes? It seems to me that here we return once again to the problem of truth that belongs to the ‘tacit level’ but cannot be revealed; it is dialogue that must play its part. There is no way in which thought can account for the whole, because thought limits and defines. In his capacity as a scientist, Bohm knows that truth is not attainable because it could be seen precisely as the whole, which in turn (as the whole) is never completely attainable because there is no such thing as something that is completely explicable even in science.

People are no longer primarily in opposition, but rather interact by participating in this ‘common pool of meaning’ that is capable of constant development and change. In this development, the group does not have a set purpose, although at any time there is always the possibility that a purpose may reveal itself. So, the group begins to engage in a new dynamic relationship in which no speaker is excluded, and no particular content is excluded. We find here a pivotal definition: dialogue is aimed at the understanding of consciousness per se, as well as exploring the problematic nature of the day-to-day relationship.

This definition provides a fundamental point of reference for the key components of dialogue: shared meaning, the nature of collective thought, the pervasiveness of fragmentation, the function of awareness, the microcultural context, undirected inquiry, and the paradox of the observer and the observed. The breadth of the dialogue components suggests the radical nature of the vision of this dialogue mode, as Bohm himself emphasised. However, we must always bear in mind that dialogue is a process in direct presence, i.e. a face-to-face meeting of a verbal nature. However, one must always bear in mind that for Bohm, dialogue is a process in direct presence, a verbal face-to-face encounter that cannot be confused with the abstractions of seamless digital representations, giving importance instead to the more problematic but lived encounter in the experience of everyday life.

In the introduction to his volume “On dialogue” states that dialogue is only in appearance a simple activity that brings together a number of people between fifteen and forty. When the number reaches forty people it is too big, if the number drops down to twenty people, something else starts to happen. However, if the forty people are arranged in two concentric circles, they form the right size and position of the group, suitable for what can be considered a “micro-culture”. Initial meetings are the ones that tend to enhance contrasting values to put them at the centre of the dialogue; participants understand what the “active” assump­tions are in the group, including their own points of view. Each participant under­stands the fragmentary and potentially self-destructive nature of many of their thoughts and processes. This understanding leads to a decrease in the defensive attitude and to a sense of friendship flowing through the group, a tacit sense that leads people not to feel estranged from each other. [13]

Consensus based on dialogue

When people come together to reach an agreement, it means that the agreement itself is achievable as trust between the parties is realised. The relationship of trust is also directly expressed in Bohm’s book “On dialogue”. [14] In their theory of consensus, Moscovici and Doise [15] study the agreement required when men are willing to meet to make a decision, to choose between various possibilities that may lead to an agreement. Each person has their own world of meaning and assumes that the world of others is similar to their own; but often in dialogue (i.e. encounter) a new and different meaning arises.

Consensus achieved through dialogue is more than simply a discussion practice, useful to remedy or avoid conflicts. It is also a type of institution, the work of all and accepted by all. What establishes consensus is not the mere agreement, but the participation of those who made it: it is not impositional and is only legitimate if all are involved. The more society is subject to change, the more consensus becomes necessary precisely because it functions as a framework within which new ideas and disputes over dilemmas that have emerged within an unstable system are reabsorbed. [16]

Moscovici and Doise propose three positions that seem essential. The first consists of “choice”: consensus is used to overcome the doubt arising from the comparison of opinions, the exchange of arguments for or against. This phase is a chance to prevent an error of judgement and to put an end to the division. This position is used when there are no alternatives, when deciding between different scientific projects related to different disciplines or when, for example, there are high costs. Committees of experts are called upon to solve such kind of problems by establishing a certain priority, which is accepted as a result on the basis of universal consensus. Most often, truth will be that very consent, fragile and undisputable, an arbitrary but constraining convention. [17] The second position relates to the “act of consent”, which can be understood as the will of the individual to associate with others by endorsing their value system and sharing their lot (voting, signing, speaking out). This consent is given publicly and seals common commitment. According to Durkheim [18] what makes for the unity of organised societies is spontaneous consensus between parties, an internal solidarity that is as indispensable as the regulatory action of the higher centres, which is even the necessary condition for it. Consensus goes well beyond mere acceptance or agreement: it is the convergence of individuals that binds them mutually as regards interests and ideas, fostering reciprocal trust. According to Habermas, “agreement does not arise from external pressures, but always rests on common convictions”. [19] Consent is necessary for an agreement to reactivate mutual credit and is independent of the form it takes (alliance, contract, act of solidarity). The propensity to consensus is inherent in any voluntary grouping and has to be constantly renewed. The third solution concerns “reason”. To conform to reason means to be well informed and to recognise the reality of clashes of opinion and interests, in order to arrive at an enlightened solution between opposing positions. Consensus and compromise become the true categorical imperatives of our morality. The three concepts, ‘choice’, ‘trust’ and ‘reason’, are subsumed under the idea of consensus and are the sign of a bond between people, a commitment born from shared convictions.

In order to achieve trust, it is necessary for group participants to listen to each other, and for the frictions that arise in the group to be moderated by an understanding that leads to mutual trust. It would be useful, Bohm observes, to create the group when people have got to know each other at least in part, and have discussed the dialogue: only then can there be trust. Getting to know each other leads to initiating trust, which often does not arise at first sight, but matures over time. People participating in dialogue need to get to know each other, trust each other and establish a shared relationship. People at first do not trust each other; when they see the importance dialogue can have in the smooth running of meetings, they begin to open up to trust. [20]

By suspending one’s opinions, dialogue could improve. By trusting more, a collective thought is conceived; opinions are shared without hostility, because through dialogue each has learnt to gradually trust the others. Any consensus serves to regulate the dialogue between the parties and to control the margin of disagreement that allows a relationship or common action to continue.


Both theories aim to ensure that the entire group has a better understanding of itself. This includes not only coming together but also genuine mutual trust, which is difficult to achieve: particularly in hierarchical formation, which should start from the equality of dialogue, without clashing with inconsistency, ambiguity and the possibility of manipulation. Uncertainty and ambiguity tend to persist at both interpersonal and societal levels, so that expedients must be found to extend trust, which is a prerequisite for the implementation of social exchanges [21]. Relationships always involve a reciprocal effect that motivates and orients the parties in each relationship; instead of destabilising the relationship and challenging it, this can induce the parties to renegotiate the terms, to centralise the components that are shared and capable of generating mutual satisfaction. [22]

Is it possible for individuals with different histories and biographies to live in a world of shared meanings? [23] He argues that the answer to this question is to be found precisely in the ability of humans to distance themselves from the flow of experience and to observe their actions as “other than themselves”. [24]

There is a fundamental continuity between the observer and the observed, so much so that the individual’s ability to connect with the other through dialogue leads to the result of knowledge as a creative act; to it, a plurality of possible interpretations of reality is added thanks to the ability of the human mind to formulate assumptions and presuppositions that affect the way social, cultural and also individual reality is interpreted. Bohm only succeeds in doing this by admitting that assumptions and presuppositions enter into the theory that are not explicitly defined empirically, and are therefore not objective. Dialogue thus becomes the direct application of an epistemology founded on the idea of essential continuity between subject and object, and on a conception of the cognitive process as a creative exploration of possible orders of reality.

The group in which individuals participate assigns them the task of finding the best solution that suits everyone. This prompts them to look for what they have in common. What appears on the surface is a juxtaposition of expectations, a broadening of perspectives and categories of thought, and the salience of a common dimension. But in perspective, the subtle movement of representations transforming into a social representation of the members of “that group” develops. There are no longer debatable alternatives: instead, there is a clear vision in their place, showing that the “tacit ground” has found its reality, its “implementation” – the work of decision-making, whose effects go far beyond what the group itself expected. These are the effects that bind people who communicate, deliberate together and engage, through dialogue, on the road to agreement. According to the theory of modernity [25] trust exists with reference to human activity that is able to transform the world without considering the intervention of chance or anything else. According to the English scholar, risk and trust interpenetrate, especially in interpersonal relationships through dia­logue, because trust serves to minimise the dangers always present in different human activities.

Reference and Notes

[1] Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1969). La realtà come costruzione sociale. Bologna: il Mulino.

[2] Tessarolo, M. (2013). La comunicazione interpersonale. Bari-Roma: Laterza, 48.

[3] Grice, H. P. (1978). Logica e conversazione. Gli atti linguistici. (Еd. M. Sbisà). Milano: Feltrinelli, 199-219.

[4] These scholars are Perelman, C. & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (2013). Trattato dell’argo­mentazione. Torino: Einaudi and Giddens, A. (1994). Le conseguenze della moder­nità. Fiducia e rischio, sicurezza e pericolo. Bologna: Il Mulino.

[5] The etymology of the word ‘dialogue’ helps to suggest a deeper meaning. ‘Dialogue’ in fact comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos means ‘the word’ or ‘sense of the word’ and dia means ‘through’. A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two.

[6] Discussion is presented as a search for truth, while in debate one is mainly concerned with making one’s own thesis triumph.

[7] With the activation of auxiliary secondary channels that help produce confirmation of understanding without interrupting the dialogue.

[8] This type of communication is also called ‘intermediate reality’. Tessarolo, M. (2013). La comunicazione interpersonale. Roma-Bari: Laterza,

[9] David Bohm (1917-1992) was an American-Brazilian-British scientist. He has been described as one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century and contributed unorthodox ideas to quantum theory, neuropsychology and the philosophy of mind.

[10] The term used by Bohm – “truth” – seems a little strange to us because a scientist does not search for truth, but for shared meaning, which is never definitive. The tacit level shows that all those who participate “know” what they should aim to, as if they had developed a “sixth sense” through the dialogues that took place in the group. The term “truth” may be understood as unspoken but implied sharing between group members.

[11] It is difficult to let go of what we have learnt in the past: what we know is what we have learnt. Bohm noticed the tendency to defend fundamental beliefs and the resulting incoherence (2004, p. 40). If we do not give space to the defensive attitude, we tend towards a single truth that divides rather than unites people.

[12] Bohm, D. (2004). On dialogue. London and New York: Routledge, 2.

[13] In 1991, Bohm, Foster and Garrett wrote an article in which they elaborated on session length and participation, both of which cannot be institutionalised. Moreover, dialogue does not involve leadership; it is essentially a conversation between equals.

[14] Bohm, D. (2004). On dialogue. London and New York: Routledge, the author expressly speaks of trust in dialogue on pp. 3, 16, 26 and 33.

[15] Moscovici, S. & Doise W. (1992). Dissensi e consensi. Una teoria generale delle decisioni collettive. Bologna: il Mulino.

[16] Such disputes may concern issues such as acceptance of the risks of nuclear energy, euthanasia, abortion and the like.

[17] Moscovici, S. & Doise, W. (1992). Dissensi e consensi. Una teoria generale delle decisioni collettive. Bologna: il Mulino,  p. 11.

[18] Durkheim, E. (1978). La division du travail social, Paris: P.U.F., 351.

[19] Habermas, J. (1986). Morale et communication. Paris: Cepf, 149.

[20] Bohm, D. (2004). On dialogue. London and New York: Routledge, 26.

[21] Trust is a dynamic process that has historically changed in relation to changes in contractual relations and supervision processes (Roninger, 1992).

[22] Simmel, G. (1896), quoted in Moscovici and Doise, (1992), 61.

[23] Mead, G.H. (1967). Mente sé e società Firenze: Giunti.

[24] The continuity between observer and observed is the same as between speaker and listener. In dialogue, it is important both to speak and to listen.

[25] Giddens, A. (1994). Le conseguenze della modernità. Fiducia e rischio, sicurezza e pericolo. Bologna: Il Mulino.


Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1969). La realtà come costruzione sociale. Bologna: il Mulino.

Bohm, D., Factor, D. & Garrett, P. (1991). Dialogue. A proposal. Retrieved on 10.10.2022.

Bohm, D. (2004). On Dialogue. London and New York: Routledge.

Durkheim, E. (1978). La division du travail social. Paris: P.U.F.

Giddens, A. (1994). Le conseguenze della modernità. Fiducia e rischio, sicurezza e pericolo. Bologna: il Mulino.

Grice, H. P. (1978). Logica e conversazione. In Gli atti linguistici, (Еd. M. Sbisà). Milano: Feltrinelli, 199-219.

Habermas, J. (1986). Morale et communication. Paris: Cepf.

Mead, G. H. (1967). Mente sé e società. Firenze: Giunti.

Moscovici, S. & Doise W. (1992). Dissensi e consensi. Una teoria generale delle decisioni collettive. Bologna: il Mulino.

Perelman, C. & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (2013). Trattato dell’argomentazione. Torino: Einaudi.

Roninger, L. (1992). La fiducia nelle società moderne.  Soveria Mannelli: Rubettino.

Tessarolo, M. (2013). La comunicazione interpersonale. Roma-Bari: Laterza.

Ръкописът е изпратен на 17.12.2022 г.

Рецензиране от двама независими рецензенти: от 18.12.2022 до 02.01.2023 г.

Приемане за публикуване: 03.01.2023 г.

Manuscript was submitted: 17.12.2022.

Double Blind Peer Reviews: from 18.12.2022 till 02.01.2023.

Accepted: 03.01.2023.

Брой 54 на сп. „Реторика и комуникации“, януари 2023 г. се издава с финансовата помощ на Фонд научни изследвания, договор № КП-06-НП4/72 от 16 декември 2022 г.

Issue 54 of the Rhetoric and Communications Journal (January 2023) is published with the financial support of the Scientific Research Fund, Contract No. KP-06-NP4/72 of December 16, 2022.