On using cmm in consulting

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August 12, 2006, v. 1.2

Prepared for the second year consultants’ class

W. Barnett Pearce

Fielding Graduate University

Pearce Associates

Public Dialogue Consortium

Some basic principles:

  • There are many ways of consulting. CMM is useful for those who work collaboratively with clients (rather than taking an “expert” role) and who focus on enriching/improving the process of communication (rather than advocating or implementing a particular solution).

  • There are many ways of seeing/describing the situations in which a consultant is called to work. Those using CMM take a “communicative perspective” consisting of looking at the processes of communication rather than through them (e.g., to other things, such as personality types or to what a statement refers). That is, consultants informed by CMM believe that patterns of communication are substantive and generative; they make the social worlds in which we live. To understand challenging or problematic situations, it is useful to explore how they are made in the process of communication. Expressed in a variety of ways, those taking the communication perspective often ask, “How is that made?” and “What are we making together?”

  • There are many schools of thought and traditions of practice that take a “communicative perspective,” including all those focusing on sense-making, narrative, and the management of conversations. Among these, CMM is distinctive by inviting consultants to see communication as a two-sided, spiraling, reflective process of coordinating actions and making/managing meaning.
  • This continuing process makes (constructs; produces) the events and objects of our social worlds, in a manner depicted by the Figure on page 2. Consultants informed by CMM “hear” the situations described by their clients as a problematic event or object in their social world made by a particular form of communication. With their clients, they move “backward” through this Figure to describe and intervene in that pattern, changing it so that it makes something preferable.

  • Consultants using CMM use a variety of concepts and tools to describe the processes of communication that have made the situations their clients face, to equip their clients to handle such situations more effectively, and to stimulate the social evolution of themselves, their clients, and the institutions of our social worlds.

Figure 1

Social worlds emerging from the process of communication

(Read the model from the bottom up: The communication perspective is one way of understanding our social worlds. One of the theories that take thos perspective, CMM describes communication as a two-sided process of coordinating actions and making/managing meanings. As this process continues, it “makes” speech acts, episodes, relationships, and selves. These aspects of our social worlds give rise to “emergent characteristics:” forms of communication, minds, and consciousness.) This model is adapted from W. Barnett Pearce (2007). Communication and the Making of Social Worlds. Danish Psychological Press.

The basic strategy of consultants informed by CMM:

  • Collaborating with the client in developing an enriched description of the communication processes that comprise the problematic situation;

  • Helping the client identify “bifurcation points” in which specific actions can change those patterns;

  • Enabling the client to escape from the grasp of incomplete, unproductive stories;

  • Coaching the client to construct richer, better stories;

  • Stimulating the social evolution of themselves and the institutions in which they live and work.

Some ways consultants who use CMM work:

The general tactical approach is to identify “openings” and explore where they lead. As CMM conceptualizes the communication process, it is a messy thing, providing many opportunities for a client and consultant to explore and intervene. Consultants using CMM don’t confront, challenge, or solve the situations identified by their clients; rather, they invite their clients to join them in a subversive process of dissolving (rather than resolving) conflicts, re-authoring stories, and acting strategically to call into being or change existing patterns of communication. Some of these openings, and the responses to them, are described below.

1. There is always a tension or difference between the stories people live and the stories people tell. One reason for this difference is that stories told tend to have a narrative unity or coherence, while stories lived are contingent on what two or more people – all with their own stories, of course – do, in specific sequences and in particular places.

The central part of CMM’s “serpentine model” (on page 4) consists of a time line. Consultants using CMM often ask clients (and those with whom they work) to construct a turn-by-turn description of the sequence of events in the problematic situation. Simply by encouraging them to identify all of the events, perhaps noting the different interpretations of them and the “punctuations” of responsibility for what happens, the consultant can call attention to the gaps between stories lived and stories told. In technical language, this invites the client to realize how they have “emplotted” the sequence of events, and suggests that they revise these stories. Often this is a sufficient intervention, particularly if done in a process that includes all the key participants in the situation.

Bill's social world:
Story of self: confident, successful

Relationship: mutually supportive Episode: damage control

Episode: annual performance review Relationship: victim/victimizer

Episode: annual performance review

Relationship: purely professional

Self: competent and tired of having to cover for Bill's mistakes

Elaine's social world:

Figure 2: The Serpentine Model

The middle of model (from top to bottom) is a time line in which each empty box represents a turn in the conversation. The material above and below the time line is an application of CMM’s hierarchy model (described below) that depicts the meanings made/managed by each person (in this case Bill and Elaine) as the episode (in this case, a performance review in which Bill expected a much more favorable evaluation than he received).

2. The stories clients tell are significant. They make sense of what is happening and they guide the way the client acts into the situation. However, these stories are almost always incomplete; told from limited perspectives; have a linear concept of causality and responsibility; inadequately portray the richness of the social world; and use a too-limited vocabulary of how meanings/stories are connected to action. CMM borrows the notion of “grammars of action” from Ludwig Wittgenstein as a way of reminding ourselves that there is more to the story and than the story told by the client.

Consultants using CMM invite their clients to explore the grammar of the situation, using a variety of techniques. Here are three:

2.1. Using the “Daisy model,” they coach their clients to see how any situation is made by the overlap of many conversations. Each event or object in the social world is deeply textured.

Figure 3: Daisy Model

This model invites the client to see that the problematic person or situation is a deeply textured social object, “made” by the intersection of more conversations than our stories usually include. Each of the conversations are indicated by one of the petals in the model; for example, A might be the conversation with the managing director; B the conversation with the person’s family; C with the supervisor in another division who is competing for company resources; D is the “conversation” with the client’s parents (continuing to seek approval?); and the other empty petals a reminder that there are still other conversations as part of the process by which this person or situation is made.

2.2 Using the Hierarchy Model, consultants using CMM coach their clients to see that they never only tell one story about what is going on, and that the multiple stories that they tell have a context/contextualized relationship among them. That is, in any given moment, one of the stories functions as the context for others.

In Figure 4 (shown on page 6), a formal structure of the hierarchy model suggests stories of culture, self, relationship, and episode. These are types of stories that those working with CMM have often found useful, but in any specific case, it is your responsibility to determine what are the relevant stories, and what relationship they have in relation to each other.





What is said or done

Figure 5: The hierarchy model

This model is a heuristic inviting clients to note that there are multiple stories functioning as the context for what is said or done, and that these stories have contextual relationships among them. The meaning of what is said or done differs, for example, if the client’s story of “self” is the highest context or whether the highest story is “relationship” or “episode.”
2.3. Stories are always told in a particular manner. Some stories are told in a provisional way (“one way of putting this is…”) while others are single-minded (“this is the way it is…!”); some stories are told in a way that integrates many perspectives while others are told from a single perspective; etc. The manner of story-telling makes a difference.

Consultants using CMM often note the manner of storytelling and use it as an opening in two ways.

2.3.1. Psychologist Robert Kegan put it this way: sometimes we live our stories and sometimes our stories live us. If a consultant detects that the client has been mastered by the stories she or he tells, then the consultant may work to help the client see that these stories are only one set among the many that can be told. One technique is to interview the client using systemic/circular questioning. This is a process that, among other things, invites the client to tell/hear the stories that have mastered him or her in a spirit of curiosity and from many perspectives: from the point of view of others in the social network (using the daisy model), from before and after particular points (using the time line in the serpentine model), and making distinctions between connections that are more or less strong.
2.3.2. The consultant using CMM can bring the manner of storytelling into the conversation with the client, inquiring about why he or she tells the story in a particular way, how that might differ in other circumstances, and what would be the consequences of telling it in another manner. In doing so, the consultant is inviting the client to distinguish between the content of the story and the act of telling the story – that is, to take the “communication perspective.”
3. The stories told by clients are always incomplete. CMM’s LUUUUTT model calls attention to stories untold, unheard, unknown, and untellable. Other “U’s” are possible – the model was originally LUTE and we thought of the ancient Greek stringed musical instrument. But “adding U’s” has been so popular that it is now just an awkward acronym.

Stories lived

Unheard stories

Unknown stories


Untellable stories Untold stories

Stories told

Figure 6: The LUUUUTT model

LUUUUTT is an acronym for 1) stories Lived; 2) Unknown stories, 3) Untold Stories, 4) Unheard stories, 5) Untellable stories; 6) Stories Told, and 7) storyTelling.
4. The stories told by clients usually have a limited vocabulary for describing the connection between meaning and action. CMM theorists adapted Georg von Wright’s concept of “deontic logic” to produce a heuristic model of the “oughtness” that people feel while acting in specific moments. We call the combination of all of these “logical force.” As shown in Figure 7, the action that anyone takes (the middle of the bottom line in the Figure) occurs in the context of stories of self, relationship, episode, etc. (this is the hierarchy model) as well as in the sequence of actions performed by other people (this is the timeline at the heart of the serpentine model).
Context 1 (e.g., self)

Context 2 (e.g., relationship)

Context 3 (e.g., episode)

Antecedent act action Consequent act

Figure 7: A model of “logical force”

This model attempts to provide a richer vocabulary for describing the connections between meanings (stories of self, relationship, episode, etc.) and the sense of “oughtness” that someone feels about what they say or do in a specific moment. In addition, it takes into account the contingency of coordinated action by making a place for describing the connections between what a person says and does and the sayings and doings of other people before and afterwards.

In general, there are two categories of logical force: “because of” and “in order to.” Usually, people feel “stuck” when they act on the basis of “because of” motivations; they feel that they are acting purposefully and more freely when they are responding to “in order to” aspects of logical force. One powerful intervention is to invite clients to see that actions that they describe as “because of” can also be described, with equal accuracy, as “in order to.” This frees them to choose to act differently.

5. There are recurring patterns of communication that create difficulties. Consultants using CMM become sensitive to these and have developed ways of helping clients be aware of and to escape them. These patterns include URPs (unwanted repetitive patterns), strange and charmed loops, performative paradoxes, unanticipated consequences, reciprocated diatribe, etc.

Context: ??

Self-concept: I am sufficiently skilled; ≠ I need additional training;

my way of working is I need to adopt a new way

fine of working

Professional Consult using the methods ≠ Seek new training; change

Judgment: I already know the way I work as a


Episodes: Less than complete success ≠ Able to do things that I could

not do previously

Oscillating behavior: the participants switch between two, apparently contradictory behaviors. In this example: for a time, the consultant rejects any suggestion that she or he needs further training. Then something happens (what?) and the consultant seeks out training, the latest books and videotapes, etc.

Figure 8: A model of a strange loop

This example is a strange loop in the hierarchy of a consultant’s stories, and is a hypothesis attempting to explain how trainers and writers keep getting rich with "flavor of the month" styles of consulting.
6. Some patterns of communication enable good things to happen. Consultants using CMM work with clients to plan meetings so that they increase the chances of these forms of communication happening. For example, dialogic communication provides space for creativity, and some ways of organizing meetings makes dialogic communication more likely.

The point of it all:

There are many ways of working as a consultant, and one might wonder why someone would choose to learn and use CMM.

Using CMM does not provide quick fixes or just another technique for the consultant’s toolbox. It is a coherent tradition of practice that, unfortunately, requires a commitment to learn to use well. (I sometimes call this the “first unit cost” of this approach.) However, many of those who have made the commitment say that they can now no longer NOT use it in their work.

The reason for this is that communication is a reflexive process. We become different people by engaging in different processes of communication. I believe that the processes of communication engaged in by consultants using CMM stimulate personal and social evolution. Both consultants and clients develop abilities they didn’t have before to understand their social worlds, to identify bifurcation points and to act wisely into them, and to approach problematic situations with an enriched sensitivity.

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