Christine Oliver

Awaiting publication in Human Systems



This narrative of a consultation explores some dilemmas and consequences for a team of committed and able employees of a not for profit organisation where abilities to make decisions in the day to day living of the work have broken down. The paper creates an account of key moments in the consultation. It does this by examining the links between consultant responses, the contexts that produce them, the consequent decisions to act and their effects. These connections are considered with reference to the relational abilities and commitments indicated by ‘systemic eloquence’ which is offered as a way of putting together the basic tenets of systemic social constructionist practice (5).

Developing the meaning of ‘making moments of significance work’

The word making is used deliberately here to foreground how for social constructionism, communication is a process of participating in and building realities (2, 8). The individual is treated as neither omnipotent nor impotent in shaping the opportunities and constraints that we call life. Social constructionism focuses on how those opportunities and constraints are constructed or made, examining the specific contributions of a complexity of contexts, and the implications of their being made in that way.

The complexity of reality is underlined. This is not an approach that thinks or acts in terms of simple cause and effect but that sees realities as being made between us through conversations in the present, inextricably linked to conversations of the past and future.

In these terms meaning is created through a complex interplay of contexts that create rules or grammars for how to interpret the episodes of communication that we are participating in, and grammars for how to act in relation to that meaning (9,3,2).

The individual is seen as a force with powers to shape, with others, how these grammars are made and as such is seen as having decision making capacity of a moral nature (4). This is not to say that we all have equal abilities to make flexible and free choices. It is to say that we must take seriously that the way we talk and listen has consequences for self and others - for our experience (stories lived) and our abilities to exercise choices about how we talk about our experience (stories told). Communication in this sense is made a moral matter, creating response-abilities about account-ability.

This positioning of self and other in the conversation lends itself to a commitment to attempting to make sense of muddles, difficult patterns, confusions, trouble in communicating. The process of exploration is emphasised rather than the arrival point because knowledge is treated as never finished, always partial, only ever what can be said given the opportunities for making sense at that moment.

The consultant working in this tradition aspires to a sensitivity about the purposes and effects of their communication and is interested to help others to develop the same sensibility. It is in this sense that making moments of significance work is being used.

Moments of significance are identified as opportunities for constructive change created out of vital connections and disconnections between stories lived and told in the process of engagement in the consultation. It will be suggested that for these moments to work they require reflexive abilities :

in noticing and questioning actions and re-actions of participants in the conversation including oneself
giving meaning to what is noticed with reference to theoretical and ethical considerations
noticing links and contradictions amongst a complexity of contexts for self and others
co-ordinating meaning and action
justifying ones actions with reference to the complex set of account-abilities to those involved.

A framework of Systemic Eloquence can put a little more flesh on these bones.

Systemic Eloquence

Systemic eloquence is described by Oliver (5) as an ability in using contexted communicative abilities. Like others in the social constructionist tradition she deliberately employs the metaphor of voice to allow for an exploration of what is and isn’t said, by whom, where from, at what volume, to what effect (1,2) Voice connects us to speech which alerts us to how talk is put together - its grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, person position and so on. Voice is a vehicle that brings emotion and language together.

Pearce describes the speaking abilities of social and rhetorical eloquence - social implying an ability to explore, translate and speak into the world of the other, rhetorical an ability that uses passion, persuasion, conviction to move the other (7). Both can take the conversation forward, both can constrain. Systemic eloquence recognises that the decision as to whether one takes a rhetorical or socially eloquent position is a contextual matter relating to the ability to know, in context, when to do what.

The impact of systemic eloquence is to improve powers in self and other to describe, locate, explain, critique, discriminate amongst and justify the decisions and accounts we take and make in communication. Such accounts would aspire to showing the relational ethical committments of humility, discernment, responsibility, courage and generosity. These commitments take on particular forms when working within a systemic social constructionist tradition.

In this context :

- appreciates that we shape abilities in ourselves and others through the invitations and pressures, the pulls and pushes of communication. It shows a preparedness to notice and acknowledge the powers as well as the limitations of our impact.

- appreciates the difference between stories lived and told, between our experience and the accounts we and others give of that experience.

- appreciates when to move amongst positions - of participation and reflection, rhetoric and exploration, eloquence and ineloquence, movement and stillness, complexity and clarity
- and to know that any position taken and given arises out of the complex interplay of a multiplicity of contexts.

- to make use of the experience of connection to create difference, and the experience of incoherence to facilitate closeness so that communication can develop and give rise to new clusters of meaning and patterns of action.

- to self and others in believing that we do our best in relation to the resources and abilities that are available to us
- in moments of certainty to experiment with elaborating that understanding, widening our view and making it more complex.

Systemic eloquence frames our approach to analysing what things mean and what we should do, allowing for an examination of links and contradictions between stories lived and told, those of our own and those we are engaged in conversation with. We encourage ourselves to think generously and imaginatively about the communication(s) we are, have been and will be part of so as to consciously link our stories told and lived and then move on in the ways that fit with these descriptions of reflexivity and eloquence.

Having located an ethical-theoretical frame, the question arises - how do you develop the abilities both to notice what to select out for attention and to take the forms of action that could be said to show systemic eloquence? This account of a consultation offers an example of how experience - reflection - experience is put together and can be treated as a form of guidance in the context of an appreciation that there are many other ways of putting things together. The commitment here to the reader will be to attempt to describe, explain, critique, link and locate the account so that it makes a coherent sense. It can then be treated as one account of lived experience, juxtaposed with others.


Contextual details of the contract for consultation

The team who asked for help had been able to agree that they needed a consultation but could not agree what the consultation would be for. The request to us therefore was to provide a consultation about a consultation. We were to help them reach a position where they could say what a consultation would be for. What we were told was that :

they defined their organisational structure as a collective
there was a communication problem and an inability to get to the root of it
people would speak into the room and no-one would answer
decision-making was becoming increasingly difficult
there was a sense of a ‘weight of history’
success would count as their being able to talk about things they hadn’t been able to before.

It was agreed that we two consultants work for three sessions with a team of twelve. This does not pretend to be a comprehensive account of the work, but rather, an examination of how, as consultants, we made sense of key aspects of our participation in the process and how we made use of those ways of making sense, to go forward in the consultation.

Questions, stories and connections

In preparation for the first session we consultants began to link together some of the information we had and to develop some questions so as to position ourselves usefully with the team. These were not questions that we would necessarily ask the team but questions we were asking ourselves linked to concerns and thoughts we were developing about the complex system we were charged with helping.

What were the contexts for deciding the structure of this working group should be a collective?
How is the notion of collective lived out in practice?
What are the stories about leadership in this group?
How do the ways people communicate connect with shared meaningsabout leadership?
How are silences understood? What effect do they have? What would need to happen for the conversation to flow and people to feel they can move forward?
What kind of obligations, permissions and entitlements are given and taken in the context of influential stories about justice, equality and democracy?
Are rights, responsibilities and roles defined clearly? Is there agreement? Is agreement/disagreement explicit? What might the connections be between difficulty in making decisions and the ways professional relationships are defined?
What will be made of how we position ourselves as leaders of this process?

These were some of the considerations contextualising the beginning of the work.



Team members were invited to introduce themselves and their positions and roles within the team. Although three people located their work identity with reference to a role, for example, administrator, social worker, the majority of people said " I am just a team member". In these introductions there was an awkwardness communicated. The emotional feeling for the consultants was a sense of muzziness, cloudiness, slipperiness - a sense of ‘I can’t get a handle on this’, a feeling of a communication being closed down.

A story of sameness was being told in words while the story lived was already contradicting it. Varying abilities were being shown about confidence and apparent authority to speak. People spoke with different impacts and for very different lengths of time. The lack of coherence felt during this episode sensitised us to calling it significant. Something of significance was being communicated but at this stage we could not give a coherent account of its meaning.

Beginnining to fit stories together

In giving meaning to our experience as consultants we are interested in what we call the moral ordering of stories - how peoples perspectives or stories fit and contradict, their strength and influence on each other and, in particular, the quality of oughtness and entitlement that a story speaks with (8,4).

In this episode of introductions, the ‘obedient’ way team members did not draw distinctions amongst themselves while indicating a discomfort, was suggestive of a shared belief that they should not. We began to wonder if there were connections between muddles, confusions and loyalties. We also wondered how both differences and value were communicated in this team if there were a strong story that distinctions should not be drawn.

Our choice of action at this stage was to not draw attention to our thoughts but to continue with setting the context for the consultation. We were being told here that separating people out was not part of their grammar. We made a judgement to explore this grammar further, to connect with it, to take a position of social eloquence, waiting so as to situate a movement to elaborate on these abilities, with sensibility (2).


After half an hour of discussion, we were informed that two team members were missing.

We reflected privately that this was communicated to us with some discomfort combined with a kind of helplessness. We decided to treat the absence as significant in the context of it being presented as if it was not amenable to any decision making process combined with a discomfort about that. Here was an opportunity to elaborate on leadership and decision making narratives.

Our choice of action here was to explore the logic of the contexts which could have produced the outcome of two absent team members when it had taken the team months to set the consultation up, wanting to ensure all team members could attend. We also chose to anticipate the potential consequences of different actions the team might now take. As well as helping the team reflect on and make problematic the contexts informing and creating the patterns they as a group were engaged in, this was intended by us to represent a clear act of leadership on our part, to show through our story lived how authority can facilitate movement.

We explored who the absent team members were, how it had come about that the consultation was going ahead, what its impact might be to have them absent or to stop the consultation at this point until we could re-convene. We invited the team to imagine the absent team members as an audience to this discussion and any communication the group made and to imagine how such communication might be understood. It emerged :

that the two people absent were the only black members of the team
that the task they were doing was necessary but it needn’t have been them that did it
that the absent members had themselves made the decision to do this task and that nobody else had questioned this decision explicitly
that nobody had raised the issue of whether the consultation should go ahead given that two key members of the team were unable to come
that the absent members often complained that some voices of the team were louder than others who were often not heard and that this inequality represented a gender and race issue
that the team unanimously believed the consultation process should not go ahead with two absent team members
that the exploration began to reframe a blaming of ‘reluctant participants’ to ‘a shared difficulty in making thoughts explicit enough to engage in a dialogue about decisions’.

Our next decision was to leave the group (as it had been agreed that we shoudn’t continue the consultation at that point) with the task of discussing how to communicate the decision that had been made, with the absent members, so that they might feel engaged in the future process of consultation.

Continuing to fit stories together

It was striking that a story was being told of an inability in speaking out as individuals while at the same time the impossibility of speaking for the group. There was a theme here of everyone waiting to be led but no-one legitimately able to lead; in the Wittgensteinian sense there was an inability to go on in the conversation (2). Our sense was that a strong constraining context for this stuckness was an ambiguity about definition of relationship. In the context of confusion about rights, responsibilities, expectations and roles and how these fitted together to make a team that functioned coherently, team members did not have sufficient clarity to identify who to speak to about what, in which circumstances - a poverty of account-ability. We hypothesised that in a context where leadership is not formally taken, it will be taken informally and will be constructed or (il)legitimised according to implicit criteria. Such processes create a story of disempowerment rather than no power which was the intention associated with the language of ‘the collective’. Constraints were being created in the name of freedom.

What were the constraining stories that created such ambiguity however? This question needed greater elaboration.

In the following session, all team members were present and acted as if they were engaged in a process of consultation. Something that was striking however was that no-one ever showed any curiosity about others’ responses - there was no checking of meaning or requests to elaborate. Everyone acted as if they knew what others meant, constraining the potential for difference or disagreement.

A theme of the importance of equality was emerging but alongside that an experience of deficit and failure. This was illustrated by no distinctions being drawn about experience and professional training in terms of allocation of tasks. Some people were engaged in tasks which on the one hand they felt ill equipped to do and on the other, it was not clear to whom they were accountable. It was agreed that these contradictions would be explored in the next session with a view to helping the group reach a point of decision making about a future consultation.


We arrived at our final session having done some work (in private analysis) fitting links and contradictions between stories shared and developed by the group over the two sessions we had met. We weren’t sure how this making sense would be used.

Early on in the session a story was told by one of the black members of the group about an upset she had experienced that week. She had sat on a chair in work which had collapsed. She had gone home, bruised and shaken and no-one had contacted her to see if she was alright. The account she was developing was that no-one cared, that no-one could be bothered to telephone, that no-one was interested in protecting the working environment. She asked the group - who is responsible - and no-one answered. There was an eloquent silence. Everybody looked embarrassed and hurt.

Our choice of action here was deliberately intended to stop this form of dialogue. We believed that to continue with it would have reinforced stories of :

the problems here are to do with people not caring
that if you protest about this, communication will improve
structural definitions of relationship are not relevant
these problems are caused by misuse of power

We linked this episode to the theme of decision making and the developing appreciation of ambiguity of account-ability, team members not knowing who they could count on. It was brought to the group’s attention that a particular story was being told about people’s intentions (as not caring) which had the effect of no-one knowing how to speak in relation to the accusation and feeling implicated in a sense of failure. We suggested that a story about personal motivations also distracted from any organisational gaps or muddles which could be usefully explored.

One of us asked the group a question next, the response to which was silence. Treating the silence as a request for help with how to go on, we decided to share our thinking of how the stories told and lived that had impacted on us, might fit together. Our intention to introduce some clarity into what felt like a miserable muddle made sense to us in an atmosphere of helplessness where questions do not connect to responses. At times in a consultation process one can experience what feels like too much clarity and in that context, a position of social eloquence might be adopted.

We asked the group, therefore, to consider how the ways we had of making sense of the complexity of material we had been working with might fit with their own experience. We made it clear that the connections we were offering were partial and rooted in our experience and that their own might emphasise and de-emphasise different aspects of the patterns we had created together. We asked them therefore to use our text as a working document, to add to, to change, to question, to disagree with.

This is what we shared with the group :

An anxiety about organisational survival combined with an ambiguity about who could talk about this fear, therefore it was never explicitly addressed, created a context for :

A loyalty to collective culture (we are all leaders) creates a necessity for a special set of clarities about differences but instead, in the context of fear, is interpreted as meaning - we must agree (we have no leaders). This creates a context for :

The loudest, most experienced, confident voices are heard most. Gender and race become visible as dimensions of power. Communication problems are named as power issues :

These strong shared stories keep the following looped form of communication going in a way that makes for a shared sense of giddiness :

decisions must be made no decision is made
difference/ disagreementsameness/nothingness
silence is created protests arise/complaints made

This strange loop is a figure whereby each level of context in the loop contains its opposite and each context becomes the context for the next, with no escape unless the powerful stories holding it together can be noticed and transformed.

As a working text it was recieved with great animation, creativity and relief. People discussed their responses in pairs before sharing and building on them in the larger group.

After a process of working on the text together, working groups addressed some key questions facing them :

By what mechanism should they decide what to do next?
Who should be involved in the decision?
Do they have to agree?

The groups resolved these questions in a straightforward manner and made decisions about the forthcoming consultation both in terms of the potential topics needing further exploration, the process and the personnel involved.


The moments of significance that have been noticed and explored here have used systemic eloquence as a frame to guide action. The abilities of consultants and the team consulted have developed in describing, explaining, locating, critiquing, discriminating amongst and justifying choices.

For key moment I, a pattern of responses, which included our own, alerted us to enquire about how relationships were defined in the context of organisational culture. With a commitment to relational humility we were mindful of the integrity of this system and sensed the need for stillness and lightness in our actions at that stage. We enacted our commitment to noticing how stories told and lived connect and disconnect.

This positioning helped us in key moment II to show the rhetorical skills of strength and clarity in managing the premature ending of that session while facilitating the responsibility of the team to position themselves systemically to imagine their actions as communications within a multiplicity of contexts. Relational courage was shown here, in using a difficulty to make an opportunity to connect with leadership and decision making narratives in the face of stuckness and helplessness.

Key moment III represented a crucial opportunity to connect and integrate our observations about the patterns of engagement we had participated in, with language that could re-imagine the possibilities for the group’s future by naming and re-naming those patterns with the group. It was striking how a sensitivity to the need for humility, here an appreciation of the negativity of the pattern developing and the potential power of the impact of allowing it to continue or making a move to change it, at that point made it feel more imperative to use rhetorical skills but with systemic eloquence.

The overwhelming ways in which we felt ethically bound to offer alternatives were in relation to the need for :

a change from personal blame to a focus on relational clarities in a complex context
a change from a definition of power as the problem to communication.

We are taking the view here that ...... "how you describe a problem can make a difference and how you describe a difficulty can make a problem" (Oliver and Lang, 1994 p.3) Our stance that we make realities through the ways we communicate is enacted in these kinds of ways. This approach sensitises the consultant to the potential consequences of how you name a problem. In this case, it is our view that in treating the muddles and unhappiness of the team as primarily about communication, and in treating the consultation as a communicative act, individuals were empowered to act as individuals and corporately, but when power was foregrounded both team and individuals were rendered speechless.


In using the device of the title ‘making moments of significance work’ this paper has attempted to show how the systemic practitioner creates realities (with others) through her abilities to communicate. The moments of significance that have been noticed and explored have been named as such because of their potential for making use of reflexive processes to engage in movement forward in the work. These moments have been constructed through a form of consciousness that locates the ways voices and bodies are used (including our own) in the context of a range of ethical and theoretical commitments, and translates these abilities in making sense into imaginative and accountable action.

The capacity for generosity becomes co-constructed as participants come to appreciate the contextual logic for how the individual and the corporate are linked together. With this appreciation they come to rename their predicaments in ways that help them move within and through them.


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