Christine Oliver

Human Systems: the journal of systemic consultation and management, Vol. 7, No. 4


Systemic Eloquence is offered as a form of systemic social constructionist practice. As work in progress it begins to speak to a way forward between the two apparently opposing grammars of post modern relativism and moral commitment. This paper suggests and develops an account of systemic eloquence by exploring the potential influence of Co-ordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) theory on the original Milan principles of hypothesising, circularity and neutrality. Use of these ideas is encouraged in all areas of systemic practice. The case example offered here is from an organisational consultancy context.


CMM, developed by communication theorists Pearce and Cronen and others in the worlds of systemic practice, offers a distinctive approach to making sense and participating within our social worlds. It is to be located within a broad social constructionist frame and foregrounds the moral actor within that frame (Cronen & Lang, 1994, Cronen & Pearce,1985, Oliver, 1992, Oliver & Lang, 1994, Pearce, 1989, Pearce, 1994, Penman,1995).

The locus of concern for CMM is the co-construction of our social world - the links between the stories we, in interaction live and the ‘grammatical abilities’ we develop in telling stories in our efforts to make our lives intelligible (Cronen & Lang, op. cit., Wittgenstein, 1969)). Offering a framework for communication analysis and a guide for communicative action, CMM invites us to focus on specified moments and episodes of interaction and to consider :

- Who is telling the stories being told, to whom, in what way?

- Which stories are selected out and which become less visible?

- Which stories have strongest influence on action?

- What is the nature of connection and influence between stories?

- What forms of emotion, identity, relationship and culture are constructed?

- How do our actions and values connect with wider social discourses?

- What choices does an individual have in their use of discourse?

- And, crucially, what part do we play in shaping the choices of others?

The social constructionist account (Gergen & Shotter, Communication Yearbook, 17)) which CMM speaks from and into, describes :

‘..... the influences at work in the context of people’s words as they are spoken ..... determining their fate in the living moment of their use.’ (p.4).

The position taken is that our ways of communicating construct forms of social accountability by shaping the possibilities available to ourselves and others for co-ordination of meaning and action.

Cronen and Pearce offer their account of collaborated social reality to those of us such as therapists, consultants, researchers, managers, teachers and others interested in social change, both as a tool for systemic analysis and a guide for action. In attempting to understand how actions sustain or transform the contexts out of and into which they are performed, it potentially speaks to those who want to change their circumstances. In doing so it places the agent (or first person) in the foreground, in distinction from traditional "I - it" paradigms which separate the knower from the known and focus on third persons (ibid).

In treating knowledge and communication as constitutive of reality rather than representational of it, Cronen and Pearce are speaking from within a post-modern tradition (Brown). However, within the post-modern frame, the status given to reality is a contested site. Penman has pointed out the consequences of treating communication as material or immaterial (23). In embracing communication as immaterial, for instance, as Rorty (25) has done, difficulties are created for us in judging moral claims when we are faced with the binaries of a world of objectivity or a world of nothing real. Others (using a constructivist perspective) have emphasised the epistemological which takes us away from the material and creates similar dilemmas for systemic practice in the real world. (16)

This paper attempts to explore by what criteria we assess moral claims in systemic practice. Specifically, some moral implications will be drawn out in exploring the potential effects of emphasising the question - ‘what did/shall we do and how did/shall we do it?’ - which takes us into different territory from when we emphasise ‘how do we know what we know?’ - the question more central to epistemological concerns.

All frameworks of ideas offer the potential for creating freedoms and limits to action. The constructionist notion that we need to look to situated interactions to make a judgement about the usefulness of an enacted idea, is helpful in therapeutic decision making. Here I want to describe and develop the ways in which CMM might both sustain and transform our accounts of the usefulness of the original Milan formulations of hypothesising, circularity and neutrality locating these practices in a meta-theoretical context (Cecchin, 1987, Cecchin, Ray & Lane, 1992, Cecchin, 1992, Selvini, Boscolo, Cecchin & Prata, 1980).

I will be exploring the potential of CMM to enrich our abilities to tell stories about the experience of systemic practice in a way that suggests a coherence of ethical practice that could be called systemic eloquence. For these purposes, a brief account will be provided of the Milan formulations as originally described, and developed in later years by Cecchin, to enable some distinctions to be drawn.

To set a context for this exploration I will offer a description of systemic eloquence and then take the reader through an account of ‘justification’ for its development.


The approach being developed here is one that describes therapy or any other systemic practice as a moral endeavour through which moment by moment judgements are made with reference to visions of the good and the bad (13). This upfrontness about the making of judgements is deliberate, intended to foreground the responsibilites associated with our powers to think and act.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition of eloquence is

the action, practice or art of speaking ..... with fluency, force and appropriateness so as to appeal to the reason or move the feelings.

Systemically, dualisms like reason and feeling create problems by reducing complexity. We want to see all stories told and lived as expressing logics of meaning and action which make sense in context. To describe an act as either emotional or rational is to reduce it by decontextualising it.

What I take, use and translate from the dictionary definition though, is its emphasis on speaking abilities that have strength, flow, coherence, fit and impact.

I am deliberately foregrounding the metaphor of voice and using voice as a vehicle that connects emotion and language, encompassing both verbal and non-verbal communication.

An interest in voice leads us to wonder how talk is put together - to vocabulary and the connections between vocabularies.

Voice implies position. In thinking about voice we are led to ask

- What place is the voice speaking from?

- Who is speaking to whom?

- Who is speaking most/least loudly?

- What could be said about ineloquence (the not said)?

- How am I and the other positioning each other in the conversation?

- What pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and other parts of speech are used?

- What emotions are enabled or constrained through this positioning?

A metaphor that locates us in communication in this way can encourage the conditions for systemic eloquence as an ability in using contexted speaking abilities.

We can begin to think about speaking abilities by looking at what Pearce has described as the speaking abilities of social and rhetorical eloquence (Pearce, 1989)).

Social eloquence requires an ability to co-construct what he calls cosmopolitan communication; to explore and attempt to make sense of descriptions without denying difference; acknowledging the other’s logic, comparing and translating stories; working to distinguish between what is meant, said and heard; stressing collaboration rather than competition, we-ness rather than I-ness.

If we speak in socially eloquent ways we are more open to the logic of the other. This skill is demonstrated by an acknowledgement of the other’s logic (their rules for interpreting communication) in our way of speaking. It requires what Pearce calls skills in ‘translation’ (ibid)) :

finding a way of saying in one language what has been said in another (p.178)

what others have called ‘entering the grammar’ of the other (Cronen & Lang, op. cit.)).

Rhetorical eloquence privileges the first person, expressing an ability to persuade, to speak with conviction of the rightness of one’s view, exploiting the resources available to achieve coherence. If rhetorical eloquence is employed by self and other(s) an ethnocentric pattern may be the outcome whereby all parties show loyalty to the story ‘my way is better’.

However, rhetorical and social eloquence are not to be treated as dualistic abilities but more as contextualising each other so that for instance, rhetorical skills may be employed in the name of socially eloquent intentions and vice versa.

I am developing the argument here that the decision to engage in one form of eloquence or another is a contextual one requiring systemic eloquence and is based on a judgement about the needs of co-ordination at that point. For instance in a context of cultural homogeneity, rhetorical eloquence might be privileged until a point where the boundaries of homogeneity may need exploration. In a context where realities are incommensurate, social eloquence is more likely to be fitting the needs of co-ordination.

Systemic eloquence in communication would aspire to showing the relational ethical commitments of humility, discernment, responsibility, courage and generosity. In the social constructionist tradition these might take the following forms :


In being prepared to notice and sense the power and shape of one’s contribution to the experience of self and other. This can be seen as an ability to examine the relevance, purposes and effects of the contexts which shape our actions and how our actions shape abilities in ourselves and others through pressure, instruction and invitation. Humility is often used as a word to sensitise us to our limitations. I am wanting to include here a sensitivity to the powers of our impact, to the fatefulness of our actions.


In telling the difference between stories told and stories lived, between our experience and the accounts we and others give of that experience. If it is appreciated that there can be a discontinuity between a story told and lived, then conclusions from problematic stories lived can be reviewed and elaborated on. For instance, out of an experience of ‘I have no choice’, the telling of that story can create freedoms (choices) previously not considered, creating new openings for connection. Or, recognising a stuckness can facilitate the identifying of an unwanted pattern from which the ability to move can develop.


To participate so as to move between positions of eloquence (and ineloquence). This responsibility to movement implies a commitment to moving between movement and stillness, the stillness necessary to make reflexive judgements about the requirements of complex social accountabilities.


To make use of openings in co-ordinated grammar through engaging with an experience of connection to facilitate contrast and with disconnection or incoherence to facilitate connection. I speak of courage so as to connect us with and elaborate on a grammar which includes the use of emotion in therapy and other systemic practices.


To self and others in taking a position that we do our best with the resources and abilities that are available to us. Generosity can also be identified when, in moments of certainty we experiment with uncertainty and elaborate our understanding, widening our view and making it more complex. These emerging commitments might encourage us in making socially negotiated judgements that facilitate co-ordination in such a way as to maintain or improve powers in self and other to :

. . . describe - so as to give voice to a story not yet told;

. . . explain - so as to tell stories about the story/contextualise;

. . . critique - so as to treat descriptions as stories amongst stories to treat oneself as a commentator on stories to appreciate links and contradictions between stories;

. . . discriminate amongst - analysing freedoms and constraints of stories for self and others;

. . . and justify - by attempting a coherence between intention and outcome through a commitment to social accountability;

. . . choices - creating an experience of agency - the ability to use one’s voice in the ongoing dialogue.

Before identifying use of these (contexted) abilities in action, I will place systemic eloquence in the context of the fundamental forming ideas and practices of the Milan group and some of their later developments and explore how CMM can translate and develop the (moral) language of therapy to a point where systemic eloquence makes sense.


In the social worlds of systemic practice, the active development of stories or hypotheses has long been a guiding principle. For the early Milan group (Selvini et al, ibid)), hypothesising represented

the means with which we discipline our investigative work (p.5).

The activity at that time was characterised by a search for the story that provided the widest explanatory value

a supposition concerning the total relational function (p.6)

implying that the problematic behaviours presented to therapists served a particular kind of purpose - that of keeping things the same. The`mechanism that expressed this reluctance to change was that of homeostasis, located in the cybernetic metaphor. The focus for story-making was ‘the family’ (a first order cybernetic position) and the relational position between therapy team and client could be described as ‘us and them’. The knower was separate from the known.

Cecchin developed the concept of hypothesising further in his paper on curiosity to incorporate a second order cybernetic position; the therapist and team were included in the focus of systemic story-telling (Cecchin, 1987). Cecchin deliberately uses the metaphor of story or script in describing the activity of hypothesising and there could be said to be a change of emphasis from search to creation of a story. The collaborative nature of story construction is alluded to in his saying

As clinicians, we offer the family new scripts (based on our hypotheses) to which the family responds by adjusting its script that, in turn, helps us alter our scripts, and so on. (p.411).

This description clearly indicates the circular connectedness between participants in the process of making meaning and action. What, perhaps it does not capture is the emergent quality of our ‘stories told’ through the multilayered complexity of the connections, discontinuities, contradictions, openings and closures of the stories that we live as participants in communication. CMM offers a useful set of discoursive practices in suggesting the selecting of particular points of interest for examining (and creating) the texture of stories.

CMM and Stories Lived and Told

As systemic practitioners, we develop accounts with others (colleagues, clients, employees, subjects, students) that are guided both by a desire to make coherence or sense of what has been described as problematic and to create a lack of fit, to question the desirability of, or to render strange that same pattern of connections in order to help others and ourselves to move forward.

The activity of hypothesising (telling stories) creates a context for us to develop these abilities in co-constructing change for the good. CMM invites us to think in terms of connections between levels (of abstraction not linear superiority or importance) of context. It provides a structure with which we can explore the conditions that allow for particular stories to develop and the purposes and effects of such stories on our abilities to identify and construct certain kinds of identities and relationships. It provides a framework for thinking about our abilities to gain access to, make use of and exercise choice over prevalent, formative discourses in the pores of the skin of society which provide each of us with unique powers or constraints to act. We can be more or less open to the openings a discourse provides for us or the openings that we and others need in order for us to act coherently.

CMM brings our attention to the reflexivity between levels of meaning which at any one point in time can be shaping our abilities to act. It also provides a structure for making sense of and for using contradictions and complexities of meaning at a level of context. I find the heuristic of ‘levels’ useful in that it opens up the possibility for movement, links, contradictions and relative influence between meanings.[1]

In our systemic story-making we become curious - how come a particular story is clung on to so tenaciously; why is that story told and not another; what choices are being exercised in the telling of it? With its notion of deontic leogic CMM suggests a way of thinking about the strength of moral force with which a story is told. For instance, from this position we are interested to explore how we co-construct in the pulls and pushes of dialogue with others, conditions of obligation for our own and others’ actions.[2] For me, this contribution of CMM is the most transformative in its development of a useful account about how to think about and ‘do’ power in systemic conversations.

Case Example

A recent consultation to a new manager and her team of six indicated that the culture within which people were working was characterised by blame, shame and fear of failure. In a group interview much discomfort was shown in discussing communication. It was a view clearly shared and articulated that this was a miserable place to work, that everyone, including the manager, felt isolated and badly treated, spending a lot of energy defending and staying stuck in their own corners. There was little evidence of social eloquence. Words were used like

".... no change is possible. There is no chance of a meeting point."

However, the content of conflict was not made explicit and certainly not explored. The team, in their meetings, spent endless hours discussing trivial matters, avoiding what were percieved as the more thorny issues relating to the vision and direction of the department.

In individual sessions, the language used to describe people’s concerns was characterised by personal feeling and criticism.

"I hate the manager."

or, about a colleague

"she is hopeless."

This was the way people talked except for the person in the team who spent most time showing personal distress in the group through frequent breaking down and crying. She was more inclined to define the problems as being to do with ambiguity of priorities, rights and responsibilities.

The previous management team had, in one person’s words been "decapitated" in the context of industrial action. In this group people talked of the need to get it right or there would be some destructive outcome.

As consultants we used a strange loop as a structure for our story telling (9) - both for ourselves, to facilitate a making sense of the complex mass of material that was evolving between us and as a heuristic to guide our action with the team.

Cultural stories.

Cultural stories developed for this organisation out of the lived experience or memories of threats to existence and survival. In this context a story developed of the neccessity for change for its own sake - keep striving, don’t stop and then they won’t catch up with you. For instance, the use of performance indicators was instituted without any exploration by management of the potential implications for personnel. This was not seen as a relevant dialogue to be having in the management domain. No commitment was shown to the management of meaning and action. Historical events created a culture which showed a preoccupation with fear of blame.

Relationship stories

Although the team shared the view that good teams were able to communicate and negotiate difference, for this team patterns of relationship developed in the context of the cultural stories above whereby it was felt obligatory to not talk about vulnerabilities in a way that made you understood because to do so would mean loss - loss of job, loss of ability to define your own work priorities, loss of identity. People’s utterances were only treated as holding potential for hurting rather than representing possibilities for increasing connection. The account become one where to show closeness of view was more important than developing processes of understanding.

Professional life-script stories

In the context of the above, voices were not being used to effect with concommitant stories of failure, incompetence, poor communication and hopelessness.


A characteristic episode shaped by the above stories of strong influence went like this :

explore difference minimise difference
I cannot make myself understoodI must make myself understood
ambiguity of position/lack of leadershipclarity of position/leadership
stuckness/fear/no way forward can go forward so can communicate

The hypothesising or story telling shown by the loop provides an opportunity to identify how contradictory meanings can work in relationship to each other in a way that makes it very difficult to get outside of if they are operative in the context of strongly held stories of obligation.

The loop operates like a figure of eight. As soon as one story is told so the next one follows. There is no way out unless there is a story change at a higher level of context (9). The strange loop incorporates a greater complexity of contextual levels than that offered by the double bind (3).

The question now arises - how does the systemic consultant connect such stories told to stories lived between consultant and client(s)? In exploring this question, I will ask first what CMM can tell us about how to position ourselves in the conversation with clients.


Different metaphors have been used over the years to describe the moral positioning the systemic ‘actor’ takes up in relation to the ‘other’ in the conversation. In the days of ‘early Milan’ the word neutrality was used to mean an avoidance of moral judgement, a disinterested relationship to the context(s) one was acting into, an alliance with everyone and no-one, a form of relativism (Selvini et al, ibid).

In his later work Cecchin, developing the notion of neutrality, (Cecchin, 1987) decides that all words are politically laden in that we are organised and constrained by language. In arguing for a

state of curiosity in the mind of the therapist (p.406)

he wonders if we should avoid descriptions altogether insofar as all descriptions imply explanations and are thus a challenge to therapist curiosity. What Cecchin is wanting to take pains to avoid is the state of affairs when we believe our explanations are true or false - the systemic sin of ‘falling in love with our hypotheses.’ He argues that a search for the ‘correct’ view implies a belief in ‘instructive interaction’ (17) - the therapist would be acting as if it is possible to get others to do what he or she wants. Cecchin’s approach (5) is one which

gives up the attempt to direct people (p.408).

Cecchin uses the occular metaphor of frame to help us avoid the trap as he sees it. He suggests we use a frame of frames by privileging the seeking out of multi-perspectives, creating a context where multiple punctuations can be explored and developed through a discipline of mind that is sensitive to pattern, logic and fit.

In a later paper he develops the position of irreverence in the context of what he sees as the potentially immobilising effects of non-instrumentality, a backlash effect of an overcontrolling stance in therapy (6).

Irreverence is used to mean a disrespect toward any idea which constrains therapeutic movement or creativity. Again he advises us not to believe in our beliefs, not to obey the rules but to identify our prejudices. This allows the therapist to take action without suffering from the illusion of control. It also allows for the possibility of movement between positions. Cecchin utilises the notion of domains to help maintain a distinction between therapy and control (Lang, Little & Cronen, 1990, Maturana & Varela, 1987).

All these forms of positioning can enhance systemic practice. They encourage us to include ourselves in our hypothesising; they offer pragmatic opportunities for moving conversations on in the context of elegance and respect for the systems we work with; they allow for survival in complex contexts.

My desire to move into a third position arises out of some experience of confusion or lack of fit when juxtaposing a social constructionist frame.

Although the story told by Cecchin is one that argues for a scepticism about polarities, the vocabulary of :

truth or irreverence
believe in your ideas or don’t
the world of therapy or the world of social control

can lead us into an either/or categorisation.

In many contexts the domains concept can be liberating, perhaps particularly for those working in the public sector where ‘social control’ is a significant context influencing and constraining therapeutic action. In its separation of domains of action - contradictory roles, tasks or demands can be extricated and definitions of relationship clarified.

A danger, however, could be that the domains idea could operate (in its use) to militate against an inclusive vocabulary within which ethics and effective systemic practice can co-exist. In drawing the distinction between therapy and control, we might sometimes distract ourselves from the obligations we create through therapeutic conversations (through the tacit exercise of power) and the freedoms we create in conversations of social control.

That is not to say that we should be rid of the concept of domains, or, for instance, neutrality, but in our use of ideas such as these, we could ask ourselves - when will that form of analysis take the conversation forward? When might other principles be more useful contexts for action? As Pearce has pointed out, the liberating effect of an idea is not isomorphic to the idea. (1992) In other words, our ideas do not contain any intrinsic worth, they need to be contexted before very much can be said about their value.

For instance, if we separate out therapy and control and see therapy as operating in the domain of explanation, and control as behavior linked to the domain of production (Lang, Little & Cronen, ibid) then we may start acting as if all therapeutic decisions and actions, moment by moment, are about exploring possibilities from a questioning position.

Although it is arguably an important rule of thumb to think about therapy as an activity that enables an elaboration of stories through processes of questioning and inquiry, this form of therapist positioning is unlikely to fit every context the therapist or systemic practitioner is faced with. There are times when it is necessary to introduce language which has not existed in the other’s vocabulary of action before, to give something a better name and to bring attention to that. There are times when it is more fitting to use rhetorical skills such as argument or persuasion or censure in creating movement in the conversation (but not in the name of objectivity) and to still call this systemic.

An attempt is being made here to move out of the binary of a state of belieflessness or objectivity by asking - what am I producing? I like Cecchin’s advice in a later work that we should be helping ourselves and others become more opinionated while at the same time encouraging stronger responsibility for those opinions (Cecchin, 1992). Why might this be good advice? How can we create a coherence between action and moral order so that the moral and the useful are not separated out? How can we work so that utility does not become a timeless, unsituated truth?

Within a frame of systemic eloquence, I would say that there are times when it can be useful for the systemic actor to act with conviction, persuasion or passion in the pursuit of therapeutic change. It is possible to show the ability to distinguish through contextualisation between a preference, a request, a demand or an invitation. It makes sense to be mindful of how instructions might be dressed up as invitations and vice versa and how we tell the difference. It matters how the route is navigated between an intention to act and its effects. It makes a difference how you speak to and use the strength of an emotion, belief or story.


CMM helps us to regard every communication as providing ‘conditions of obligation’. It’s not that we should avoid instructing others. The experience of pressure from the other in the dialogue is part of what makes us human. That experience of difference is not only desirable but also necessary for keeping language alive. So our commitment should not be to avoid, but more to observe, name and make judgements about the dimensions of instruction, obligation, invitation, legitimation that we create as we communicate.

The social constructionist actor regards herself as ineluctably implicated in the making of persons, engaged with other actors in describing and making the realities that we call amongst other things, emotions, values, identities, relationships and cultures. These realities inevitably elevate and denigrate us, allow us powers to speak in particular ways, shape our accountability to each other. As Leppington (1991) argues, within the terms of this account, we become less interested to ask - what the individual makes of the social world - and more inclined to ask - what the social world makes of the individual.

The CMM position is that we cannot justify what we do by reference to the assertion that ‘I know best’ from a position of objectivity or that they are only my beliefs or prejudices, as valid as your beliefs.This account holds a vision of the individual as a container of beliefs, feelings and so on, disconnected from other containers. The position being expressed here is that since our stories told and lived are constructed in joint action (Shotter, 1989), the justification for any action can only and must be (according to this account) - ‘I have anticipated, reflected upon and judged the consequences of joint action - for me and you and judge my next action to fit the multiplicity of contexts we are creating so as to enable a moving forward’. This is the only case we can make. We must act accountably to second persons.

It is through a reflexive examination of the rights and duties, the identities, relationships and cultures that we co-construct that we can present our moral case (Gergen & Shotter, ibid) :

a socially accountable moral intelligence (p.29).

Systemic eloquence in this context, enabled by the use of CMM, provides some guidance and sense for how we might position ourselves so that we don’t become de-contextualised and de-moralised participants in the systemic conversation. It offers and justifies a grammar for a systemic account. Utility in systemic practice becomes contextualised by a fuller moral account.

Case Example

To take us back to the loop of stories developed in the work with the management team, how did we as consultants use (and confuse) systemic eloquence?

The team had asked us at a particular point to share our formulations with them. We made a decision in that context to explicitly explore the loop with them while providing them with an opportunity to juxtapose and develop new alternative stories. Our intention was to facilitate a process at this point whereby the team could begin to treat its stories told as such, thereby undermining the impact of stories told on the story lived. We were wanting to position them so that they could critique and develop these stories that were so constraining.

We shared our descriptions in the form of the strange loop and explained why it could be useful to think about their interaction in this way. Initial reactions indicated there was some resonance and fit with experience. For example, some exploration took place about the shared concern about fear of blame. The manager seemed particularly struck by its power for describing the stuckness that she and everybody felt.

What followed was that strong feeling and distress was expressed about the lack of leadership. This overt expression of conflict, although a different pattern from that previously allowed by the loop, did not feel freeing for the participants. It felt ghastly. The more we attempted to explore the experience, the more stuck people felt and we felt as stuck as everyone else. Social eloquence did not seem to be working.

When we returned the next day, many people said that they had thought of not coming back because they had felt so incompetent the day before. Incompetence was the (temporary) experience for us too. We made sense of that story lived in the following way:

We knew that the impact of a loop on those that are involved, in the short term, can often be confusion and stuckness as the strangeness of the pattern gets absorbed. However, it is this processing that creates the potential for new patterns of meaning and action to develop.

We felt that in this confusion, the stuckness became compounded when our invitation to explore the meaning of their stories was recieved as an instruction to change their stories, without our providing them with sufficient means to do so. You could say we were asking them to make opinions clear, to make ‘leadership’ moves and to articulate vision through asking them to entertain the emergence of new stories without any reassurance that their concerns were not justified. So we became participants in the loop pinned like butterflies in an ethnocentric pattern (Oliver & Lang, 1994). In the context of exploring stories told, stories lived remained the same.

The decision we made in relation to these reflections on the co-construction of failure, was to position all participants (including ourselves) to experience :

- ability rather than failure

- a different pattern between consultants, manager and team members whereby agency shown through leadership was more of a story lived at all levels of relationship

- co-operation amongst team members

We did this by inviting the team (except manager) to work together on a vision of corporate management with a view to presenting ideas to the manager (and us) who would then interview them with the purpose of exploring ways forward.

Meanwhile, we took the manager aside and coached her in taking more of a cosmopolitan and less of an ethnocentric position. We did this by foregrounding our own rhetorical skills - of persuasion, demonstration and teaching in order for her to identify a different set of relational abilities. We felt justified in doing this in the context of the manager saying ‘help me, I can’t go forward’. In our view she needed to be shown something different at that point in that she did not have a vocabulary of exploration and translation in her repertoire. We hypothesised with her on what might be presented, helping her to position herself with humility anticipating the possible effects of the exercise on the team, and thought in some detail about the kinds of questions she might ask (and with what effect) to take things forward.

Here we were privileging a sensitivity to processes of accountability through :

- discerning that our story lived needed review and could be co-constructive in making a new story told

- recognition of our place in the process of talk, identifying contexts shaping and being shaped by our actions

- appreciating from a position of generosity that the resources in use were in need of revitalisation

- moving between positions of social and rhetorical eloquence as we judged appropriate

- transforming an experience of disconnection into an opening for connection; using our discomfort to facilitate an emerging experience of co-ordinated coherence.

The manager, in interviewing, took an exploratory position of social eloquence. On reflecting on the implications of this exchange, she requested that the team give feedback if she acted in contradiction to her stated intentions which were to take a more exploratory approach to leadership. This ‘giving permission’ for feedback allowed for a re-imagining of the experience of criticism and blame to legitimate feedback or consultation. The group had helped shape this context in their presentation by providing a clear message that leadership would be enabling rather than disabling and the manager could now see that there could be a way to enact the leadership role without fighting.


As consultants we demonstrated the possibility of flexible speaking abilities by taking responsibility for the process of the conversation from different speaking positions. This perhaps created the opportunity for all participants to take up different positions and encouraged a greater awareness of impact of individual action. In asking questions the manager moved position and became more able to manage meaning and action for herself and her team. This new behaviour created a context for meaning and action whereby expressing difference came to be seen as a mark of loyalty where the manager is soliciting views to enable a way forward together.

This leadership move allowed for a redescription of the relationship in that people felt more able to be participants with equally valid voices but different tasks; a relationship characterised more by a pattern of complementarity and cosmopolitan exploration than ethnocentrism. The seed of a new culture was developing within which the story was told - assertion of difference allows for connection. People showed a greater ability to appreciate that their actions were to be understood within contexts of relationship and organisational cultural stories, more aware of the contribution of their actions to patterns of interaction and clearer about the choices available to them. Thus the communication abilities of the team were enhanced.


When in an episode of conversation, what might we include in our focus to enable the kind of reflexive grammar of engagement that we are suggesting? How might CMM elaborate on the basic systemic premise of circularity?

It guides us as to where to look. Broadly it suggests we explore the connections and distinctions between an individual’s emergent logic of meaning and action and the logic of interaction between self and others, in that sequences of action develop an emergent logic.

The Milan group (Selvini et al,1980, Cecchin, 1987, Cecchin, Ray & Lane, 1992, Cecchin, 1992) and others (Penn, 1982, Tomm, 1987, White, 1988, Fleuridas et al, 1986) have developed rich and sophisticated models for questioning in the therapeutic conversation typically in the name of circular questioning.

Figure 1: Template for Linking Questions, Stories and Openings for Action
other  self  others

Here I want to offer a brief description of a frame consistent with CMM that can provide a coherent practice at the level of technique (Burnham, 1992) for systemic eloquence.

A basic template is offered here for framing questions to self which produce stories which produce questions and comments to other(s) or places to speak from, about the links between meaning and action, meaning and meaning, and action and action, using what we could call a CMM voice. These distinctions are to some extent arbitrary but offered for the purposes of clarity. The specifics of questions and other forms of communication can only be framed in episodic context.

Examples of questions where meaning(s) are the focus
what am I/you/others noticing (words, nonverbal communication, silence, timing, patterns, expression of obligation or invitation)
what sense do I/you/others make of it
what are the contexts shaping my/your/their meanings
-when did I/you/they first think/feel about this in this way
-who else might give it the same meaning
what are my/your/their stories about these stories
-how come I/you/they have that particular emotional response in this context
-what are the links between family and professional scripts
-which story has most influence
-how come those particular stories about who I am have developed
-who do I/you/they become when I experience myself this/that way
do I/you/others feel obliged to act or do I feel I have choices
-where does this sense of obligation come from
-what is happening in this episode which is shaping my/your/their ability to act
-is there a strong social discourse influencing me/you/them
-do I have strong self, family or relationship stories about what I can or must do
-how flexible are these stories

how might past stories be rewritten

Examples of questions where the links between meaning(s) and action(s) are the focus
-if I/you/they think about it that way what effect might it have on my /your/ their action, voice, position
-how might a new sense of entitlements and responsibilities show in the relationship (now, in the future)
-how can I influence their action and how might thinking about it this way affect their action towards me
-if I/you/they do this how might it be interpreted
-how do other relevant persons’ actions affect what I/you/they think/feel
Examples of questions where action(s) are the focus
how do I describe this in the context of my relationship
-how might conflict, competence, obligation and so on show itself
-who notices
-when I/you/they act like that what are the consequences
what are the sequences of interaction
-when I/you/they do that what does the other do
-in what ways have things improved
-if I/you/they thought in terms of a pattern of interaction how might the description go
-how does this pattern create freedoms and constraints for future actions (for self and others) and what is my/your/their contribution to that


In developing the voice ofsystemic eloquence, this paper has built on the rich practice wisdom of the systemic tradition and that of the Milan group in particular. It has suggested that systemic eloquence as a set of contexted speaking (flex)abilities usefully gives attention to voice and position in its advocacy of a grammar of humility, discernment, responsibility, courage and generosity. It invites us to stand up and be (ac)counted.

Bakhtin, in his exploration of dialogue, has developed the notion that it is in dialogue that we learn to speak from experience and to listen to and for experience (1981). It is through this process that questions arise that indicate how we should make judgements about what to value, what counts, what to foreground, that guide our interpretation and management of contexts.

Using CMM theory the account has been developed that it is only within and with reference to the dialogue and its existential particularities that decisions should be made about its development. Through the process of working with the particular in context, we enrich our abilities in working with the particular in context.


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1Hoffman has shown distaste for the use of hierarchy in conceptualising levels of influence amongst contexts, implying that hierarchy is intrinsically problematic (11). My reading of Cronen and Pearce is that hierarchy is used synonymously with order so that in context , through socially constructed activity, punctuations are made about how stories relate to each other. The decision about how to visually demonstrate links, contradictions and disconnections between stories is contingent on one's purposes i.e. the kind of connections one wants to show. There are contexts where it is more useful to show how stories overlap each other where one might use Pearce's daisy model; at other times it might be more useful to show a downward linear contextual force e.g. in the presentation of strange loops. We are not talking here about a detached, decontextualised observer fitting his or her observations into a predestined hierarchical schema.
2See (19) for a fuller account and an example of use.