An Introduction to Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM)
Updated: Apr 7
First things first, in order to have a strong foundation to build on we have to get better acquainted with the ins and outs of Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM). And there are many. This theory works to understand the whole of our human experience. So, because communication, relationships, and our entire social world are complex, naturally, CMM is too. However, this is not to say that it is impossible to understand. My whole purpose with the Stories Lived. Stories Told. podcast and now, with these blogs, is to make all the helpful knowledge, tools, and language that CMM offers into something that is accessible for anyone to learn and use in their everyday life. Let’s dive in!
As far as communication theories go, Coordinated Management of Meaning takes an interpretive approach to communication rather than an objective one. This means that CMM functions under the assumption of pluralistic truths, or the idea that there is not one objective “Capital-T Truth” that needs to be found, but rather, everyone experiences their own “Little-t truths” that we make. Furthermore, all of our own “Little-t truths” can coexist at the same time, unlike a “Capital-T Truth.” What this translates to in CMM is that everyone’s stories can be told and heard in the same space, that we are able to hold that dissonance. Two people might experience the same event and have different stories about it. but these differing stories don’t cancel each other out, and one doesn’t invalidate the other. There is no search for figuring out which story is “right” and which is “wrong.” That language just doesn’t exist in CMM.
This view that everyone lives out their own “Little-t truths” that peacefully co-exist is a little idealistic because what CMM also notes is that our stories do not exist in a bubble, and they are not all equal in the eyes of society. When we tell our stories we are bringing them into a culture and a context that is much bigger. And the culture that we bring our stories to can influence which stories are told or are allowed to be told and which ones are heard or ignored. So when we talk about “storytelling,” it's storytelling on this very intimate personal level, but also in a larger cultural sense. It’s the combination of your day-to-day storytelling, like telling a friend something that happened at work, or with your family, but it’s also the idea that when you zoom out on all the little stories we tell through the course of our day and our lives, we are ultimately telling a much larger story, or narrative, about our lives.
CMM was founded by Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen in the 1970s. The central idea of CMM is that “persons-in conversation co-construct their own social realities AND are simultaneously shaped by the worlds they create.” So, what CMM is effectively doing is looking at the process of communication from the lens of a participant. Instead of taking on the perspective of a neutral or passive observer, CMM recognizes that we are all engaged in a constant cycle of creating and then being influenced by what we create. The language CMM uses is that communication is a constitutive force, meaning that it shapes our ideas, relationships and environment. This recognizes the process of communication itself as a real factor in our lives. It goes beyond just paying attention to the content, or what is communicated, and starts looking at how we are communicating and seeing the power there.
Let’s break it down a little more... Even if we are not always having conversations with people in the most basic sense of the word, we are all always “persons-in-conversation.” In the same way that I made the distinction between your day-to-day stories that you tell and your broader life story that you are telling, this gets at that overarching idea of being constantly in conversation with one another by nature of human life. We live in community, so we are always collaborating and communicating. This is what makes it so we are not isolated but co-constructing because we are all partners in the creation of our social world. And finally, then we are participants in the social world we created and are always creating. It’s a good goal to build our understanding of what it looks like to be a person in conversation, co-creating our own social reality. And to better understand the responsibility that we have to ourselves and others to create something that works for everybody, a social world that is more equitable and just.
We can further break down this one core concept into the 4 central “claims” that make up CMM:
(1) Our communication creates our social worlds. CMM believes that the communication going on between persons in conversation is the primary social process, primary function of our social worlds. The creation happens less in the content of a conversation and more about within the conversation itself. I have experienced this in the sense that I have had really meaningful conversations with people that are deep and personal. However, these conversations aren’t only meaningful to me because of what we shared, but just the fact that we shared at all—the fact that I was able to share and be vulnerable because I felt safe to do so, and that the other person would trust me enough to be vulnerable too. And its messy, and we don’t always get it right. I have also had conversations where I didn’t feel safe to be vulnerable and that impacts me as well. So, the first claim of CMM states that our communication creates our social worlds.
(2) The stories we tell differ from the stories we live. This is where the name for this podcast comes from. Our lives are really a back and forth of living stories and telling those stories and living more stories and then telling those. What CMM sees is a tension there because our stories we tell are always going to differ from the stories we live. And this is really where we can break down the name of the theory. When we are living our stories, we have to coordinate with others because we are in the middle of our stories and are meeting them in the middle of their own stories. So there must be collaboration in the creation of this social world that you’re now a part of. Then, the meaning part of Coordinated Management of Meaning comes in because we are meaning making creatures. And when we tell our stories that is our way of making meaning out of the things we experience, and in turn we are also managing this meaning in how we present our stories. So, the second claim says the stories we tell differ from the stories we live, and that’s not innately a bad thing. The point of this claim is not to call people out or tell us that we are doing something wrong, just to help us recognize how we relate to our stories.
(3) We get what we make. Kim Pearce is now the president of the CMM institute and one way that she has explained it is that if you have destructive patterns in your interactions then that’s the kind of relationship or social world that you create: a destructive, defensive, negative one. But if you come to interactions with genuine curiosity and love and an open mind then you are creating way different social worlds. Before he passed away, Barnett Pearce wrote an article and in it he says there are 3 questions we need to be asking ourselves:
1. How did that get made?
2. What are we making right now?
3. And What can we do to make better social worlds?
This hits on the past present and future of CMM. We have to look back on what we created in our interactions and conversation, recognize if we still showing up the same way, and ask how do we show up better? Barnett Peace talked about bifurcation points, these make-or-break moments in conversation, that will influence the course of the conversation from then on out. It was his belief that having the knowledge and language of CMM would equip us to make the best choice when we come to these bifurcation points. So that ultimately, we could get something better because we actively were thinking about what it was that we made. So, claim number three says we get what we make.
(4) Get the pattern right, create a better social world. Its important for us to pay attention to what it means to be a person in conversation and what it means to have the responsibility of creating our social world. That puts a lot of control and in some ways pressure on us. This claim refers to that idea of responsibility that comes with this theory. It also points out that the idea of creating “better social worlds” is subjective. That it will look different in different circumstances. What constitutes a “better social world” to you, might be different than what constitutes a “better social world” to me. But in every social world Kim and Barnett Pearce say it’s about mindfulness—mindfulness of your story, the stories of others, and how they interact. Mindfulness is paying attention and recognizing the weight or power of your actions to create real change. So, claim four is get the pattern right, create better social worlds... And that is what we will try to do!