For those of you who need a reminder... Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) is rooted in the idea that “persons-in-conversation co-construct their own social realities and are simultaneously shaped by the worlds they create.” I almost want to treat this like a mantra or an affirmation. To me, reminding ourselves that this is true can be empowering because it's reminding us that we get to create the world we want, and it also increases self-awareness by reminding us that we are not immune to the effects of our surroundings. I know it’s a little wordy, especially if you aren’t someone who is already immersed in the world and language of communication theory, but we will continue to break it down and find new ways to understand this concept in our lives.
CMM has always been important for the tools that it gives people to better understand the processes of communication. CMM has a number of models that help explain the theory. One of these is the LUUUUTT model.
In this model, each letter represents a different facet of stories. Let’s break it down.
The first letter ‘L’ represents our Lived Stories. But what does that mean? Our Lived Stories are what we actually experience before we start attaching meaning to it.
Let’s use an example… Let’s say that my Lived Story is that I was late to meet a friend for lunch. That is what happened at the most basic kind of level.
The first ‘U’ of the LUUUUTT model is for our Unknown Stories or what is missing. In our example, maybe it is unknown to me that my friend really cares about people being timely and respecting her and her time in that way—that to her, being late is disrespectful.
The Next ‘U’ is for Untold Stories—the things that we choose not to say. Maybe my friend decides not to tell me how my tardiness upset her. For whatever reason, she chooses to keep her feelings to herself, or she decides not to share how busy she has been but how she made time to have lunch with me, how she took time out of her schedule to spend quality time with me. This could be untold because she doesn’t feel like it is worth it to share or because she doesn’t think I will be receptive or a number of other reasons.
So now we have Lived Stories, Unknown Stories, Untold Stories, and our third ‘U’ is for Unheard Stories—stories that we do choose to tell that aren’t heard or received. For example, maybe my friend has tried to communicate her values around timeliness before, but I was not receptive to that or didn’t pick up on it.
The last ‘U’ stands for Untellable Stories—stories that we do not tell because they are painful or forbidden. This differs from Untold Stories because with Untold Stories we make the choice to withhold that story, but Untellable Stories almost demand secrecy. It's less about us making a choice to not tell a story, and more about not even feeling like we have the option to because the content of the story is so painful or stigmatized. In our example, maybe the Untellable Story for my friend is how time played a role in her family growing up. Maybe she saw a lot of conflict around timeliness, maybe one of her parents was always early and one parent was always late, and this tension stuck with her and instilled in her this value around time. This might be an Untellable Story because she doesn’t want to share that intimate detail of her family life, because she doesn’t think she should share information about the dysfunction of her family, or because she herself might not even recognize how it affected her.
The first ‘T’ is for StoryTelling—the action of communicating our Lived Stories. This one is more about how we are communicating. In our example, my friend might try to communicate her feelings indirectly by being standoffish or short with me during our lunch together, or she might be quiet and timid, knowingly or unknowingly expressing her hurt in the situation. Either way, she could communicate how she is feeling, but there is a lot of room for variation in how she chooses to communicate that.
And the last ‘T’ is Stories Told. This is the content or what we tell.
As my friend and I depart from our lunch together, she might return home and tell her roommate everything that happened, maybe even including more of the background about why it upset her so much. The story that she tells is informed by all this preexisting context. Whereas if I go home and tell my roommate about my lunch, I don’t have all that context as part of my Story Told. From my perspective, I might say that my friend was being rude to me or acting strange but not have enough information to know what caused it. My ‘Told Story’ might also be informed by the context of our relationship. How long have we been friends? Do we generally talk openly about our grievances, or do we tend to be avoidant? Has this been a problem before? Or even the person eating lunch at the table next to us would tell their own version of the story too. Maybe they saw my friend wait by themselves for 20 minutes before I showed up and heard that I didn’t acknowledge my tardiness and then listened to the tone of our conversation. While they don’t know my friend’s entire context, they know other things that I don’t.
The LUUUUTT model includes our Stories Lived, our Unknown Stories, our Untold Stories, our Unheard Stories, our Untellable Stories, our Story Telling, and our Stories Told. I think just seeing this model or those phrases on their own can be off-putting or seem difficult to understand and translate to our own life. But my hope is that using that example to apply these concepts was helpful. And that you can do some reflecting on how this model might fit into different interactions in your life.
That is the purpose of a model like this, to give us a lens to look at our life through. If we can have an experience and understand it as a multilayered, complex collection of stories both told and untold; if we can start to pay attention to the factors that we feel give us permission to tell our stories or signal that we are safe to do so, or the factors that keep us from telling our stories because they are not welcome or not validated then our experiences and our interpretations of those experiences become so much richer.
Because it’s true that there are so many outside factors that affect our stories: our socioeconomic status, our privilege, our gender, our race, and our sexuality. Think about which voices are privileged over others in certain spaces? How have similar stories been received before?
Kim Pearce, the president of the CMM Institute, notes that this model is not about finding the “correct” story so that you can label stories right and wrong. Neither my friend or I’s story of what happened at lunch was right or wrong. They are just our stories. A lot of people have trouble existing in this gray area because they are used to the black-and-white of right and wrong. It’s a form of dissonance where two competing ideas exist at the same time and our brain doesn’t know what to do with itself. It can be uncomfortable to experience dissonance but it’s not always bad. If anything, it motivates us to resolve the dissonance which requires us to think more critically. The purpose of this model is about widening our awareness to build the habit of recognizing how complex our social worlds really are. Because as we grow our capacity for staying in the dissonance we also increase our capacity to hold uncomfortable feelings like hurt, anger, and jealousy, things that can teach us if we let them. It also gives us a greater ability to engage with people with more compassion and empathy.
Spend some time reflecting on an interaction that you have had recently, apply the LUUUUTT model to it, and see how it deepens your understanding and how it grows compassion for yourself and the other person.