By Maddie Merli
Have you ever started a conversation that spun so wildly out of control it devolved into an argument? Constructive criticism or a simple discussion of a more efficient way to wash the dishes suddenly became a screaming match of contrasting perspectives and egos? W. Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen and their theory, coordinated management of meaning (CMM), describe this phenomenon to be a result of the constitutive nature of communication. Though we often consider communication to be a matter of transferring information from one person to another, Pearce and Cronen consider communication to be a force that creates entire social worlds; how we talk with one another determines how we think, perform relationships, and understand our environment. Consequently, communication that fails, derives from a lack of mindfulness of the worlds we enact.
Fortunately, through practice, mindfulness is a skill we can master to once again manage our social worlds.
According to Pearce and Cronen, conflict arises when conversation partners lack awareness of stories told–the information we share–and stories lived–the narratives we actually experience. This tension often manifests in a “serpentine model of a deteriorating conversation.” For, the repetitive patterns that cause unproductive conservations resemble the slithering lines of a cartoon snake. Poor conversations usually consist of a back-and-forth series of statements and negative interpretations.
Consider the infamous scene in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story. The interaction between the newly separated couple begins amicably. However, the conversation devolves into what appears to be a series of familiar insults, jabs and anecdotes. They compare each other to their parents and recall unsavory stories that appear to have been pivotal to the end of their marriage. This unwanted repetitive pattern (URP) is a pattern that neither conversational patterns want to enact, yet feel cursed to continuously perform.
Yet, the serpentine model displays that the “ought to say” feeling that causes unproductive conversations can be avoided.
When we reflect upon a conversation’s history, we can become mindful of what initially eroded it. Most importantly, we can find the bifurcation point.
The bifurcation point is the vital point in a conversation that determines the subsequent discursive pattern. It can potentially steer the interaction in a new direction.
In ``Marriage Story, the bifurcation point arises when Adam Driver shouts, “If I could guarantee Henry would be OK, I’d hope you get an illness and then get hit by a car and die.”
The couple then goes completely silent as they acknowledge the complete heinousness of what Driver said. Scarlett Johanson however, displays mindfulness.
She understands the potentially worse pattern that Driver began, so she ends the conversation.
In the heat of the moment, identifying the bifurcation point is exceptionally challenging. As such, it is best practice to remain consistently mindful and view each conversational statement as a possible bifurcation point.
We can remain mindful, even when the emotional stakes are high by:
Philosopher Martin Buber once explained that “the world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings.”
It may be impossible to have a fully encompassing understanding of our world, but according to the coordinated management of meaning theory, we are capable of creating new social ones.
What we put into a conversation, is what we get out of them. If we approach conversations with greater mindfulness, we can create relationships based on mutual gentleness.
Speaking dialogically, and engaging with others with respect, means we can, as Martin Buber would say, embrace the world with love and grace.