Expanding Stories of Ourselves, Others and Us in Dialogue:

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A Relational Approach to Transformative Learning in the Engagement of Diversity

Groups exploring social identity group differences in dialogue were invited to reflect on transformative dialogic moments to explore and identity discursive practices consequential to creating that experience. Two group reflection sessions, each preceded by individual interviews, facilitated by the researcher using the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM), reflected on episodes identified by people as having been transformative. The reflection itself produced new transformative dialogic moments, a double-loop learning effect. The enabling discursive conditions are discussed.

Today’s social environment is fast moving and challenging. On a daily basis we are called upon to respond with great speed to multiple levels of complexity including but not limited to sociopolitical issues, multiple group identity affiliations and social roles. Under such pressure, we are likely to rely on our taken-for-granted assumptions, beliefs and frames of reference. Transformative learning theory suggests that taking the time for reflection, particularly in the presence of a disorienting dilemma, provides the opportunity to challenge our habits of mind and action, opening the door to novel ways of being, thinking and engaging (Mezirow, 2000). Most of the literature on transformative learning theory orients the discussion from an individual, cognitive perspective (Taylor, 2003). This study builds on the theory of transformative learning on two dimensions. One is in the application of the theory to the engagement of socially and historically defined group differences, otherwise referred to as social diversity. It also builds on the transformative learning literature shifting the locus from an individual, cognitive perspective to the in-between, or relational arena. The study showed that through shared reflection, dialogic conversation and attending to mutuality, people expand their deeply embedded stories of their social group identities to embrace those of others whose stories are significantly different from their own.

Overview of the Study: Theoretical Foundations, Participants and Methodology
The study described in this paper is grounded in social construction and communication theory as well as relational theory. Building on Martin Buber’s definition of dialogic moments (1958), and more recent writings from Kenneth Cissna and Robert Anderson (2002) transformative dialogic moments were identified when meaning “emerges in the context of relationship and when one acknowledges and engages another with a willingness to alter their own story” (2002, p.186). McNamee and Gergen (1999) describe the transformative process as “first transforming the interlocutors’ understanding of the action in question … and second, altering the relations among the interlocutors themselves” (1999, p 35). Relational theory identifies the relationship as a source of growth and development (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996; Surrey, 1991). These definitions shaped and guided the reflective lens as well as influencing what was defined as data. The data was identified as what occurred in the group reflection rather than what was talked about in the reflection. The analysis was focused on what was created in the movement between and among people in conversations.

The people who collaborated with this study were members of two pre-formed groups whose purposes were to explore their collective group identity differences. One group was exploring faith differences and included 18 women from different denominations of Christianity and Judaism, and from the Muslim and Baha’i traditions. The other group was exploring issues of race and gender and was composed of 8 people: 2 African American women, 2 African American men, 2 white women and 2 white men.
The methodology designed for this study, an appreciative collaborative inquiry, integrated different aspects of action inquiry research methodologies such as participatory action research (Park, 1999, 2000), collaborative inquiry (Bray, Smith, & Yorks, 2000) cooperative inquiry (Baldwin, 2001; Heron & Reason, 2001) action inquiry (Torbert, 1991), and appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider, Barrett, & Srivastva, 1995; Ludema, Cooperrider, & Barrett, 1999). The methodology was informed by the principles of an appreciative inquiry in that the inquiry invited people to talk about the focus of the inquiry: transformative dialogic moments. Based on social construction theory, the principles of appreciative inquiry suggest that what you talk about is consequential to what you produce.

The methodology resembled an action inquiry (Torbert, 1991) more specifically a collaborative inquiry (Bray, Smith, & Yorks, 2000) in that it involved the participants in an iterative, recursive and reflexive process, both individually and as a group, in exploring the research questions. Each step was shaped and influenced by what emerged from participants in the prior step. The focus of the first group reflection session was informed by the individual interviews that preceded it. The subsequent individual follow-up interviews were reflections on the first group. Participants were given a transcript of each group prior to the individual follow-up interviews. The second individual interviews shaped the process for the second group reflection.

The purpose of the study was to discover when people created transformative dialogic moments in the process of relating, what were the discursive processes that:

  • Fostered transformative dialogic moments in the engagement of social group identities with a history of conflict,
  • Enabled people to stay engaged in the story of the other while being aware of their own story, and
  • Sparked people’s curiosity to understand the other and, consequently, oneself in relationship to one’s group, in a new way.
  • The data was generated from guided reflections of episodes from prior group meetings selected by the group members as having been transformative. The reflective process was facilitated during two consecutive group meetings. Individual interviews were conducted prior to and following each group interview to deepen the reflection. In the first individual interview people were invited to tell a story about a transformative dialogic moment they recalled from their group experience. The interviews themselves were generative (Barrett, 1995). While there had been connections and disconnections in the life of the group, the interviews amplified the connections, what enabled those moments with particular regard to the quality of the process and the relationships.

    The Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM): A Practical Theory and a Reflective Tool
    The heuristics from the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) (Cronen, Pearce, & Lannamann, 1982; Pearce, 2001, 2004) as well as circular questioning (Tomm, 1984a, 1984b), shaped the interviews and guided the analysis. One of the premises of CMM is the belief that meaning emerges in the process of relating, the back and forth between people in conversation and communication events. Thus the focus was less on what was meant by what each person said, and more on what meaning was being made in the process of the turns of the conversations and episodes. Each of the CMM tools provides a magnifying glass for different aspects of the meaning making process. The CMM model was used to guide the group meetings as well as to analyze the transcripts of those meetings.

    Four of the heuristics: the LUUUTT model, the serpentine model, the daisy model and the hierarchy model were shared with people during the individual interviews and again, at the beginning of the first group session. As one chooses tools to help them do something, people in the reflection process chose what tools they found helpful to explore their stories. Each of the heuristics is described along with an example of what it created in the reflection process.

    The LUUUTT model amplifies stories. LUUUTT is an acronym for the stories lived, the stories untold, stories unheard, stories unknown that, once explored, expand the collective sense making, the storytelling process, and the stories told. This model creates an invitation to explore discrepancies in how we tell our stories lived in order to create new, shared meaning. As one person would begin to tell the story of a particular episode, another would add to it either with something that was part of the shared lived story, or something that was an untold story, or was an unheard story. In the process of retelling the story of the episode, stories unheard become stories told. Unknown stories were identified thus creating the opportunity for new, shared discoveries. Using this model as a reference gave the group members language to identify a how their process of storytelling was following an unspoken rule of politeness. While the rule of politeness (as they put it) had created a sense of safety for some, it was an inhibiting factor for deeper engagement for others. This unspoken rule, once articulated by the members of the group, unleashed a new level of storytelling that created new transformative dialogic moments in the reflection process.

    The serpentine model calls attention to the process of emerging meaning from one speech act to another. The serpent is a visual metaphor of how the meaning of a particular moment is made by what preceded it and what follows, and by the way people define the boundaries of a particular episode. People in conversations with identity group differences that have histories of conflict often have different temporal boundaries that define and shape their group’s narratives. One person’s episode may begin when the story was first told in the group while the episode and consequentially the meaning for another is contextualized back 100 years. When people can, together, reflect on how interpretations are made based on differently construed historical events, the potential is created for new patterns of engagement. The serpentine model highlights how our response contextualizes the meaning of what has come before, in a moment, or in history. We have a choice whenever we respond, to shift undesirable patterns of relating, thereby inviting new shared meaning and better social relationships. In one of the groups the episode selected was when a member told the group about her experience at work on September 11th, 2001. As a Muslim, she was suddenly a stranger to her colleagues of 20 years in the hospital where she worked as a physician. The process of reflecting on the impact of that story on group members since it had been shared created a transformative dialogic moment. People in each of the faith groups, including the woman who initially created the episode by telling the story, changed their perspectives of their faith group in relationship with others.

    The daisy model depicts the stories or conversations from our past experiences, relationships and inherited narratives that we use to make interpretations. In the process of relating, each of us brings the particular petals of our daisy that, from our perspective, pertains to the situation. Some petals are more pronounced than others representing how we choose to amplify some conversations more than others. The daisy model was a prompt to deepen the assumptions and interpretations that people were making. The daisy was used by group members to frame untold stories from prior episodes. As the story of an episode was shared, others would add petals to the daisy that were pertinent to their interpretation at the time, and since.

    The hierarchy model highlights how meaning is context dependent. Episodes or speech acts are always embedded in multiple contexts. These contexts include, but are not limited to how we see ourselves, our relationships with others, our identification with a particular group, the rules we construe for the particular episode, the culture, life scripts, and so on. Using the hierarchy model in a group reflection helps to identify how the contextualizing of the episode at different levels can make dissonance. More than one story was told about a time when someone from one’s own identity group told a story as representing the group that another member of that group did not contextualize in the same way. These stories became stories of dissonance that people had chosen to ignore. The reflection process provided an opportunity to return to these episodes and make new, shared meaning.

    Findings, Surprises and Implications
    There were five key findings. The first was that reflection in relationship, as distinguished from individual reflection, fostered a transformative learning process. While the intent of the study had been to explore transformative dialogic moments that the group had already experienced, the reflection process itself produced transformative dialogic moments. The opening question was expected to invite memories of dialogic moments that had been a shared experience. Instead, the initial response of many of the group members was, “I don’t think we have had one”. Within seconds, a story was told. In some instances the story was not one of a transformative dialogic moments. Rather it was a moment of dissonance. While this initially was seen to be a departure to the focus of the research, it became a significant and consequential outcome. Moments that had been disorienting dilemmas or moments of dissonance, once revisited and explored, created transformative dialogic moments. The reflection process helped people stay engaged with moments of dissonance to discover new, shared meaning. This supports the notion that the process of transformative learning rests in one’s opportunity to stay connected with dissonance and discomfort to notice how one knows, and explore alternatives (Brookfield, 1987). This study extends that notion from the individual to relational learning.

    The second finding was that the use of storytelling was consequential in shifting the form of relating from monological, or an individual focus, to dialogical or a relational focus. The design of the interview process involved asking people to reflect back and retell the story of a defining moment rather than to tell about what they learned from the group experience. Storytelling moved the position of the storytellers from being the story, or the first person position, to looking at the story with others, or the third person position. The stories provided a focal point for members to focus on and to share their different perspectives and construed meanings. The shared experience of holding the first and third person perspectives, side-by-side highlighted how the stories we live do not happen to us; nor are they events that we use our minds to understand. Rather we are continually making stories together in the process of relating. We enter into patterns of activity and create shared meaning based on our actions in coordination with each other. With intention, we can create new, shared stories. Storytelling created empathy in the relationships or mutual empathy (Surrey, Kaplan, & Jordan, 1990).

    The third finding was that transformative dialogic moments are produced in waves of dissonance and resonance. Martin Buber describes dialogic moments as fleeting, as disappearing in the moment of their appearance, and as nonverbal (Buber, 1959; Kenneth N. Cissna & Anderson, 2002). The recursive and reflective process of interviewing and reflection expanded the frame of a dialogic moment from fleeting to pulsating. The stories told in the individual and group interviews were of moments of resonance for some and dissonance for others. The opportunity for shared storytelling from different perspectives formed more of a pulsating wave with moments of harmonic resonance of new meaning that, in turn, deepened meaning for what happened next.

    The fourth finding was that people in conversations follow rules, sometimes explicit, more often they are implicit. Sometimes they are shared principles of engagement. Often they are not. When rules or principles are shared, people are more likely to feel in rhythm with each other, or, on the same wavelength. When the rules of engagement are different, some rules are authorized over others. While the intent of this study was to identify discursive processes that made transformative dialogic moments possible, it became clear early in the process, that there was much to learn about both. In one example, the pain of being different due to one’s sexual orientation, despite being a White man, was muffled by another’s assertion that majority culture status still trumped. Steinberg and Bar-On described a similar emergence in their research with Palestinians and Jews in Israel (unpublished):

    “While being in the same room, each group [seemed] to be self-absorbed. There [was] no turning to the other as a separate and unique entity. Each party assumed that it knew who the other was (Gurevitch, 1989). This assumption of “knowing” based on stereotypic definitions contributed to conducting two monologues that did not meet (p.17).”

    The rules of this group implicitly suggested that there is a something or an answer to discover and know, and a way of knowing. Transformative dialogic moments emerge in the space of inquiry, the pursuit of curiosity, and the place of not knowing. The other group talked about how their trepidations about being impolite inhibited their connection and the depth of their conversations. The mere process of talking about how they talked shifted how they talked. They began to ask different kinds of questions and found a way to challenge each other, and remaining respectful. In another instance, the rules of engagement truncated what might have been a transformative dialogic moment. In the turns of the conversations there were instances where a potential connection, of knowing another through a story, a painful self-disclosure, was truncated by monological form of engagement.

    Other discursive processes were found to catalyze dialogic moments and transformative learning. Curiosity and engaging from a place of inquiry were essential for transformative learning in relationships. Taking time for intentional reflection using storytelling and circular questions for mutual sense making both identified and created dialogic moments. This enhanced emotional connecting and empathy with another’s story and objectivity in relationship with one’s own story (Yorks & Kasl, 2002).

    Finally, the study thus expands transformative learning theory from shifts in habits of mind to shifts in habits of relating. Discursive processes that foster transformative dialogic moments, particularly in situations where there are deeply held historical narratives, were identified. Taking a communication perspective in collecting, and analyzing data, on transformative dialogic moments in the engagement of social group identities that have a history of deeply embedded differences provided examples of how social identity, empathy and transformative learning are construed in the process of relating.

    Transformative dialogic moments happen in the engagement of the stories we tell each other, in the engagement of our hearts. They are a bifurcation point — the meeting of meanings to create new meanings. While we may not be able to plan or predict those special moments when we are forever changed in the engagement of another, we can be intentional about fostering the conditions to do so. With focused, intentional reflection, using reflective tools that enable us to stand together on the boundaries of our shared encounters, transformative learning is triggered by reformulating what came before, reshaping our stories of what was and what is, to a new imagining of how one sees the potential in what comes next. This study also contributed to theorizing concepts such as social identity, empathy and transformative learning, generally defined from the individual psychological or cognitive perspective, by illuminating the relational perspective.

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