It’s About Stories
Today I actually stopped a client cold in the middle of a story. We were talking about his being single and to illustrate in his mind the “why” of this reality, he began to tell me a story about a past relationship—about one that had failed. His story was about blame and fault. It was entirely focused on what was wrong, nothing about what was right.
The story seemed to slip off his tongue as if he had told it many times before. This was the story. But when I called his attention to his ‘same old tune,’ I asked him to consider this story as just a story. I then asked him what would be possible if we allowed ourselves to reconstruct it—to retell it or reframe it, so that it’s not about losing, but about winning instead.
It’s About Language, Relationships, and Meaning
This appreciative approach forms the premise of social constructionism, a school of thought based in the abundant idea that reality is created by people within relationships and through language. In other words, reality is what we story it to be—in our heads and in through our words (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2004; Gergen, 1999; Kelm, B. 2005; Quinn, 2004; Stavors & Torres, 2005).
Social constructionism is derived from constructivism, which is a cognitive theory suggesting that knowledge is constructed by learners through complex knowledge structures or frames, including the unique experience of the individual (Dewey, 1916). Social constructionism is more of a collective practice, where meaning is generated between people, locally and through language. As Anderson (1997) offers, we are “linguistically constructed, relational selves.”
A social constructionist would argue that language has no currency without relationships. Consider why we call this a vase. Sure, we can trace the etymology and history of the term, but ultimately, why we call this a vase and not a car is because we (the collective we) have agreed to call it a vase. It is a choice we have made to frame and define this object in this particular way. We have agreed on it. And it works.
But What About When It Doesn’t Work?
My sister has a sign in her kitchen, Attenti Alla Suocera which translates from Italian to English: “Beware of the Mother-in-Law.” We all know what this means. Its meaning transcends cultures and times.
And it is thorough our oral traditions, our languages, and our habits that we pass this interpretation from generation to generation. Is it no surprise then, that so many people dislike their in-laws, or is it just coincidence? Consider how truth is made.
Social constructionists argue that language creates meaning and meaning creates reality. Language then creates our reality. This is done coactively within the context of our relationships. Gergen (1999) says, “Meanings are born of coordinations among persons – agreements, negotiations, affirmations . . . relationships stand prior to all that is intelligible.”
Within our relationships, we have great opportunities, every day, to make them whatever we so choose. Consider how actively you involve yourself in the creation of new realities for your relationships. At home? At work? What do we choose when our relationships are not working for us anymore? Do we ignore or do we create?
Social Construction Makes It Right
Transparency and attunement are two-way streets. To have authentic relationships, we must create them.
In other words, if you want a better relationship with your mother-in-law, you have to invite her into that possibility by being different yourself. How? You literally have to change the words you use with her. As Cooperrider says, “Words create worlds.” We must choose them carefully.
Social constructionists like Cooperrider and Gergen consider the enormity of such choices and invite us into safe spaces to converse (literally meaning “to turn with”) and create new language, new traditions, new ways of being together.
Coupled with the evidenced-based tools from positive psychology, these new ways could lead to increased well-being—upward spirals for individuals and the communities we comprise. Framing and reframing our perceptions of reality towards the positive allow us to create our own positive change.
So, then, what is reality? A social constructionist would suggest it is whatever we create. The idea is simple, but the consequence huge. Imagine what becomes possible when we realize that anything is possible.
I promise-this is not just an empty cliché; this is more than just “The Secret.” Of course there are things that happen outside of our control, but we choose the perspective with which we judge them. Social constructing requires that we activate our right brains, enable our strengths, use our own agency and coactively develop the pathways to create the lives we most want to live (i.e., Lopez, Snyder, et al., 2004; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Jill Bolte Taylor’s video on TED As brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes her stroke, she demonstrates the power of changing the story.
Behind any science is also the art. Stay tuned to PPND on November 4, when guest author Eleanor Chin reviews B. Zander and R. Zander’s book, The Art of Possibility, an inspiring story about using social constructionism in your life and work.
Anderson, H. (1997). Conversation, Language, And Possibilities: A Postmodern Approach To Therapy. New York: Basic Books.
Bascobert-Kelm, J. (2005). Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life. Wake Forest, NC: Venet.
Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press.
Gergen, K. (1999). An Invitation to Social Construction. London: Sage.
Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., Magyar-Moe, J. L., Edwards, L., Pedrotti, J. T. Janowski, K., Turner, J. L., & Pressgrove, C. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 388-404). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Stavros, J.M. & Torres, C.B. (2006). Dynamic Relationships: Unleashing the Power of Appreciative Inquiry in Daily Living. Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos.
Taylor, J. B. (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Plume.