Making Meaning

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As humans, our advantage over other mammals is the ability to think and convert our thoughts into words.

The trouble comes with the way we use our words, facial expressions and body language to transmit meaning.

Every word that we utter is loaded with silent meanings that we have been gathering since we were born.

We, and hence our words, are heavily influenced by our environment and how we interact with it. So from person to person our understanding of words differs.

Take, for example, the nerve-wracking situations of meeting a partner’s family for the very first time, or starting a new job.

We understand the words that are spoken, we can unravel some of the nuance surrounding the behaviour that we witness, but to gain a deeper understanding of what these words and behaviours mean, we have to be initiated into the new ‘tribe’ to gain a deeper understanding of its myths, legends and rituals, by observing, questioning and interacting.

Imagine next the thorny issue of Christmas with a new partner. First, we have to understand our partner’s expectations and their family traditions. Then we have to negotiate to ensure to both sets of expectations are at least partly met. Finally, we have to work together to make it as happy a time as possible: we may feel like shit but the imperative is to help everyone else feel or at least look happy.

Now imagine that you come from a family which limits present giving to a wacky secret Santa event with a price limit of £5 per present and a lunch consisting of a seemingly random selection of buffet-style titbits, eaten on trays in front of a star trek movie. This is what you are used to; the tradition is as much part of you as your DNA as your hair colour. but to an outsider, whose family hands out lavish gifts before sitting down to a formal lunch, this tradition could seem mean, lazy and eccentric.

As a member of a different tribe, you have to make sense of what these traditions mean and whether they fit in with your value system. You have to consider the consequences of showing anything other than total rapture when thrust into this strange land that does not comply with your inherent values and understanding.

We start trying to make meaning on the day we’re born.

Initially, it’s easy because our parents guide us into what it means to be part of our family. Later, we are catapulted into the more confusing world of school. The adults in these worlds teach us the rules and the basic survival skills which help us get on and thrive without risking ostracisation from our new larger tribe. The adults in our early lives socialise us by teaching us new meanings.

At school, we meet members of many other tribes, who do things differently. These adults, peers and members of our friendship groups bring us new ideas, new ways of behaving and interacting which brings us new ideas and different influences. With each new acquaintance, we acquire new and different meanings. Some of which may clash with what we learnt previously and our naissant value system.

We are products of our environment which is far more intricate and complex than we realise.

John Burnham (2012) developed a model called the ‘Social Graces’ to describe the influences that form and shape us. Each one of the graces contains elements of power, difference and diversity that exist within our society that strongly influence us. It is these influence that make us who we are.


click on the link below for a visual representation















Sexual Orientation

It’s worth taking some time to examine this list of cultural and societal influences that shape you, then to think about how each of these dimensions impacts on you, your position in the world and how they have shaped and continue to shape your life and your values.

At some point, we start trying to makes sense of what we are expected to do, how we are expected to behave, using our own cognitive and emotional skills. it’s then that we start to clash with the adults in our lives. We want to be the real authentic us so we question inherited ideas and start to form our own ideals that we want to live by.

By the time we meet a life partner, we feel that we are pretty much formed, that by and large we know what we believe, need, want and expect, only to find that the person we have chosen to spend our life with, is an alien from another planet, so we have to start the whole process of making sense and meaning all over again.

It’s these differences leading to failed negotiations of meaning that can bring us into conflict and take us into counselling by way of conflict resolution. What we don’t always anticipate is that working with a counsellor can bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our partner, in ways different than we expected and wished for.

When I first meet a client, I ask what their therapeutic goals are, then together, we unpick what those goals mean.

Simply put, individual counselling/therapy supports us in making sense of our internal conflicts and explore our personal development needs. Couple counselling is the dual process of helping us understand the conflict in ourselves and in with our partner whilst exploring how we might develop both as a couple and as individuals. 

Counselling isn’t about finding a way to fix things, for example making your mother understand what she’s done to hurt you;It’s more about learning to create a new way of being and new meanings which supports the building of a less confusing and problematic future.

To do this we have to co-ordinate and manage meaning. Pierce and Cronen ( american social constructionist academics) spent their working lives defining, refining and redefining this model to describe how the influences that form us emerge through what we do and say, and unless we can help others to understand our background influences, our meaning will not be understood. Their work on the messages communicated to American citizens after 9/11 is seminal.

In her book, ‘Maybe you should talk to someone’ Lori Gottlieb explains making sense if our world like this:

“The more you welcome your vulnerability,” Wendell had said, “the less afraid you’ll feel.” 

This isn’t how we tend to view life when we’re younger. Our younger selves think in terms of a beginning, middle, and end and some kind of resolution. But somewhere along the way — perhaps in that middle — we realise that everyone lives with things that may not get worked out. That the middle has to be the resolution, and how we make meaning of it becomes our task.’

Levels of meaning

Below is simplified versions of W.B.Pearce and V.Cronen’s model of the levels of meaning. It shows the foundation of our meanings in our cultural background and our family life. How these condition us, are the foundations, bricks and mortar of our life script and the relationships we engage in. Episodes refer to the daily events that take part in our lives and speech acts are what we say in response to those episodes and events. Every word we speak is loaded with the sum total of meaning that we have gathered since we were born.

We make meaning by asking questions, listening to them, then exploring the answers with the person who provided them. All too often we understand from our own perspective, we don’t dig deep enough to get a true understanding of what drives the other person’s behaviour and emotional responses. We, therefore, have to spend time and effort making sure that our meaning is understood and that we understand the meanings of others.

Imagine that you are a tidy person, but your partner is not. This is a potential flashpoint for conflict if you both fail to understand what being tidy or means to the other person.

The tidy person may interpret their partner’s sloppiness as a lack of respect, whilst the untidy person may interpret their partner’s need for tidiness as controlling. Unless the couple explores this together and looks for solutions that suit them both, resentments will be formed which, over time, could become deep and entrenched.

In my counselling room, I often hear one partner explaining that they take care of all of the domestic stuff and feel taken advantage of, whilst the other complains that they are never asked to help and if they do offer to take care of a task, what they do is never seen as being good enough. The real problem is not the doing or not doing, it is the meaning that is important and how the couple then works together to make a common understanding.

How often have you taken time to check that you truly understand the meaning behind what has been said?

The most difficult questions to ask another person are:

Please explain what you mean?

Can I check with you that I’ve understood what you said?

This may be a tortuous and uncomfortable process. It may be a scary process because we might not want to know the answers, but allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable, hearing other perspectives, taking responsibility for our part in the situation can have the effect of expelling fear and building resilience and stronger more honest relationships.


By ericapcounselling

Systemic and integrative counsellor/therapist Specialisms: Couples counselling, relationship counselling, addiction, bereavement and loss, mental health, stress management and self-care. Counsellor by day, singer by night!

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