Friday, 17 February 2012

‘Withness’ – being related in communication

The way we communicate can sometimes push others away and sometimes invite them to this magical flow of sharing ideas and experiences – into a space of resonance where we can be moved by each other. There’s lots of knowledge what sort of results they ways of communicating and participating can have business wise. For example, according to Losada and Heaphy’s (2004) study on business teams the ways the team members relate to each other in talk affect business results and customer satisfaction. However, the communication and conversational processes affect team members’ choice whether to participate or not. As a result of Bonito, DeCamp and Ruppel’s (2008) research on participation in teams, team members do not always share the information they possess, which in turn can lead to decreased quality of decision-making.  

Communicating in a way that creates conditions for collaboration, creativity, effectiveness and results is much harder to practice than to preach.

John Shotter (2004) has approached the way of communicating with concepts of ‘withness’ and ‘aboutness’. With these concepts he wants to point out that usually the challenges of organisation’s lies in the difficulties of orientation. The starting point of creating orientation is to be relationally sensitive and adaptive to communication situations and to the people involved, and to improvise and act spontaneously instead of performing pre-established assumptions and plans. Being open and spontaneous usually invites curiosity to explore and to co-create the patterns and ways of communication, and to co-ordinate meanings and actions relationally responsively.

According to Shotter ‘withness’ –orientation is a style of communication that creates a sense of connection, openness to influences of the situation, and responsiveness to the dynamic flow of communication. This in turn can enable learning and creativity to occur. ‘Withness’ emerges from within the communication and hence is pre-cognitive and pre-linguistic before we actually stop to reflect on our actions. 

The opposite of ‘withness’ is what Shotter calls ‘aboutness’. This style of communication is based on pre-decided plans, is unresponsive to the actions of others, and can leave us unmoved and disconnected from other people. Simply put: ‘aboutness’ is monologic whereas ‘withness’ can be described as dialogic.

If the way of our communication has such a great impact on learning, creativity and even on organisational outcomes, should we then try to practice more invitational and relational ways to communicate – to create connections ‘with’ others?

Please, feel free to share your ideas on ‘withness’ and ‘aboutness’, how have they been present in your experiences?


Shotter, J. 2004. Expressing and legitimating ‘actionable knowledge’ from within ‘the moment of acting’. Concepts and Transformation 9:2, 205229.

Losada, M. &Heaphy, E.  2004. The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Perfomance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model. American Behavioral Science 47, 740-765.

Bonito, J.A., DeCamp, M.H. & Ruppel, E.K. 2008. The Process of Information Sharing in Small Groups: Application of a Local Model. Communication Monographs 75, 136-157.

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