Becoming other than we were: moments of transformation in dialogic communication

John Shotter


This paper explores the move away from the idea of speech communication as a process of information transmission, and explores instead the role of the spontaneous, living, expressive-responsiveness of our bodies. This opens up both «the active role of the other in the process of speech communication» (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 70), and the role of what we might call the «determining surroundings» of our utterance. For, on the one hand, the (often invisible) surroundings of our utterances can not only influence, i.e., give shape to, the intonational contours of our utterances, but also their whole style, our word choices, the metaphors we use, and so on. Thus, bringing our words back from their «free-floating» use – whether it be in committee or seminar rooms, in psychotherapy, in strategic planning in businesses, on the internet, or in just general conversations in sitting rooms – to their use within a shared set of «determining surroundings» is crucial if we are to understand how the «specific variability» in a speaker’s expressions are expressive both of his or her unique «inner world», and of the unique «point» he or she wants to express, to make, in relation to their world. For it is only when our words are at home in the determining surroundings of their everyday use, that we can express our true identities as the unique individuals that we are or can be – any requirement that we express ourselves only within an established code is a limitation on who we are or can be. And it is our living openness to the specific variability in the expressions of others that can allow their «otherness» to enter us and make us other than we already are.

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