Desperately Seeking Sense-Making

If you know a little about me, you know my practice of librarianship — what I like to call truthbrarianship — desperately seeks to express a deeper connection to the communicative side of our profession, whether that’s information-seeking or information-management.  I’m still working on an alternative word for the latter, but my truth-seeking approach is inspired by Brenda Dervin’s sense-making methodology, work which most famously contributed to the practice of the reference interview.  Dervin also addressed sense-making in information systems and the impact on the democratic principles of librarianship, which are vulnerable to “unexamined assumptions about the nature of information and the nature of communication” (Dervin, 2003, p74).   To examine these assumptions means approaching communication differently than just an act of sending and receiving messages.  Since learning about this methodology in graduate school, I have been working to apply it to internal communication in library organizations.   

Communication theorists still debate whether organizational communication is best measured as a product of organizational structure, or whether communication itself leads to the formation of organizational structures.   Nevertheless, I observe people fairly consistently credit or blame organizational morale and culture on communication.  When/if communication is good, morale is high.  When/if communication is bad, morale is low.  However, this link between communication and culture doesn’t make a bit of sense to those who approach communication primarily as messages.  Because messages can be controlled, communication problems are easily addressed by increasing or better-targeting messages, right?  People who see communication as connection, on the other hand, would rarely get what they need from messages alone, no matter how abundantly or frequently messages are sent, or even if they were received. Since the target, if you will, is connection, its lack is perceived as a more fundamental organizational problem.    

In the absence of clear solutions, I’m left to make peace with perpetually seeking.  But a couple of workplace examples recently paved some hope on this path.   One is a wonderfully challenging development series I’ve started attending, called “Compassionate Communication”. Based on Michael Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent communication: a language of life, the introductory focus of this workshop intentionally distinguishes the use of judgement (problem-solving) and empathy (connection) when communicating, especially when communicating within conflict.  What I like most about the series so far is how it hasn’t discarded rational, judgement-based thinking in communication altogether.  Rather, it shows where this has value and where it doesn’t. With mindfulness and emotional intelligence, the Compassionate Communication: An Introduction course prescribes “translating judgments into observations, emphasizing needs instead of strategies, replacing thoughts with feelings, and changing demands into requests.” Like the reference interview compassionate communication considers that in situations people may not always know how to communicate their needs.  Dialogue offers a way to connect to needs and feelings in order to make meaningful requests.  So far (and I’m only two classes in) it promises to deliver what leaders sometimes struggle to accomplish with planning, hierarchy, and logic alone.

Another sense-making example took place in a recent email exchange about a new and somewhat contentious library policy.  In this scenario, most might have just chalked up the policy decision to “it’s complicated”, accepted it by virtue of hierarchy or expertise, and moved on.  Instead, this administrator and staff each made room to express and examine the different and often hidden circumstances at play.  I consider this kind of sense-making giving transparency to complexity. I have advocated and worked to develop this in my own communication and know the extra work it requires.  In my experience you can either pay the price of that work in confusion, frustration, and ongoing inefficiency, or in the work of communicating through those complexities.  I find only the latter builds trust, and I believe Dervin would say the act of building that trust is what matters most.  

Unfortunately, both approaches are still somewhat rare and sometimes discouraged in library leadership generally, despite similarities to LIS methodologies. Like Dervin’s sense-making, these two examples approach communication with questioning.  In compassionate communication, observations beyond the surface messages lead to more connected requests (aka questions) about what is needed. In the email exchange I observed, it was the willingness of this staff and administrator to first question whether they understood the whole picture and to thoroughly engage in seeking connections between those understandings.  Neutral questioning in the library reference interview demonstrates a shift in the balance of information power to create space for dialogue and understanding.  Shouldn’t that process, which translates to improved communication with users of library services and in the usability of library systems, also apply to our internal communication and information systems in a similar way?  Do we assume an expertise in sense-making with our users, and does this create an expectation that we can or should provide sense for our own needs?   

Left unexamined, such an assumption might result in providing our own messages and dialogues for ourselves. That seems both silly and irresponsible, especially as individuals and organizations seek truthfully to examine practices related to diversity and inclusion. This must mean understanding experiences beyond ourselves and our expertise as librarians. In the most basic sense, attending to these relational aspects of our work will require librarians to see each other as information seekers, balance informational power, and learn how to effectively ask questions of each other. Translating sense-making to organizations calls for us “to listen and to address differences and contests in human beings’ understandings and experiences” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p6).  The point is not understanding difference as characteristics or experiences that will define (read: label) how we interpret or listen in communication but connecting these differences toward understanding. Making sense of our internal information needs are necessary not just to solve collective problems, but for making sense of each other as human beings, our relationships in practices, and the ways in which these relationships are always changing.   

One thought on “Desperately Seeking Sense-Making”

  1. I am interested in your line of thought. I have read a lot of Dervin’s work and took an interviewing workshop from her. I used SMM theory in my dissertation. I have also read Nonviolent Communication by Rosenberg. I am interested in following up with you.

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