top of page

Updated: Nov 3


I have been teaching the skills of talking one to one or in groups side by side with a map for the past twenty-five years. It is a spontaneous, co-creative activity (with pen and paper shared between you) to note, link and sort the key words in what is being said.

Keeping track

Mostly we start mapping for any one of three reasons: one to keep track of the conversation, two to keep track of a specific story or incident; three to map the patterns of relating between those taking part in the conversation. The first skill to learn has nothing to do with CAT methods and concepts. It is the simple art of putting down the key words spread out on paper here and there to mark out the push and pull and call and response between different parts of the discussion. Keeping track with words spread out on paper already sets the mind to make links and see gaps and patterns and think relationally.

Track and recap

Every so often the words on paper are used to recap where the conversation is going. Such recapping does several things: shows how we are listening and negotiating direction and taking turns in the discussion; helps stop and find words for feelings beneath and behind the words spoken and recorded on paper. This adds a reflective and multi-layered quality to any conversation. We touch and look at the words on paper. We track and guide and reset the conversation with our fingers and have moments of literally seeing what we are saying and can wonder about what lies behind or beneath the surface of the spoken text. The words on paper can help make a map of the conversation and reveal links and patterns as stories and memories are drawn out.

Don’t over egg the mapping

The activity of mapping must not be made too big a thing of, since it is only an assistant to the live discussion. I think of it like the guitar accompanying the vocals of a song. The guitar mostly needs to be taken for granted and not get in the way of the singing, but it is fulfilling a vital holding, guiding and containing function. When the musical attunement between mapping and talking goes out of sync it is not a failure but a point of interest as to what might be going on. We try not to be so invested in making the map perfect or correct so that it helps rather than hinders our listening and participation in the conversation. Not everything that is said is mapped. It is useful to think of taking background notes in a more linear written form inside a margin to the left or right of the piece of paper (depending on which side the person doing most of the talking is sitting).

Triangle of Awareness

With words on paper, we are externalising our feelings, interactions and ideas. This creates an important triangle between what is felt and thought and remembered within me and us and what is spoken of between us and what is on paper in front of us. This triangle of attention helps us move from inner speech to outward discussion and between focus on self and focus on others. Over and over again those who use talking with a map say this externalising creates a parallel world for the conversation (an analogical space) where differences and difficulties can be more easily explored, and links can be made and gaps in our talking and remembering can be identified.

Extending working memory

Mapping extends working memory and can give dignity to words and phrases that come unbidden from the heart with their own spontaneous kind of poetry of the moment. These are words and phrases that if not written down can be so easily lost. Mapping together is like showing each other’s thinking. It invites transparency and negotiation when things don’t seem right to be mapped or get in the way of the immediate feeling of the conversation. conversation and

Multi-sensory and multimedia

The multi-sensory, multi-media richness of talking with a map is not evident until you try it out in a sustained way. I see the words sad, happy and angry spread out on different parts of the paper. The emotion words point inward to themselves and across to each other. What words and feelings can be found along with or beneath the words sad, angry and happy? How do they affect each other. I can touch them and voice them and see them at the same time, think about them and feel them now or in some recollection from the past or elsewhere in the present. They are engaging different parts of my brain and body. They can be engaged with by speaking of them, giving emotional or historical voice to them or writing to them. I can video record them or just sit and wait and mediate in a form of mindful mapping between runs of conversation. All this multi-sensory and multi-media potential is partly staged, scaffolded and held by the mapping process. It is a space for memory reconsolidation and reworking the stories of our lives that have come to hold us and define us.

Finding words with legs on

The more I use mapping the more I think words are alive. Or rather they can come alive when spoken with unexpected meanings and feelings. This is more than slips of the tongue. We know what we might have meant to say but when we say it the meaning becomes something else. We react and reflect on our words. I didn't mean to say that or didn’t expect it would make me feel like this. Mapping as we talk can scaffold this vital and emotional charged aspect of words.

Finding our voices

Mapping with the tools and methods of CAT connects us with the call and response between current and historically influential figures in our lives. Within the words spoken now we hear the voices of parents, teachers, best friends from childhood or teenage years. We are looking for moments of what I like to call authorship and ownership when in talking and telling life stories I feel more the author of what I am saying, and I am speaking with my own voice. it is hard to define what helps this happen. One big part of it is the role that mapping as we talk plays in validating our unique and personal attempt to speak of and for ourselves. There is more on the role of voice work in mapping and writing in therapy in the blogpost

Hovering and shimmering

In my teaching I prefer to talk about the interaction between feeling and thinking as forms of hovering between ideas and ways of seeing things and shimmering between contrasting emotions and ways of feeling including ambivalence about how to express and act on feelings. Why come up with these words? They capture the reflective dialogue between talking and mapping. We do something akin to hovering and zooming in and out of different points of view with the map. In the process, we shimmer between this or that feeling.

Conversational awareness and relational intelligence

Talking with a map is at its most basic words spread out on paper. At its richest, it brings a quality of relational intelligence and awareness which is assisted by the tools, methods and concepts of Cognitive Analytic Therapy and other relational psychotherapies. It has lots of practical benefits and can be used to develop better conversations, solve personal or team problems and improve working relationships but the general benefit may be the most significant and this is the benefit of an increase in relational awareness. The regular practice of talking with a map develops a greater appreciation of patterns of interaction and the influence of old patterns on present ones, the way put our own feelings onto others and influence of society and culture on our interpersonal attitudes to each other. After a while of working with a map in our discussions there seems to be a general increase in conversational and relational awareness that persists even when no longer mapping. These are benefits that have some face validity and need researching.

The orchestral challenge

But above all talking with a map helps meet what I call, for want of a better description, the co-orchestrating challenge. Living in a plural world with plural identities and sides to ourselves the challenge day by day is to have skills in presenting and being ourselves in ways that to coin an informal phrase has a feeling of getting our act together. This is an important freedom and a challenge to orchestrate a coherent narrative and presentation of ourselves. To be able to negotiate what is me and not me and how that impinges on others.

This is explored more in later blog posts.

If any of this whets your appetite and resonates with the way you work, then come and try it out. Every two months there is a half-day workshop online to introduce the Ten keys skills in talking with a map. No prior skills in talking with a map are needed.

The ten key skills of talking with a map demonstrated and tried out during the workshop are:

1. Setting up the time and place to talk

2. Spontaneously tracking the conversation to help make a listening relationship

3. Finding our own words for feelings, ideas, roles and relationships

4. Shimmering between feelings with the help of words on paper between us

5. Hovering in among contrasting ideas and beliefs and their importance for self and others

6. Noticing, naming and negotiating what is here and now between us

7. Taking turns in participating or observing: working side by side and not going head-to-head

8. Writing short letters to discover and give voice to new points of view and ways of feeling

9. Zoom in and out of big picture and detail; or between this and that part of the story or conversation

10. Mapping out positions and patterns from conversations to tell and retell the stories that show who we are.

See also other posts in this blog especially Therapy with a Voice

46 views0 comments

The voice is the unappreciated servant, the unsung companion, overlooked, taken for granted at the therapy table. Or there are ghost voices that lie within unspoken from the past or whisper from the social side-lines. This is how to speak; this is how to express feelings and ideas. These are the words to use. This is the tone, the pitch and the preferred prosody.

We are so caught up in saying what we want to say we neglect to notice how we are saying it. The voice is at the heart of how we say things and relate when in conversation. A mutual willingness to be interested in, kind to and surprised by our voices is helpful to any conversation whether creative, business, therapeutic or reflective.

We bring to the conversation a relationship with our voices. Do I know or trust my voice? Does it give me away? Does it sound like it is performing? Is it nervous, shaky or brash? Is my voice different in different roles? We bring to the conversation an awareness of how we co-constructing a sharing of our voices.

Is there a reciprocation between our voices? Does my confident voice make yours more anxious? Does my compassionate voice bring tenderness into your voice to yourself? Does my monotonous account of my stories bring out a monotonous tone from you or do you counter it with a more varied and urgent voice? If I recap with an authoritative voice does that stop your doubtful voice from coming out? These are the questions that might be in the air unspoken between us during the push and pull of turn-taking and control in the conversation and the call and response of our voices.

We hear our voice with our own critical or sympathetic ear. Part of therapy is doing voice work. Just as we may join a choir to develop and practice our singing voice so we can find our conversational voice more freely and with more relational authenticity through compassionate practice.

If we can replace shame with compassion and curiosity, it can help us listen as we speak to the emotional cadence of our own and other voices. The voice may touch thoughts and feelings that lie beyond or beneath what is being read out. Shy words may grow in confidence, words too often loudly repeated may look a little ridiculous and be reined in.

Lucy Cutler and I have been doing Voice Awareness workshops for therapists to show the voice as a therapeutic tool. As Cognitive Analytic Therapists we work relationally and integratively and we have put the voice at the centre of our work. We came to this focus through a psycho-social and plural view of the self in the world and the through the use of more varied and co-creative letter writing and conversational mapping in and between sessions with clients and in supervision. If we make a listening map of the key words of the conversation it leads to a moment of what we have called recapping where therapist and client go around the word map of key patterns and concerns and give voice to it. Sometimes it helps to audio record or video record this with our phones. What is evident is the added awareness of our voices that comes from recapping our thoughts and feelings, memories and responses both out there on paper and in there on our minds and in our bodies simultaneously.

The voice registers the relational process of making connections. The voice falters or strengthens, gives way to emotion and in our jargon shimmers in and between feelings and hovers and zooms in and out of ideas. We found we were more able to turn the voice from a silent companion carrying the stresses and strains of what is being experienced and felt into an active and instructive element in our enquiries. Awareness of our voices: their changing pitch and tone, fullness and authority, their prosody and musicality became part of our recapping with the map. Similarly, we then used letter writing as a form of inner and interpersonal dialogue. Both therapist and client would write a short letter addressing one emotion, incident or aspect of their lives. We called this writing to the map or writing to the moment and its power is enhanced by the spontaneity of giving attention to the voice in the moments of writing and again in the reading out and sharing. Like recapping with the map, reading out from the letter with the freedom to hover and shimmer with words and ideas and feelings called attention to the psycho-social dynamic and wavering presence of the voice. Working with the voice became part of our relational thinking aided by Cognitive analytic concepts of roles, patterns and sequences. These are some of the dimensions of voice work that interest us.

· The emotional voice (feeling, tone, pitch)

· The grammatical voice (active, passive, middle)

· The social voice (accent, status, gender, class, ethnicity, prejudice and power)

· The interpersonal voice (role, intimacy, turn taking, co-authoring and listening

· The addressive voice (inward, outward, targeted, searching)

· The verbal voice (language, words, conversation

· The historical voice (societal voices across generations, family voices, local words and turns of phrase)

We have developed a checklist for voice awareness and the process of combining mapping and writing with voice work has enhanced our versatility as therapists and offers ways of linking with the other therapy approaches drawing upon narrative therapy, systemic thinking and emotionally focused work.

Here is Sam's story of a moment of voice work in therapy. Sam was talking about his experience of a crisis in his life. As he talked his voice went high and low, fast and slow. It was as if he was surfing along the waves of the ups and downs of his emotions as he described and managed how much he relived his experience. He finished talking by saying something definitive and in the process his voice change. He said, as if firmly to me and to himself, "there is no point crying over spilt milk." But his voice wavered over the final words 'spilt milk'. Your voice changed when you went from saying: There is no point crying which I heard you say in a very summing up closing down kind of voice. Like you were saying this is the end of the conversation. Sam agreed and I added that at that moment in the sentence I felt sad because I wanted more between us about the emotions he was describing. Sam agreed and said. "I had trouble saying the words spilt milk. The words took me right back into the messy feelings which I was trying to keep at arm’s length. The words spilt milk are upsetting. Again, the words brought a tremor to his voice. We smiled at the absurdity of words and all the connotations of the word upsetting. We could just sit with the feelings of spilt milk. To borrow freely from the poet William Wordsworth - a feeling recollected through words in the relative tranquillity of revoicing them. We agree there might be a point in crying over spilt milk especially if our voices would allow us to feel the feelings wrapped up in the words.

Therapy is a series of mostly surprising, sometimes unintended (though we are fishing for them) troublesome tricky or divine moments. The voice is the unsung companion and possible the key to working with more self-conscious relational and conversational awareness of feelings and language. So as to work more therapeutically. We draw on the tools and concepts of Cognitive Analytic Therapy and the growing mix of ideas from social therapy, relational psychoanalysis and identity therapy. In particular we draw on the rich work of Bob Hobson still rich and rewarding book Forms of Feeling.

If any of this is of interest and you are curious about combining mapping and writing and talking therapeutically and reflectively in a conversational way then book a place on one of our Therapy with the Voice workshops.

111 views1 comment

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

We learn to be in conversation and learn language by taking turns. At best there is a jazz like, co-orchestrating rhythm to it. You speak and I give my whole attention to your words, your voice and your presence. It is more than listening. I am engaging with you, assisting your way of finding the words you need for your feelings, ideas and stories. You can tell when my attention is no longer with you, wanders or worse, when I am just waiting for my turn and am about to interrupt you.

Interruption is important to co-orchestrating a conversation. Let's say that there are four kinds of interruption. The first kind of interruption is that mix of responses in support of you and the flow of your words. Gestures of validation, questions seeking clarification, repetition and recap of your words for emphasis and validation. There is phatic quality to some of these phrases: 'yeah, you're right, that's so, but also'. As a conversational relationship goes there is room within this type of interruption for challenges ( I am just wondering if you might also see it this way) and invitations to elaborate (do you mean such and such?). Over and above this is a conversational style of interruption when I show I am listening and going along with you by briefly taking the spotlight on me and giving an example from my experience that echoes your experience. I amnot trying to steal your show in that moment but hoping to amp up yours. This whole style of interruption has a quality of talking with each other. That is where a good conversation starts from, has its struggles and comes back home to at the end. The side-by-side interpersonal quality of talking with is beautifully touched in the lines from Seamus Heaney's poem Album (Human Chain 2010) "Side by side about a love that's proved by steady gazing not at each other but in the same direction."

The second kind of interruption is when we start talking for the other person. It can have qualities of controlling, colonising, patronising, rescuing whilst possibly being caring in intent. It can be a dance with two partners. I say something like, you can put this better than me. I invite you into talking for me. Or you may be primed to go there by default of the power of your role or position and social heritage. You speak for me: I think what Steve is trying to say. I may resent that or by my role and position submit to it. Or I may want you to talk for me. I may feel I need your power and your voice or your way with words. Fine let's wander at times in our conversations into talking for each other but the main home for the conversation and its base note in any such orchestration of power and influence should be talking with. That means talking about the subtle and not so subtle shifts in power and control.

It is easy to rock the mutuality of the conversational boat in this way and the third kind of interruption is waiting to tip it right over. This is when our interruptions, once in the name of turn taking, or assisting each other become talking at each other. The tone becomes declamatory and accusative. It is the tone of bickering as pairs and bantering as groups: the pronouns of choice are you, you, you or me, me, me. It is the conversational style of our worst politicians and pundits. The convivial, mutual and democratic purpose of conversation is lost.

The fourth kind of interruption is the opposite of side-by-side. It is one that goes head-to-head. It is divisive and confrontational. It is a feeling of talking against each other. It pushes the conversation into a binary of either I am talking or you are talking; either I am right and you are wrong - a mutually assured destruction of accusative knowingness.

We need awareness of these changes in the reciprocal dynamics of moments in conversation. Talking at, against or for may serve the purpose of warding off the threat of entanglement and the loss of self in the intimacy of the conversation; or it is an encounter with differences of beliefs, memories and values. In the form of bickering one to one or bantering in a group, it may be a narrow but necessary way of surviving being in contact or maintaining a partnership in spite of perceived differences. Or it is a way of coping with the threat of being caught up in ghost roles from past of being silenced in childhood or feeling out of depth in teenage conversations.

Mary and John could so often lose the conversational goodwill of talking with each other which was where they started with phatic nods and smiles (we need to talk, yes great let's talk). Talking with each other turned to talk for each other (I know what you are saying) and talking at each other in a yeah, yeah, yeah kind of routine bickering that ended feeling like talking against each other. They had a deep yearning for a good talk and could end up with the kind of protective banter of talking things up (we'll be fine) or down and away (never mind, not important). What helped them was a capacity to step back and see the push and pull of the conversation from the outside (is this the talk we want or need?). A spirit of talking with each other is not some special therapeutic nirvana. As in the grid diagram above the shared feeling of talking with each other can lively, unstable, volatile and fragile if achieved and is easily and inevitably pulled or pushed into talking to, or for, against, up or down and away.

We cannot talk well when it is our turn in the conversational spotlight without us doing some of these things that add up to talking with but the risk is that these interruptions slide imperceptibly into interruptions that end in talking for, talking at or talking against each other.

The challenge is to notice, name and negotiate these micro shifts in the conversational spotlight and the give and take of voice and attention as they push and pull our words along.

For more on this theme see: Chapter 5, Conversational Awareness in Potter 2022 Talking with a Map Shoreham on Sea Pavilion Publishing.

31 views0 comments
bottom of page