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Ten key skills of talking with a map

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

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