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COMMUNICATION THEORY

Communication Theory ISSN 1050-3293

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

A Discursive Approach to Skillful Activity


J. Kevin Barge1 & Martin Little2
1 Department of Communication, Texas A & M University, College Station, TX 77843 2 Kensington Consultation Centre Foundation, London, UK

We propose a discursive approach for exploring how practitioners intelligently respond and create a sense of coherence in their linguistic practice. A discursive approach to skillful activity is able to account for the role of meaning making in conversation, address how communication constructs the context in which skillful activity originates, and recognize the co-created avor of skillful practice. We offer an account of skillful linguistic performance that turns on practitioners acting with sensibility by paying close attention to the reexive relationships among: (a) moralaesthetic commitments; (b) conversational abilities in the form of utterances, methods, and techniques; (c) practical reasoning and the process of invention; and (d) context. We conclude by exploring the implications of a discursive approach for meaning making, identity construction, and managing the tensions emerging from different traditions or communities of practice. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2008.00332.x

Our purpose in this article is to explore how studies of practitionersmanagers, therapists, health care providers, negotiators, and consultantsmight better account for the ways they use communication to skillfully respond to living situations and to sustain coherence in their practice. Skillful response and establishing a sense of coherence within practice is important because it facilitates a feeling of continuity within and between conversational episodes that enhances practitioners abilities to coordinate their activity with others and to create mutual learning. Living situations are not frozen or mechanically structured; rather, they exemplify the living, embodied, reciprocal spontaneity that constitutes social interaction (Shotter & Lannamann, 2002, p. 580). This means our social worlds are continually undergoing construction and revision due to the reexive relationships among communication, meaning, action, and context as embodied persons engage each other within the ow of conversational activity. In a linguistic landscape where the rules for meaning and action are continually evolving and being negotiated, how do practitioners coordinate their conversational
Corresponding author: J. Kevin Barge; e-mail: kbarge@tamu.edu
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activity with others in a skillful and coherent fashion? The traditional response to this question has been rooted in a psychological approach toward skillful activity that views skillful practice as rule-governed interaction that depends on practitioners using hierarchically ordered rule-based knowledge, typically in the form of cognitive scripts or plans, to sequence their conversational activity. Skillful activity is understood to be an intentional process of applying the appropriate rule to a relatively given context in order to reach a pre-selected goal whereby action is seen to be . governed by the interaction of personal and contextual variables (Holman, 2000, p. 959). Skillful coordination of conversation relies on participants sharing similar interpretations of situations as well as the attendant rules for sequencing action. Contextual variation can be managed by practitioners assembling existing scripts and plans to create pliable communicative behavior to meet the unique demands posed by differing contexts. A psychological approach toward skillful practice has generated a large body of valuable knowledge, methods, and techniques for practitioners to use (see Daly & Vangelisti, 2003, and Street, 2003, as examples). It gains its cultural currency by connecting to common sense beliefs that individual characteristics such as knowledge, motivation, and personality traits inuence the way we compose, interpret, and respond to communication (Craig, 1999). At the same time, critical concerns regarding the way a psychological approach analyzes the communicative practice of skillful activity have been raised that question whether it is well suited for the ambiguous, unclear, and contradictory avor of contemporary professional life (Holman, 2000; Sanders, 2003). We offer an alternative conceptualization of skillful activity from a discursive perspective. Rather than explain skillful communicative behavior as a result of individuals possessing behavioral or cognitive skills, we offer an account of skillful conversational performance that turns on practitioners acting with sensibility. Sensibility is a moralaesthetic framework regarding the commitments one makes toward issues of human agency and power within a tradition or community of practice that provides one way of explaining how practitioners act skillfully and coherently within a constantly emerging linguistic terrain. The notion of sensibility shifts our focus away from the rule-following aspects of conversational practice to the situated sense making and decision making that practitioners experience as they work with others in ways that preserve their agency and facilitate joint action. We do not wish to debate whether a psychological or discursive approach is superior as each has different strengths and weaknesses and one may be more appropriate given particular research questions and foci. What we do hope to illustrate, however, is how a discursive approach may open up new opportunities for inquiry in the study of skillful activity.
Comparing psychological and discursive approaches to skillful activity

One way to understand the contribution of a discursive approach toward skillful activity is to compare it with a psychological approach. Making such comparisons
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can be potentially misleading as they may present a unitary conception that glosses over key differences among theorists within a particular approach as well as overlook common threads that connect alternative approaches. Nevertheless, we would suggest a discursive approach has a language of its own with an associated grammar of practice that focuses our attention on particular activities, phenomena, and forms of explanation and not on others. We articulate these differences by making three key comparisons: (a) interaction versus meaning making; (b) stable versus dynamic contexts; and (c) individual versus reflexive agency.
Interaction versus meaning making A psychological approach toward skillful activity backgrounds the way individuals make sense of the unfolding conversation by constructing meaning. Communication skills are typically referenced by the function they serve or the context in which they exist as opposed to the way they construct and manage meaning during conversation. For example, the emphasis on communication function is represented by the work of communication scholars who have highlighted the importance of skilled activity in performing a variety of important functions during conversation, such as persuasion (Wilson, 2002), providing emotional support (Burleson, 2003), and managing impressions (Metts & Grohskopf, 2003). The accent placed on context is exemplied by communication scholars who equate communication skill with the performance of appropriate and effective behavior in specic contexts, such as small groups (Gouran, 2003), romantic relationships (Dindia & Timmerman, 2003), parentchild relationships (Hart, Newell, & Olson, 2003), and intercultural settings (Hajek & Giles, 2003). The focus is on identifying what people must do, in the form of verbal and nonverbal messages, in order to produce a result and the psychological mechanisms that inuence their performance. A discursive approach focuses on the importance of meaning making. Discursive approaches generally view language as constitutive, constructing the ideas, objects, subjectivities, and meanings that populate our social worlds (Alvesson & Karreman, 2000; Phillips & Hardy, 2002). Viewing communication as constitutive highlights that the way we use communication creates meaning and makes our lives meaningfull. Pearce and Pearce (2004) observe:

Communication is not a neutral vehicle by which an external reality is communicated about, and by which factors of psychology, social structure, cultural norms, and the like are transmitted or are influential. The communication process: (a) exerts a role in personal identities and selfconcepts experienced by persons; (b) shapes the range of permissible and impermissible relationships between persons, and so produces a structure; and (c) represents the process through which cultural values, beliefs, and the like are formulated and lived. (p. 42) The utterances we make in conversation reflect how we have made meaning about the situation and simultaneously contribute to the joint construction of meaning
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within situations. The emphasis on exploring the reflexive connections among language, language use, and meaning makes it possible to explore the ongoing social construction of skillful activity within unfolding situations. This is not to say that psychological approaches to skill do not view utterances as creating meaning because the selection of a particular conversational move or strategy is a reflection of the way the individual has made sense of the situation and also serves as an invitation for others to make sense of it in a similar way. However, psychological approaches generally ignore the larger sociohistorical context in which the skills originated, and do not consider how the skills they identify are made meaning-full by larger cultural and historical discourses and patterns. Moreover, they assume that the performance of the skill is tied to a single functionthe pursuit of the specified goal or the management of a single context. As a result, they do not directly focus on how utterances are used to construct meaning and to make sense by creating moral orders to guide conversation (Holman, 2000). For our purposes, two distinctions regarding discourse are important. First, the term discourse may be used to refer to talk-in-interaction as well as persisting modes of thought (see Alvesson & Karreman, 2000; Fairhurst & Putnam, 2004; Gee, 1999). The former is typically referred to as little d discourse, which references the study of talk in social practices and emphasizes sociality. Little d discourse focuses on the ow of utterances and responses during conversation and what gets created through the patterning of communicative activity. For example, the patterning of conversational utterances between a therapist and client during a session reects little d discourse. The latter denitionpersisting modes of thoughthas been referred to as big D Discourse, which is viewed as more general and enduring systems of thought where power/knowledge relations are established in culturally standardized Discourses, formed by constellations of talk, ideas, logics, and assumptions that constitute objects and subjectivities (Fairhurst & Putnam, 2004, p. 8). For example, the particular therapeutic tradition a family therapist works within, such as solutionfocused, brief, narrative, or conversational therapy, may be viewed as a big D Discourse as the therapeutic tradition reects a system of ideas, thoughts, and principles that partially informs a therapists subjectivity. Discourse and discourse can be assumed to be in a reexive relationship with each other as Discourses may serve as interpretive resources for practitioners to draw on during conversation to guide and structure their discourse, and discourse can sustain, modify, or elaborate Discourses.
Stable versus dynamic contexts A psychological approach presumes context is well defined and stable, which allows theorists to approach conversational activity as rule governed. Similar to Wittgensteins (1953) notion of a xed language game, normative rules that facilitate individuals sequencing their communicative behavior within particular contexts can be identied. Spitzberg (2003) suggests that most studies of communication skills treat context as a variable that can be manipulated to explore how contextual variation necessitates differing kinds of skillful behavior. Spitzberg identies ve commonly
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used meanings for the term context: (a) culture, (b) time, (c) relationship type, (d) physical or social situation, and (e) interaction function. Though theorists and researchers may use different variables to operationalize context, they share a belief that context is stable, unchanging, and shared by the participants throughout an interaction. For example, practice models of leadership based on a situational approach assume that the relationship type affects the kind of conversational performance required by leaders. When a leaderfollower relationship is characterized by group members who lack maturity, it is important for leaders to adopt a more directive style throughout the conversation, whereas a leader follower relationship with mature followers permits the use of a more participative style (Hersey & Blanchard, 1977). Practitioners are positioned as readers of situations who need to make accurate judgments of the situation and, in light of those judgments, adequately perform those actions deemed appropriate and effective given the shared context among participants. A discursive approach views context as an emergent property of conversation that is continually constructed during interaction as people articulate their experience and respond to each other in different ways. When we recognize the constitutive power of language and acknowledge the co-construction of conversational activity, context evolves and changes over the life of a conversational episode. Texts and context are in a dynamic relationship because what we say at earlier points in a conversation subsequently becomes con-text as it informs what we have to respond to at a later point in the conversation (Bateson, 1972). Contexts cannot be taken as given during practice; rather, they are being constantly negotiated by practitioners in conversation with others. One of the chief tasks for a practitioner, therefore, becomes working with others to create a working definition of a situation (Pearce, 1994). This means that practitioners are authors of a situation, not readers, who co-create a linguistic landscape of enabling constraints that facilitate action and coordinates their activity with others (Shotter, 1993). The dynamic process of contextual construction is challenging because it is not only dynamic, constantly evolving depending on who is involved in the conversation, but is also a contested activity as interlocutors may wish to frame and construct the situation in divergent ways in order to pursue differing aims and purposes. The emerging, negotiated, and contested avor of contextual construction means that many times contexts may be ambiguous or ill dened due to the unique qualities of the participants or they may be poorly structured as participants have conicting notions of what the context is.
Individual versus reexive agency Psychological approaches emphasize the role of individual agency in the production of skillful conversation. When we assume that context is stable and shared, we are led to believe that well-trained and highly skilled individuals can learn how to manipulate and control situations if they master the rules that govern interaction. Such individuals are like chess grandmasters who know the rules of the game and play the game so well
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that they can anticipate how others will respond to their moves and can make moves early on in the game to set up later moves that will allow them to win. The result is that a psychological approach attributes the production of skillful practice to individual agency, the capacity of individuals for speaking or acting in ways that allow them to control situations in order to accomplish desired results. The underlying belief is that individuals who are highly skilled are primarily responsible for affecting change in a human system such as a relationship, group, or organization. From a discursive point of view, agency is not located either in the individual as psychological approaches are prone to assume or in the social structures that comprise the context in which communication occurs. Rather, an individuals sense of agency, his or her capacity for action, is shaped by the contexts affordances and constraints that the individual had a hand in articulating with others. Linguistic performance and contextual construction are dynamically interrelated: Language has a magical property: When we speak or write we craft what we have to say to fit the situation or context in which we are communicating. But, at the same time, how we speak or write creates that very situation or context. It seems, then, that we fit our language to a situation or context that our language, in turn, helped to create in the first place. (Gee, 1999, p. 11) This means that individuals need to recognize that their sense of agency is created from within the co-created flow of linguistic activity that organizes action and context. Fairhurst (2007) calls this reexive agency whereby actors are knowledgeable agents, who reexively monitor the ongoing character of social life as they ` continuously orient to and position themselves vis-a-vis specic norms, rules, and procedures and values with others (p. 14). Sanders (2003) afrms the importance of reexive agency by observing that language social interaction tends to avoid attributing agency to individuals but rather conceptualizes what transpires and results in interactions as being coconstructed, or jointly produced (p. 224). He views skillful practice as an interactional accomplishment, one that is co-constructed with others during conversation. The notion that skillful performance is a joint activity brought off by persons in conversation suggests that people do not control situations through their individual performance. Rather, their action is consequential as what they say and how they act can inuence conversation and increase or decrease the likelihood that certain desired results can be produced (Sanders, 2003; Sigman, 1995). Individuals can make a move to guide a conversation one way or another, but this move may be rejected or accepted by an Other. This requires individuals desiring to act in skillful ways to be reective about how their utterances respond to what has been said previously and to anticipate the response that will be invited by their utterance.
Meaning making, conversational coherence, and heedful performance

Regardless of the profession or discipline, practitioners are always trying to coordinate their linguistic activity with others. The centrality of meaning and meaning
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making within a discursive approach suggests that skillful activity is reflected by the ability to engage with others in language and meaning making from within the flow of conversational activity that allows participants to find their way to go on together in conversation and to move forward in relation to task. Shotter (2000) suggests the ability to construct intelligible conversation that allows individuals to move forward depends on speaking in ways that are followable: We must both be able to follow others in our talk entwined activities, and also, act and speak in ways that they also can follow (p. 120). Practitioners can create a sense of connectedness that sustains meaning making and progresses their task by following the preceding dance of utterances within conversation and acting in ways that allow Others to follow their utterances. Skillful practice therefore becomes associated with the creation of conversational coherence in talk and practice. Conversational coherence within ones talk and practice is normally conceptualized as the sense in which a discourse may be said to hang together; the relevance of its successive utterances both to those that precede them and to the global concerns of the discourse as a whole (McLaughlin, 1984, p. 270). Conversational coherence is concerned with explaining how persons maintain the continuity of conversation and build the meaningfulness of discourse through processes such as topic maintenance and elaboration (Cornelius & Boos, 2003; Dijkstra, Bourgeois, Allen, & Burgio, 2004). Conversational coherence is connected to the process of meaning making as to act coherently in conversation means we are able to pick up and elaborate the meaning of previous conversational utterances and fragments. This line of thinking parallels Wittgensteins (1953) notion of meaning as use. When we say that a word, sentence, or utterance is meaningful, this means that we know how to go on coherently in the conversation and coordinate our utterances with an Other. The other we address in conversation, however, is not limited to the people we engage in conversation; it also includes the jointly constructed conversation that emerges among people. The jointly constructed conversation among persons becomes a real presence exerting inuence on how people make sense of and decide to act within the conversation. In their discussion of conversational poetics, Katz and Shotter (2004) observe: When people act in this mutually responsive fashion, with each persons actions partially shaped by the others responsive reactions, something very special happens: They nd themselves in an essentially demanding ethical situation (pp. 7475). The conversational moment calls forth particular ways of responding that may or may not reflect the individual participants aims, wishes, and desires. To respond skillfully from within conversational activity, speakers must not only voice their response to the other persons within the conversation but also to the ethical demands of the situation that they have jointly created in a conversational moment. This view of coherence does not diminish the importance of persons sometimes needing to purposefully perform contradictory, ambiguous, or confusing utterances as a means to jar people out of complacency or heighten their awareness of
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important issues. What is important, however, is that speakers anticipate potential ambiguities and contradictions in their conversational practice and construct utterances that enable others to respond in ways that sustain coordination. In his discussion of skilled activity, Holman (2000) observes that people may need to persuade others that their actions are understandable and legitimate (p. 964). The issue is whether the performance of a purposefully contradictory or confusing utterance allows people to extend sensibly the conversation and whether it facilitates meaning making. A context needs to be created that legitimates the use of a seemingly jarring move but does not freeze meaning making or create a position of being stuck in the conversation, not knowing what to do next. One implication of this view toward conversational coherence is that a skillful response to a situation is associated with the elaboration of meanings and actions as practitioners and participants progress through a task. We concur with Gergen, Gergen, and Barrett (2004) who contend: The meaning-making process is rendered robust by virtue of distinctive voices (p. 47). They argue that the robustness of the meaning-making process is enhanced by introducing a productive difference in the conversation that afrms what has previously occurred and initiates the potential for new meaning making. Barge (2004) refers to this afrmative process as creating a difference that connects whereby utterances must simultaneously connect with what has previously transpired and gesture to new possibilities for meaning making. If too little difference is introduced, the utterances do not add any important difference in the conversation as they simply duplicate what has been uttered previously. In contrast, if the difference is too large and does not connect, persons may feel their contribution has been negated and become defensive. Entries that sustain or extend the potentials of a preceding utterance may be viewed as productive; utterances that curtail or negate what has preceded are destructive. They essentially impede the process of constructing a mutually viable reality (Gergen et al., 2004, p. 47). An utterance that responds to the uniqueness of living situations and furthers meaning making reflects a style of connecting with others that is heedful, not habitual. Weick and Roberts (1993) suggest that the practice of heedful interrelating involves paying close attention to tting ones utterances with the utterances of the Other and to the demands of the jointly created situation. Heedful performance is distinct from habitual performance. In habitual performance, each performance is a replica of its predecessor, whereas in heedful performance, each action is modified by its predecessor (Ryle, 1949: 42). In heedful performance the agent is still learning. Furthermore, heedful performance is the outcome of training and experience that weave together thinking, feeling, and willing. Habitual performance is the outcome of drill and repetition. (p. 362) Heedful performance suggests that practitioners adapt their responses according to the uniqueness of the emerging situation. Moreover, the process of heedful interrelating not only sustains meaning making but also fosters learning. Practitioners
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may learn through intension as they deepen their understanding of practice as they engage subtle variations when performing the same task over time. They may also learn through extension as they learn to adapt their practice to radically different situations, people, and events.
Sensibility

If coherence building through heedful interrelating allows practitioners to act more skillfully, how can practitioners position themselves during interaction to facilitate heedful interrelating with Others? We suggest that practitioners need to draw on the various Discourses provided by the tradition or community of practice in which they participate to invent responses that respond to contingent circumstances. A coherent and intelligent response to a situation derives from the reflexive use of the resources and wisdom of a tradition or community of practice. We offer the notion of acting with sensibility as one way to account for this process. To be a practitioner means that one identifies with a particular tradition or community of practice that makes certain assumptions about what values are to be emphasized and what constitutes good practice. By a tradition of practice, we mean persons who ascribe to a particular way of working and who make certain value commitments toward practice. For example, several traditions of therapeutic practice exist, including narrative (Payne, 2000) and solution-focused therapy (White, 1995, 1997), each of which is associated with a distinctive set of methods and techniques and that make certain value commitments about what constitutes good therapeutic practice. The term community of practice is typically reserved for groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p. 4). Ongoing organizational work groups, for example, would constitute a community of practice. Communities of practice articulate methods and techniques that are associated with a particular task domain such as bill processing or research and development, and they articulate standards for what counts as excellent practice. From a discursive point of view, practice is always situated, which means people have to make judgments about what to do from within the emerging flow of conversation. Even in those professions such as nursing where we generally might expect practice to be highly scripted and fixed given that particular medical techniques must be performed in a specific manner if they are to be effective, actors still must make situated judgments regarding what to do given the uniqueness of the situation (Flaming, 2001). Although situations are unique, contingent, and emergent, it is not as if the moment-by-moment choices people make to help construct their lines of action come from nowhere. An individuals work is informed, in part, by the Discourses that inform a tradition or community of practicethe important values, commitments, methods, techniques, and rules for meaning and actionto which they belong. Individuals act from and into the Discourses of practice that have
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already been developed by themselves and others within a particular tradition or community and respond to living situations by discerning how the resources and wisdom constituting a Discourse can be mobilized in light of present circumstances. The important issue is how practitioners reappropriate the traditions or the communitys Discourse for use in the present that allows them to heedfully interrelate. We suggest that sensibility is a useful concept for explaining how persons maintain some stability in the way they choose to act within situations while allowing for the possibility of variation, elaboration, and evolution in their practice. Sensibility is derived from the Latin sensibilitatem, which refers to a mode of feeling, thinking, and meaning. We are drawn to the notion of sensibility because it integrates emotion, deliberation, and sense making within the ow of conversation, phenomena that have tended to be treated as unique and distinct, lacking intersection. We dene sensibility as the living unity between a set of moralaesthetic commitments toward human agency and conversational abilities within a tradition or community of practice. To act with sensibility means that practitioners work in ways that sustain the living unity between moralaesthetic commitments embedded in Discourse and the linguistic abilities they exhibit in their discourse within conversational episodes. The notion of sensibility allows us to give attention to three important features of practice: (a) the moralaesthetic dimensions of practice; (b) the integration of moral aesthetic commitments, conversational performance, and context; and (c) situated judgment and insight. Each of these features merits elaboration.
Sensibility foregrounds moralaesthetic features of practice The notion of sensibility attunes us directly to issues of morality, what people ought to do, and aesthetics, how beautifully people accomplish their activity. Big D Discourses carry with them a set of moral obligations, permissions, and prohibitions regarding how people are to connect with others. At the same time, Discourses also have an aesthetic element to them in terms of what counts as beautiful practice. For example, in organizational studies, the aesthetic of scientific management Discourses, with their emphasis on unity, order, and purity, has not only been reflected in the creation of simple hierarchical structures for management but also in business architecture as evidenced by the work of the modernist architect Le Corbusier (Guillen, 1997). Similarly, Discourses about healing that emphasize the body suggest that beautiful practice by caregivers is associated with embodied engagement where the entire self is used to comprehend and make meaning of the world as opposed to responding in ways that only honor cognitive rational responses (Ray, 2006). Lang, Little, and Cronen (1990) observe that practice simultaneously involves working within the domains of aesthetics (how one acts in moral and aesthetic ways), production (how one accomplishes a task), and explanation (what accounts are needed to legitimize ones practice). Fragmenting experience into the domains of aesthetics, production, or explanation without exploring their interconnections neglects the integrated complexity of human experience. The moralaesthetic
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elements of practice cannot be divorced from task performance because the way we accomplish work necessarily involves committing to particular value hierarchies and assumptions regarding how agency and power are to be managed among members of a human system. Traditions and communities of practice not only highlight how one accomplishes a given activity, they also provide a means for discerning what moral aesthetic qualities are to be valued during engagement with others. As MacIntyre (1984) observes: A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them (p. 190). Ones ability to act in ways that are judged moral and aesthetic requires engaging the principles of ones tradition or community of practice and acting in ways that are aligned with those principles. A good example of how moralaesthetic commitments are embedded within Discoursesdiscourses can be seen in the practice of neutrality within mediation. Mediator neutrality, the ability to be fair and not to impose ones perceptions, values, or judgments on the disputants, is a core value that informs Discourses constituting mediation. Mediators are expected to evidence the Discourse of neutrality in their discourse with disputants during mediation sessions. Take the following two excerpts from mediations involving a landlordtenant rental dispute drawn from Heisterkamp (2006, pp. 307, 311). Example #1 1 M: And Monica, are we in agreement then that uh 2 the rent when you started on the premises uh 3 was from the first through the thirtieth 4 D: No that is not in agreement, it was the third. Example #2 1 M: He [a judge] will look at the case. 2 D: Hes not going to waste his time in this. 3 And why should I? 4 M: Well he wont consider it a waste of time. 5 D: [Unintelligible response.] 6 M: He takes this very, very seriously 7 and you can be sure that he will give it his best. In both examples, the mediator (M) acts in ways that reflect the moralaesthetic commitment to neutrality. In Example #1, the mediator uses the pronominal we (line 1) speaking as a representative of the collective as opposed to offering the mediators personal viewpoint. As Heisterkamp (2006) points out, the disputant (D) appears to accept that the mediator has spoken for the collective as the use of that (line 4) does not attach her disagreement to either the mediator or the other disputant, thus afrming the performance of neutrality. In Example #2, the mediator preserves neutrality by invoking the perspective of a judge if the dispute is not settled. In this
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example, the defendant perceives the plaintiffs view as a waste of time (line 4) so the mediator reiterates the judge will take it seriously (takes this very, very seriously, line 6) and will give it his best (line 7). By shifting to the judges perspective, the mediator can highlight the issue for the defendant but maintains neutrality by emphasizing how someone outside the dispute will approach it. The degree to which a mediator acts with sensibility depends on his or her ability to connect the moralaesthetic commitment of neutrality that constitutes mediation Discourse to its lived performance when working to achieve a settlement between disputants.
Sensibility emphasizes creating a living unity among moralaesthetic commitments, conversational utterances, and context When practitioners act with sensibility, they adapt the wisdom of a tradition or a community of practice to the emerging situation. This adaptation occurs through the process of invention. Rhetorical scholars have traditionally defined invention as a process of using argument to come upon or find new things. More recently, invention has been reconceptualized as a social process that positions a speaker as a bricoleur, a person who acts by making do or improvising with the limited materials that are available in a particular situation who becomes a language tinkerer pasting together bits of linguistic material . to meet the demands of the situation (Jasinski, 2001, p. 329). From a rhetorical perspective, a social approach to invention emphasizes the importance of orchestrating the resources or rhetorical traditions into coherent artistic representations of community life in contingent circumstances (Murphy, 1997, p. 74). By articulating a coherent account of community life, the speaker can connect with the cultural grammar of the community and move the community in a particular direction. A social approach to invention helps us explain how the resources of a tradition or community of practice are rearticulated to meet shifting conversational contingencies. Duck (2002) observes that most approaches to conversational practice ignore the role that history plays in constructing conversational coherence. A social approach to invention recognizes the importance of a tradition or community of practices history. First, it recognizes that practitioners exist within an evolving tradition or community of practice and that the wisdom from the past, as reected by its Discourses, is a resource to be used in the present. Second, invention directs our attention to the historicity of the conversational moment, such as the broader social and cultural contexts of our conversations, the relational history among speakers, and the history of the conversation as it unfolds in the present situation (Duck, 2002). Practitioners must orchestrate these various elementsa tradition or a community of practices history, the cultural and relational histories, and the history of the conversationinto a coherent unity within their conversation if they are to respond intelligently to the unique particulars of the situation. The task for a practitioner is to maintain a productive tension among ones moralaesthetic commitments, utterances, and context. Emphasizing one relationship, such as the moralaesthetic and utterance, at the expense of another, such as the
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utterance and context, creates challenges for acting with sensibility. Take the following excerpt drawn from narrative therapy, an approach that is committed to help clients create stories of their experience that are rich enough to enable them to move into the future. A number of practices have evolved in narrative therapy to help clients enrich how they tell their stories. In the following example, the therapist uses a practice known as externalizing through naming where the problem a client experiences is restoried as an external entity that is having an effect on the client as opposed to something that is internal to the client or intrinsic.
Example #3 1 Robert: . uh . I still think a person, um . who feels good about himself 2 sometimes can overcome his problems. 3 Therapist: Well, it takes feeling really good about yourself to escape 4 immobilization. Immobilization is a powerful thing. And as you know, for 5 example, you havent let immobilization turn you into an agoraphobic . howd 6 you manage that? 7 Robert: I just dont think I . I never had a fear of going outside. 8 Therapist: Yeah, but immobilization can reduce someone to that. Youve just 9 pointed that out. And youre quite right. So how have you been able to not let 10 immobilization turn you into an agoraphobic? Im really curious about that. 11 Robert: I dont know. I think I like people . I dont know . I dont have an 12 answer. I think that when I was younger, I might. I dont know. I had a period of 13 not going to school, maybe, maybe, a fear of not doing well. But I dont think . 14 Therapist: No, no, no. 15 Robert: Being successful at school. 16 Therapist: Thats different. So what Im curious about is . I think youre quite 17 right when you said a moment ago that, um, you have to have enough self-esteem, 18 you know to not let immobilization turn you into an agoraphobic. So what is it 19 about yourself that youre able to notice? Let me ask it this way . 20 Robert: Yeah, yeah, Im not going to answer it. 21 Therapist: What do you think it tells me about you? When I see you havent let 22 immobilization turn you into an agoraphobic. What do you think that tells me 23 about you? (Payne, 2004, pp. 6364, originally from Zimmerman and Dickerson, 1993)

The Discourse of narrative therapy authorizes the therapist to use externalizing and he subsequently names the clients problem as immobilization. Although the Discourse of narrative therapy and the discourse of externalizing align, the therapists utterances do not connect with the emerging conversation as the client becomes confused over the direction the session is going (lines 7, 1113) and ultimately resists the therapists intervention (line 20). The therapist, despite the growing resistance of the client, continues to press on with the use of externalizing even after the clients resistance is clearly evident (lines 2123) perhaps because this technique worked well in the past. We could say the therapist is engaging in habitual performance that negates the contribution of
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the client and frustrates the ability of the therapist and client to engage in mutual learning. The therapist fails to invent a response that manages the opportunities and constraints afforded by the Discourse of narrative practice and the context. In contrast, when a living unity among the moralaesthetic commitments, conversational utterances, and context is created, a performance that is characterized by heedful interrelating and affirmative meaning making occurs. Compare the following example with the immediately preceding one.
Example #4 1 Boscolo: How is the communication with your daughters? 2 Mother: Well lately there is no communication. 3 Boscolo: Between you and them or between them? 4 Mother: Well, mainly between us and the children. 5 Boscolo: How is the communication between them? How do they communicate? 6 Mother: Well, these two, they communicate okay, but Diane and Lisa ght a 7 great deal. 8 Boscolo: And how about Dori? 9 Mother: Oh, they have their little sisterly ghts, but its nothing that serious. I 10 think its normal. 11 Boscolo: But would you say that the girls communicate between better than you 12 communicate with your husband? 13 Mother: Oh, definitely. 14 Boscolo: Who communicates better with the daughters, you or your husband? 15 Mother: I dont think . I cant communicate because they wont communicate 16 and he doesnt talk to them, so I would say, if anything I try, I try to get through 17 to them. (Boscolo, Cecchin, Hoffman, & Penn, 1987, pp. 113114)

In this example, Luigi Boscolo, the therapist, is one of the originators of Milan systemic family therapy. Grounded in the work of Bateson (1972), Milan systemic family therapy contends that to understand how a human system operates in the way it does and how it may change over time, it becomes important to focus on the pattern that connects members of a human system through their reciprocal feedback to each other. The moralaesthetic commitment of creating connections within a familys system of meaning and action has generated a number of practices, including circular questioning that uses a Socratic method of inquiry to elicit from the family statements of differences about the relationships, and to introduce statements of difference back into the family. Unlike Example #3, the conversation affirms the contributions made by the mother as the questions Boscolo asks connect with and build on the mothers previous response. A pattern of heedful relating is created as each question is modified by the preceding answer and each question introduces a new difference into the conversation. Boscolo is able to maintain a living unity between the Discourse (the moralaesthetic commitment of making connection) of

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systemic therapy, his situated discourse (the use of circular questions) in the session, and the context in a way that the therapist in Example #3 could not.
Sensibility highlights situated judgment and insight Acting with sensibility has a phronetic quality that focuses our attention on the contingent, vague, and indeterminate aspects of human life. Aristotle distinguishes phronesis from techne saying: Techne then is the kind of knowledge possessed by an expert maker; it gives him a clear conception of the why and wherefore, the how and with what of the making process and enables him, through the capacity to offer a rational account of it, to preside over his activity with secure mastery (Dunne, 1997, p. 9). The notion of techne resonates well with the notion of highly structured and scripted methods where the expert maker, in this instance a practitioner, has a clear idea of the problem to be solved and knows how to preside over it. In contrast, phronesis is the kind of practical reasoning engaged in by an excellent practitioner lodged in a community of practitioners who through experiential learning and for the sake of good practice continually lives out and improves practice (Benner, 2000, p. 9). Phronesis is a form of practical reasoning that involves reflexivity between principles and particulars. Unlike techne, where practical moral universals are applied to cases, with phronesis, practical moral universals are viewed as indeterminate, and where the interaction between practicalmoral universals and the particulars of a case enrich one another, there is a negotiation between the case and the principle that allows both to gain in clarity (Jasinski, 2001, p. 463). Although practitioners may orient themselves within emerging situations by employing a set of moralaesthetic commitments reflected in Discourses, their practice is never a straightforward application of rules to determine what they should do. Rather, as Burnham (1992) points out, practitioners continuously tack back and forth between the approach they use to orient themselves toward actions and the specic tools they use. Phronesis also involves perceiving and interpreting the whole system. Dunne (1997) uses the term phronetic insight to capture the process of perception in practical situations. Noel (1999) citing Reeve (1992) says: He [the phronimos] has the practical perception needed to determine what type of circumstances he is in and what type of action he is actually doing (p. 97). This practical perception must include, by the necessity of everyday life, the recognition of the multiple types of things that we have to consider within a situation (p. 280). Dunne points out that phronesis involves acts of insights into particulars, and we need to focus on them at the point of their emergence, at the moment of their novelty, prior to their assimilation in the habitual pattern of experience (p. 295). What this suggests is that phronetic insight entails recognizing the novelty of the situation, and viewing it systemicallyseeing the multiplicity of particulars that characterize it and how they are connected. A good example of the way phronesis connects Discourse, discourse, and context can be found in an example drawn from systemic management practice. Systemic
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management is an approach that draws from systems and social constructionist theory and emphasizes the moralaesthetic commitment of affirmation (Barge, 2007). The commitment to afrmation entails that managers should value the experiences, contributions, and perspectives of the people they work with. Consider the following account from a systemically trained manager whose senior-level manager had decided to take a position in another department within the organization but wanted to stay on until the turmoil with the present department was sorted. How can I tell this man that his generous offer is not going to be helpful without negatively connoting him and further disempowering him through what was left of his stay? . I found that this format of questioning rescued him from the potential chaos of overwhelming information and enabled him to make decisions and act. The following are some of the questions I asked: Who would miss you most if you left? What differences will there be after you leave? Who would be the least/most likely to gain from your staying? Which people in your new team are most/least likely to be upset if you delay arriving? The manager began to see more clearly his position in the organization and with it the responsibilities he needed to exercise (i.e., I should not create extra anxiety for those who live and work in the unit by being unable to fix a leaving date). He began to consider future possibilities as opposed to present restrictions (how can I leave with the unit in such turmoil). He began to see that the unit turmoil was to some extent mirrored by his own position and that future uncertainty (even if it was his leaving) was likely to create more stability than the present confusion. (Barge, 2004, p. 120) The particulars of the situation included a unit in turmoil, a fragile and stressed senior-level manager, and a lower-level manager who decided it was important to broach this issue. The manager reasoned that a strategy of telling the senior-level manager would not be helpful because it would negatively connote his decision and disempower him, which goes against the moralaesthetic commitment of affirmation. As a result, he decided to ask questions that prompted the senior-level manager to work through the consequences of his decision. The act of asking questions does not directly challenge the senior-level managers perspective; instead, it preserves his sense of agency by placing him in a reflective position to determine whether this is the best decision possible for him and his fellow employees. The manager engaged in practical reasoning that connected the principle of affirmation to the particulars of the situationa manager and unit in turmoiland created a response in the form of series of questions that simultaneously met the demands of the Discourse and context.
Holding ones tools lightly and deconstruction A key challenge for practitioners as they act with sensibility is how to integrate diverse tools, in the form of methods or techniques, within their practice that come from differing traditions or communities of practice. Such integration can be
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challenging because the form of a method or technique carries with it a type of agency that is separate from the practitioner and its performance. If we think of methods or techniques as texts that exist within Discourses and are associated with strong stories concerning their use, then methods and techniques have agency. Campbell (2006) contends that textual agency is linked to audiences and begins with the signals that guide the process of uptake for readers or listeners enabling them to understand how a symbolic act is framed (Campbell, 2005, p. 7). For example, one of the authors of this article conducted a training session on conict management with a top management team of a city government. Though the author adopted a social constructionist commitment to working with the team that emphasized recognizing the way language creates our social worlds, he introduced a personality test during the session that measured the conict management style of each team member. The use of this personality test triggered a discussion among team members on how each team member possessed a given style that was stable and unchanging instead of a discussion that explored how different forms of communicative practice create and sustain conict. The textual agency of psychological tests signals to people that they should focus on the individual personality characteristics that inform a persons conict management style and that the performance of these styles will not vary according to context. The textual agency associated with psychological tests, with its strong emphasis on the individual and decontextualized practice, overwhelmed the authors attempt to reframe it and use it as a springboard for discussion regarding the way communication creates and sustains conict. Although it may be tempting for practitioners to limit their repertoire of methods and techniques to only those that originate within a specific tradition or community of practice, such a choice neglects the richness of resources from other traditions and communities that can enliven, elaborate, and enlarge ones practice. The challenge is to integrate differing methods and techniques in ways that connect with ones tradition or community of practice as well as the emerging conversation. When we view practitioners as bricoleurs who creatively weave together differing resources and improvise their responses to situations, the question becomes what practices allow them to engage in such creative weaving and improvisation. As a starting point, we would suggest that the practices of holding ones tools lightly and deconstruction may provide practitioners two important resources to engage in bricolage. First, practitioners may need to hold their tools lightly as they work (Lowe, 2005; Smith 2004). Weick (1993) observes that individuals derive their identity, in part, through the tools they pick up and use in their practice. The challenge is to nd ways to pick up and use tools in ways that sustain and elaborate their identity as a practitioner. In some situations, this is a relatively simple process as practitioners may borrow and use tools from traditions and communities of practice that share a family resemblance. We use the term family resemblance in a Wittgensteinian (1953) fashion to refer to those traditions and communities of practice that share similar epistemological, ontological, and axiological commitments but simultaneously may be distinguished by the kinds of tools that they have developed for use.
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As a case in point, there is a large body of work focusing on patientprovider relationships within health and medical contexts. The practice of relationshipcentered care emphasizes entering into the lifeworld of the patient, understanding the patients experience, and treating the patient as a person. Within relationshipcentered care, there are many different practice models, including the biopsychosocial (Frankel, Quill, & McDaniel, 2003), mindful practice (Epstein, 2003a, 2003b), and social poetics (Katz & Shotter, 1996). Although each shares a commitment to the importance of creating a context where patients can fully express their desires and concerns, mindful practice and social poetic models make a commitment to the importance of reective practice in a way that biopsychosocial models typically do not. Nevertheless, when tools originate in traditions or communities of practice that share a family resemblance, it is relatively easy to find ways to employ them that connect with ones practice and the emerging situation. For example, a common technique associated with the biopsychosocial model is for doctors (D) to ask about a patients (P) family and social context in order to establish rapport. Consider the following example:
Example #5 1 P: ((knock at door)) Come in. 2 D: Hi Mister Jones. 3 P: Hi. 4 D: ((walks in and close door)) Im Doctor Smith. Its very nice to meet you. 5 P: How ydoing? 6 D: How are ya? I understand you had a grand tour of the Downtown Clinic 7 before you got here. ((doctor laughs)) 8 P: Unfortunately I shouldve asked the shuttle driver exactly where I wanted to 9 go and there was a lady standin, waitin for the shuttle and I said I wanna go to the 10 E building but she said take the A shuttle, well that gave me the grand tour n 11 finally I got off. 12 D: ((doctor laughs)) 13 P: And a, the lady said well, you need to take, de bus driver said you should be 14 on the B. So then I had to wait twenty minutes to get the B cuz I was her about, oh 15 ten after nine. It jus, what can I say. First time I been here. 16 D: If nothing else it was exciting. 17 P: Hey, I got to see the McDonald house and all that. 18 D: Oh did ye? (adapted from Manning & Ray, 2002, pp. 456457)

In line 6, the doctor inquires into the way that the patient got to the clinic and in lines 12 and 16 expresses empathy with the patients experience on the shuttle. The expression of pleasantry is intended to create rapport between the doctor and the patient. There are many other moves that a doctor can make besides inquiring into the patients family and social context to establish rapport and build the relationship.
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For example, there are techniques and methods such as being curious and paying attention to striking moments that can be drawn from mindful practice and social poetic models that could be woven into the fabric of the conversation given their shared moralaesthetic commitment to relationship-centered care. This shared commitment makes it relatively easy for practitioners operating from a biopsychosocial approach to make situated judgments about when and where techniques and methods from mindful practice and social poetic models can be integrated to respond appropriately to the uniqueness of the situation. Practitioners may also find methods and techniques from radically different traditions or communities of practice useful. However, large differences in epistemological, ontological, and axiological assumptions may inhibit the wholesale picking up of tools and using them as is in ways that fit the situation. Burnham (1992) argues that it is not necessary to jettison, wholesale, techniques that come from different traditions or communities of practice. Rather, he suggests that practitioners deconstruct techniques into their component parts, which allows the practitioner to distinguish those parts that are coherent with ones practice and those that are not. The use of deconstruction moves the practitioner from an eitheror logic where certain methods and techniques are determined a priori as being coherent with a particular tradition or community of practice to a bothand position where the critical issue becomes how practitioners can deconstruct methods and techniques from differing traditions and communities of practices and connect them with their practice in coherent ways. Yeungs (1998) study of consultative management within Hong Kong banks is instructive in this regard. According to Yeung, Chinese managers practice a kind of didactic leadership where they are viewed as experts by subordinates and directives are readily accepted. In a system that values hierarchical forms of leadership, how can consultative practice with its emphasis on employee participation t within hierarchical leadership practice? Yeungs analysis suggests that these competing values hierarchical versus egalitarian relationshipsare managed by supervisors tightly regulating the participation of their subordinates. Consider the following example:
Example #6 1 Supervisor: Look! How about this? Is it a good idea? Well get Carson to act as 2 a back-up. Do you think itll work or not? 3 Staff 1: Hell spend less time working in the front ofce? 4 Staff 2: Well, perhaps it [the ofce] hasnt been renovated yet. Once its been 5 renovated, whoever is manning the counter outside and serving a queue can buzz 6 a light [to get extra help]. Otherwise it wont do if those people come to the 7 counter and you refuse them service. 8 Supervisor: Why not simply do this then, if you think its urgent. Naturally you 9 dont do whats not urgent. If those things are urgent, then its better to give them 10 to Carson. 11 Staff 1: That is to say: You people do immediately what you can do. 12 Supervisor: Because for the time being, Carson is still new. If . Im afraid that
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13 he may get confused sometimes and the chance for making mistakes will be 14 greater. But if we give him internal jobs like checking bills, it may be better for 15 him. That way, it wouldnt matter that much even if [something did go wrong], as 16 its something internal. 17 Staff 1: Itd be better if you let me make the arrangements because . (reasons omitted). 18 Supervisor: Ok then, OK. (Yeung, 1998, pp. 9395)

The supervisor regulates the participation of the staff by introducing the episode with a bipolar question (line 2, Do you think itll [Carson as a backup] work or not?), which tightly frames the topic to be discussed. The supervisor then continues to regulate the participation of the subordinates by incorporating the subordinates suggestion into another proposal (lines 810) and then returning to her initial proposal that Carson be a backup (lines 1115). The staff members have a voice but the decision-making process is clearly in the hands of the supervisor. The supervisor has created a bothand position where she incorporates elements of consultative decision-making process within a hierarchical expertise-based practice.

Discussion

Our purpose has been to explore one way that studies of practice might better account for the way practitioners intelligently respond to evolving situations while sustaining coherence in their linguistic activity. A discursive approach offers a promising alternative because it accounts for how the wisdom and resources constituting a tradition or community of practice can be appropriated and used within living conversations. We suggest that the concept of sensibility is useful for understanding how practitioners respond intelligently to situations and maintain coherence within and between conversational episodes. We propose exploring how practitioners act with sensibility is best approached by examining the interrelationships among (a) moralaesthetic commitments; (b) conversational abilities in the form of utterances, methods, and techniques; (c) practical reasoning and the process of invention; and (d) context. A discursive approach to skillful activity highlights several opportunities for future theorizing and research. First, sensibility provides a useful framework for exploring how one of the most central ideas that inform our understanding of communication, the co-construction of meaning, is a situated and dynamic activity. Sensibility foregrounds the importance of meaning making from within the flow of human conduct and provides a more processual, interaction-based approach that highlights the role of situated action in constituting skillful practice. It provides a method for inquiring directly into the communicative enactment of skillful activity within situated conversational moments that unfold dynamically over time. Sensibility differs from other approaches to skillful activity as it directly addresses the

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micromacro duality regarding the reflexive relationship between patterns of localized talk and larger social, organizational, or cultural structures. A central issue within communication theory has been how to address the connection between the microdetail of daily communication and more macroelements such as institutional structures (see Giddens, 1984, as an example). A growing number of communication theorists see the micro and the macro coming together in the act of communicating. For example, Taylor and his associates within the Montreal School argue that communication occurs in the intersection of conversation and text (i.e., Taylor, 1999; Taylor & Van Every, 2000). Conversation refers to interaction through talk and gestures, which is associated with the unique details of the situation, including time, place, the particular people involved, and the task at hand. Text refers to the linguistic scaffolding that exists apart from and transcends the local conversation and circulates among members of a human system. Texts rely on typications or conventional meaning assignments, which allows them to be iterated in different situations. Taylor (1999) suggests that a texts iterability makes its transcendence possible because it has a capacity to lead an existence independent of the transactional matrix where it was conversationally producedits iterability.No matter how often you play Hamlet it is still the same old play about a gloomy Dane (pp. 2930). The challenge for communication theorists is to develop analyses that reflect situated reflexive descriptions of human activity that capture the ways texts are translated into local conversational contexts and used as well as the way that conversations turn back and influence texts. Most approaches to skillful activity neglect the way texts can inform conversations and also do not give attention to how conversational performance can influence the maintenance and elaboration of texts. To be sure, many psychological approaches pay close attention to the importance of context as they recognize that skills assessment depends on clearly specifying the context in terms of its content (affective, cognitive, behavioral) as well as the specific culture, relationship, situation, or function of interest (Spitzberg, 2003). A set of microbehaviors or behavioral dimensions can be identied that serve as markers to indicate whether the skill is evidenced in practice once the context has been determined. However, asserting that a persons conversational utterances are contextually appropriate is quite different than saying a person draws on a repertoire of texts during conversation to create contextually appropriate utterances. The former treats context as a static frame that guides peoples assessments of the appropriateness of communicative behavior, whereas the latter recognizes that conversational ow is dynamic, characterized by shifts in the situation, which requires the adaptation and translation of the resources that texts provide into the present conversational moment. One contribution that sensibility makes to the study of skillful activity is its ability to create situated and dynamic analyses that address directly the intersection of the micro and the macro due to its emphasis on D/discourse. Working with sensibility gives theorists and researchers the opportunity to create highly situated descriptions of skillful activity by exploring the reflexive relationships between
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Discourses and discourses. By focusing on issues related to practical reasoning and invention, we can explore how skillful activity mobilizes Discourses as resources for action in discourse. Theorists and researchers can develop empirical analyses that represent the variety of skillful activity within practice as they create accounts of how Discourses are appropriated and translated in differing ways to local circumstances to invent responses to unfolding situations. Moreover, we can begin to see, over time, how discourse creates, sustains, and elaborates Discourses that inform an individuals practice. The framework of moralaesthetic commitments, conversation, and situation also gives researchers the opportunity to track the temporal dynamic patterns of skillful activity. The dominant models for assessing skillful activity diminish the temporal flow of conversation by creating judgments of whether skill is being demonstrated based on the frequency of behavior, whether particular types of behavior are present or absent from the conversation, or whether observers rate the individuals global behavior as competent using an a prior set of evaluative dimensions (Spitzberg, 2003; see also Guerrero & Jones, 2005, as an example). From a discursive perspective, however, skillful activity needs to take into account the temporal avor of skillful action and the continually unfolding context. A discursive approach suggests that it is not only important to ask what moves people make during conversational episodes and how often but also when they are making them. As Sanders (2003) observes, the meaning of any act depends on its location within the unfolding chain of utterances, which spotlights the importance of timing and sequence in the production of skillful activity. Rather than focus on the aggregated performance of discrete individual acts, sensibility focuses our attention on how conversational utterances connect with each other and unfold over time, which moves us to make judgments as to whether the placement of particular utterances within the conversational pattern are skillfully performed. Similar to jazz improvisation, an individuals ability to engage in skillful activity can be assessed by determining the degree to which conversational moves simultaneously follow what has transpired previously and enable others to follow and facilitate forward movement in the meaning-making process. This suggests that future research needs to pay close attention to the way individuals create and sustain coherence within conversation. A great deal of work has been done on understanding how coherence is created through such devices as aligning moves, rhetorical devices, adjacency pairs, and connective triggers (see Cunliffe, 2001; Poole & Doelger, 1986; Stacey, 2001), and future studies of skillful performance need to place greater emphasis on how coherence devices are used to manage and create generative differences in meaning making. Moreover, given that language not only creates text but also context, it is also important for future research to explore how practice facilitates individuals creating a sense of coherence between text and context. Language works at several levels simultaneously, such as communicating an utterance as well as creating context (Branham & Peace, 1985). Our analyses of skillful activity need to better account for how text and context mutually inuence each other and jointly
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unfold over time as well as how language is used to establish a moral order or to frame situations in order to position ones conversational behavior as legitimate (Holman, 2000; Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996). Second, the notion of sensibility focuses our attention on skillful activity as a reflexive moral practice that emphasizes values as the basis for judging the quality of practice both at an individual and at a relational or systemic level. An often overlooked element of skillful practice is its ethical and moral basis (Wilson & Sabee, 2003). This is surprising as Pratt, Rockmann, and Kaufman (2006) observe that practitioners professional identity is often dened by what he or she does which means that the practitioners professional identity, in terms of the values he or she identies within particular traditions or communities of practice, are interwoven with the practice. Whitehead and McNiff (2006) contend that persons are motivated to adapt and elaborate their practice when they experience a disconnection between the values informing their practice and the way they are lived out in their patterns of communication with others. Simply, they experience a disruption in their professional identity, which triggers an exploration into ways they may improve their practice. They suggest that values can be used as living standards of judgment that allow practitioners to make judgments about the quality of their practice: Criteria and standards of judgement are different things. Criteria take the form of words and phrases that are used as markers of performance .. Such criteria, however say little about the quality of practice, that is, what is good about the practice .. Making judgments about the quality of practice means making value judgements, in terms of what you find valuable in the practice. Value judgements then become standards of judgement. You judge things in terms of what you think is good. (p. 71) The idea of standards of judgment being rooted in values represents an important shift in the way that skillful activity is assessed; it cannot be reduced to the absence or presence of a behavior using tick boxes or the degree of intensity using scales; it has to be judged in part according to the way it reflects, contradicts, or elaborates the values that inform an individuals practice. The idea of value-based practice resonates with our articulation of the importance of moralaesthetic commitments as they reflect the kinds of values that inform how practitioners work with people and what they consider to be beautiful, good, and elegant practice. This suggests that research into skillful activity should employ an individual level of analysis and pay close attention to self-reflexivity. The current literature on skillful activity certainly highlights the importance of self-awareness, reflection, and metacognition on the production of skillful activity. However, the notion of sensibility foregrounds an awareness of ones moralaesthetic commitments or values as they relate to the performance of skillful activity. Practice becomes seen as thoughtful . engagement, and not simply the execution of skills (Whitehead & McNiff, 2006, p. 83).

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This is not to say that skillful activity is solely an individual process that depends on practitioners remaining true to their moralaesthetic commitments at all costs. The notion of sensibility decenters skillful activity as an individual process and emphasizes its systemic qualities. Skillful activity is embedded in the living, relationally responsive activity that occurs between people and it emphasizes embodied relational ways of being that integrate modes of feeling, thinking, and doing. What also becomes important in the study of skilled activity is how practitioners connect to and coordinate action from within the flow of activity with others. Creating and sustaining skillful practice can be challenging as individuals enter situations with different sets of understandings, rules for meaning and action, and moral orders that guide their patterns of living, which makes the co-construction of skilled practice a negotiated and contested process. The task therefore for practitioners is to create jointly with the people with whom they are working collective moral orders in such a way as to facilitate patterns of coordination that generate affirmative meaning making. Studies of skillful practice must also emphasize relational reflexivity, an understanding of how we create ourselves and others in conversation as well as the overall shape of the relationship by using systemic or relational levels of analysis. A systemic or relational analytical focus centers on assessing the fit of a practitioners utterances within an emerging system jointly created by practitioners and those individuals with whom they work. One way to characterize the way a practitioners actions fit with the emerging system is provided by Harriss (1979) model of communication competence. She talks about the notion of minimal competence as being outside the system, one cannot nd a way to perceive the human system as a whole, and is therefore unable to predict what effect his or her action will have on the system. Satisfactory competence occurs when an individual is able to make sense of the unfolding logic of the human system. This is similar to Pearces (2007) notion of game playing where one chooses to t within the emerging system and practice within it. Optimal competence occurs when the person has a strong grasp of the unfolding system and can choose whether to t in or change the game. In Pearces (2007) terms, satisfactory competence is about game playing, when the rules of the game are relatively stable and xed. Optimal competence, in contrast, is about game mastery where one is able to name the game and invoke different ways of relating and connecting. From our perspective, skillful activity would be associated with patterns of coordination that reect satisfactory and optimal levels of competence. Third, the notion of sensibility provides a workable framework for practitioners to reflect on their practice and construct their own living practical theories. The notion of sensibility not only provides a framework for academic scholars to theorize and analyze skillful practice but also provides a framework for practitioners to develop their own practical theories of practice. One of the fundamental questions for practitioners is: How do I improve my practice? In order to answer this question, McNiff and Whitehead (2006) suggest that practitioners need:

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to investigate and evaluate their work. They ask, What am I doing? What do I need to improve? How do I improve it? Their accounts of practice show how they are trying to improve their own learning, and influence the learning of others. These accounts come to stand as their own practical theories of practice, from which others can learn if they wish. (p. 7) Practitioners stories of their practice become their own living practical theories that help them to make sense of their own professional lives and to determine what kinds of practices fit with their professional lives (McNiff, 2007). The framework provided by sensibility provides one possible model for practitioners to engage in self-study action research where they can reect on the moral-aesthetic commitments that inform their practice, the various conversational techniques and methods that they use, the contexts in which they show their practice, and how the aforementioned elements cohere with each other. McNiff and Whiteheads (McNiff, Lomax, & Whitehead, 2003; McNiff & Whitehead, 2006) ongoing program of research suggests that we need to nd a way to give value to practitioners knowledge and to develop models that allow practitioners to engage in self-study action research. The use of the sensibility framework for helping practitioners develop their practice suggests an opportunity for expanding our conceptions of practical theory. Within the communication discipline, the idea of practical theory has gained a strong foothold over the past few years and is often associated with either Craigs (1999; Craig & Tracy, 1995) grounded practical theory or Cronens (1995, 2001) notion of practical theory. For Craig, practical theory involves a normative reconstruction of practice, whereas Cronen views practical theory as a set of tools, in the form of concepts and models, for furthering inquiry. For example, Tracy and Mueller (2001) used grounded practical theory to reconstruct the normative practice of school board meetings. Drawing on Cronen, Pearce and Pearce (2000) demonstrated how the tools associated with coordinated management of meaning theory have evolved over the years as the theory has been applied in different settings. If we begin to think about developing living practical theories of communicative practice, Craigs approach is challenged to consider the role of rst-person practical theory in his account, whereas Cronen is faced with addressing how values may be used to create living standards to evaluate the quality of practice and its development and progression. Giving attention to the dynamic interrelationships among moralaesthetic commitments, conversational abilities, practical reasoning, and context enables practitioners to act with sensibility. Living situations can only be managed by processes that themselves are living, and acting with sensibility facilitates practitioners ability to respond to the unique circumstances of living situations. As communication theorists and researchers, adopting a discursive approach to skillful practice rooted in sensibility facilitates our ability to engage with the connections among the situated and temporal elements involved with the co-construction of meaning and provides a position from which to evaluate the quality of reflexive moral practice.
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Acknowledgments

Portions of this paper were presented at the annual meetings of the National Communication Association, Miami, 2003, and Chicago, 2007. We thank Joel Iverson, Jennifer Monahan, John Murphy, John Sloop, Chris Oliver, and Barnett Pearce for their feedback, comments, and encouragement while this article was being prepared.
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Une approche discursive pour l'tude d'une activit habile J. Kevin Barge Texas A & M University

Martin Little Kensington Consultation Centre Foundation

Rsum Nous proposons une approche discursive pour l'exploration de la manire dont les praticiens ragissent intelligemment et crent un sens de cohrence dans leurs pratiques linguistiques. Une approche discursive pour l'tude de l'activit habile est en mesure de tenir compte du rle de la construction de sens dans la conversation, d'aborder la faon dont la communication construit le contexte dont origine l'activit habile ainsi que de reconnatre la nature coconstruite de la pratique habile. Nous expliquons l'exercice linguistique habile des praticiens agissant avec sensibilit en portant une attention particulire aux relations rflexives entre : a) les engagements moraux-esthtiques, b) les capacits conversationnelles sous forme d'noncs, de mthodes et de techniques, c) le raisonnement pratique et le processus d'invention et d) le contexte. Nous concluons en explorant les implications d'une approche discursive pour la construction de sens et d'identit ainsi que pour la gestion des tensions qui mergent de diffrentes traditions ou communauts de pratiques.

Ein diskursiver Ansatz kundigen Handelns

J. Kevin Barge Texas A & M University

Martin Little Kensington Consultation Centre Foundation

Fr die Erforschung, wie Praktiker intelligent reagieren und einen Sinn von Kohrenz in der linguistischen Praxis kreieren, schlagen wir einen diskursiven Ansatz vor. Ein diskursiver Ansatz kundigen Handelns macht es mglich, die Rolle von Bedeutungsfindung in Gesprchen zu erklren, auerdem anzusprechen, wie Kommunikation den Kontext bestimmt aus dem kundiges Handeln hervorgeht und gleichzeitig die fachkundige Praxis bercksichtigt. Wir bieten eine Darstellung von kundigem linguistischen Verhalten, welches sensibel agierende Praktiker betrifft, wenn sie ihre Aufmerksamkeit auf die reflexiven Beziehungen lenken zwischen: (a) moral-sthetische Verpflichtungen; (b) dialogorientierte Fhigkeiten in Form von uerungen, Methoden und Techniken; (c) praktische Argumentation und den Prozess der Erfindung; und (d) Kontext. Wir schlieen, indem wir die Implikationen eines diskursiven Ansatzes fr die Bedeutungskonstruktion, Identittskonstruktion und dem Umgang mit Spannungen, die aus verschiedenen Traditionen oder Praxisgemeinschaften entstehen, untersuchen.

Un Enfoque Discursivo de la Actividad Habilidosa J. Kevin Barge Texas A & M University

Martin Little Kensington Consultation Centre Foundation

Resumen Proponemos un enfoque discursivo para explorar cmo los profesionales responden inteligentemente y crean un sentido de coherencia en su prctica lingstica. Una aproximacin discursiva de la actividad habilidosa es capaz de explicar el rol de la construccin de sentido en la conversacin, de explicar cmo la comunicacin construye el contexto donde la actividad habilidosa se origina, y reconoce el sabor co-creado de la prctica habilidosa. Ofrecemos una explicacin del desempeo lingstico habilidoso que genera inters por parte de los profesionales para actuar con sensibilidad prestando atencin a las relaciones reflexivas entre: (a) los compromisos morales-estticos; (b) las habilidades conversacionales en la forma de palabras, mtodos, y tcnicas; (c) el razonamiento prctico y el proceso de invencin; y (d) el contexto. Concluimos con una exploracin de las implicaciones del enfoque discursivo sobre la construccin de sentido, la construccin de la identidad, y el manejo de las tensiones que emergen de tradiciones diferentes de comunidades de prctica.

J. Kevin Barge

Martin Little Kensington Consultation Centre Foundation

(a) -(b) (c) (d)

J. Kevin Barge Texas A & M University

Martin Little Kensington Consultation Centre Foundation

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