Introducing situations cleanly

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In Systems Thinking in Practice, we tend to refer to the ‘object’ of our inquiries as ‘situations’.  There are variations on this term such as problematic situations, situations of interest or situations of concern which I have discussed in previous posts such as the ones in this search result.

In everyday situations, we tend to introduce situations with quite a long explanation.  We often talk about how we think the situation came about, what the impact is and so on.  We may even force a certain framing on the situation through phrases like “by saying x I mean y angle, not really z”.  The difficulty I experience when people do this is it can be hard to really understand the focal point of their concern because they are bringing in lots of different angles.  I also think that the person themself may not actually have got to the point where they have actually distilled the focal point of their concern.  When this way of introducing situations is done, it also mixes up the introduction with the start of an analysis or understanding of the situation – an understanding that may have come about without using systems concepts and approaches as epistemic devices.

One OU module (TB871) provides a suggestion for naming situations with a simple sentence starting with ‘current concerns about…..’  When I studied STiP, I found this a really useful way of doing it.  For example ‘current concerns about introducing situations’. Now this isn’t without it’s problems. Firstly,  The term ‘concern’ tends to prompt people to think in terms of something that is worrying, it could of course be an opportunity or something that provokes excitement.  When this is raised, I turn to alternative definitions that dictionaries have for the word concern – it can simply mean a matter that is of interest.  For that reason, it would be okay to swap in the word interest – “current interest in…..”  Secondly, the term ‘current’ tends to make people think about something that is fleeting and temporary but a lot of situations seem much more long term – something that may require attention for much longer term.  For that reason I sometimes say “enduring concerns about…..”.  For example, “enduring concerns about my systems thinking in practice capabilities”

To date, I have advocated the simple sentence approach because it succinctly conveys what you are talking about.  Simply saying “current concerns about…..(e.g.)..the quality of inter-departmental working” helps a listener or reader know what you are focussing on in very few words.  (This is great for assignments with tough word limits!).  If further elaboration is needed, then I would use systems concepts and ideas to help me to do that.   For example, giving some information about its characteristics and explaining why I experience it as ‘a mess’ or ‘a wicked problem’. In short, why the situation invites us to think systemically.

But recently, I had a penny dropping moment about why I see this as so important.  It is less to do with succinctness and tough word limits and more to do with cleanness (or should that be cleanliness?).

I draw the word ‘clean’ from the counselling technique referred to as clean language or clean questioning.  A good overview is given on wikipedia, but there are many other relevant blogs and even a book.  The wikiepedia article includes the following helpful explanation:

“Clean language questions seek to minimise content that comes from the questioner’s “maps” — metaphors, assumptions, paradigms or sensations — that could direct the questionee’s attention away from increased awareness of his or her own (metaphorical) representation of experience thereby “diminishing their epistemological nature”.[3]

“Clean language offers a template for questions that are as free as possible of the facilitator’s suggestions, presuppositions, mind-reading, second guessing, references and metaphors.”


If I am inviting others to offer their perspectives on a situation or inviting them to engage in a co-inquiry, I need to do so in a way that minimises my own presuppositions and invites perspectives that could be different to my own.  If I provide a long explanation (eek I am doing that now), then I impose my understandings and potentially limit the frame that others have.  In turn this means, I get less opportunity to truly engage with different perspectives and this will limit my learning in, and about, the situation.

But this also applies if I am working alone.  In setting up the starting conditions for a systemic inquiry, I think it would be helpful to put aside all the analysis and understanding I may have previously developed so that exploring the situation using systems as devices can be as fruitful as possible.

Share what you think...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.