Making Better Social Worlds: Reviews

Sheila McNamee, Professor of Communication, University of New Hampshire & Vice-President, Taos Institute.

Making Better Social Worlds by Penman and Jensen is probably the most important book of our era!  While not a self-help book, it will undoubtedly become the operating manual for 21st Century life in our complex, diverse global world.  Drawing on the work of Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen, Penman and Jensen help us understand how our dominant focus on self-interest, self-wealth, and self-governance has created a world where we are constantly pitted against each other.  This “us vs them” way of thinking and acting encourages competition which, ultimately opens the door to oppression. This dismal view of the present in which we live and, by extension, of our future, is replaced with a focus on how communication creates our worlds. Penman and Jensen point out, by being attuned to the ways in which we communicate with each other and by recognizing that we need each other to co-create the worlds we want to live in, we begin to carefully examine what our coordinated activities with others make possible.  They pose questions that assist us in imagining how we might invite ourselves and others into a world that is orchestrated around relationships rather than self-contained individuals.  They provide useful resources for “acting wisely” into critical moments.  Following Pearce  and Cronen, the authors message is strong and powerful:  if we pay closer attention to how we communicate and to the power of our processes of communication in constructing the world in which we live, we can, in fact, make better social worlds!


Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, PhD, Director Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Professor Emeritus University of Wisconsin-Parkside

Barnett Pearce invited us all to make better social worlds. Penman and Jensen show us how to begin—how to cross the wide gap between wanting to make a better social world and actually beginning to do so. CMM was always intended to be a “practical theory”; this book makes dense concepts and technical vocabulary accessible, so more people will be better able to use the theory. The conclusion briefly presents examples applying the tools introduced in earlier chapters, showing what has already been accomplished.


Kimberly Pearce, Co-founder CMM Institute for Personal and Social Evolution

Making Better Social Worlds acknowledges the myriad local and global challenges we currently face, while at the same time showing us how we can rise to those challenges: by developing a quality of mind and utilizing the tools of CMM to act wisely into the complex worlds that we are (re)making in our stories and joint actions.  The book is clear, useful and written for anyone who wants to expand their horizons and develop practices for making better socials worlds.


John Stewart, Special Assistant to the President at the University of Dubuque, Iowa.

This is the clearest and most conversation-prompting treatment of CMM that I’ve read.  It pays suitable deference to Vern Cronen’s and especially Barnett Pearce’s decades of work, emphasizes the best distinctive features of this perspective—e.g., the importance of coordination, coherence, and mystery—and effectively resists the charge of utopianism by reviewing community-based applications of the theory in California, Arizona, Louisiana, Norway, and Romania.

In the final chapter, Penman and Jensen summarize their central claim:  “We believe that we create our social world in communicating and that the quality of that world is a function of the quality of the communication practices we use to bring it about “ (p. 72). In these 33 words, they point toward most of CMM’s most powerful insights:

  • that humans inhabit social worlds, not just natural ones;
  • that we construct these worlds together;
  • that we do this constructing in our everyday, verbal-nonverbal speaking-listening-writing-reading;
  • that a primary daily concern must be the quality of these worlds, and
  • that this vital concern directs our attention to our mundane and extraordinary communication practices, and how these can best be managed.

I’d relish conversing about each chapter with a group of upper-division undergraduates, grad students, or community members.


Mike Hemphill, Director for Academic Programming for the Clinton Foundation.

We live in a world where too often communication is viewed as something you do to someone else. As we seek more collaborative approaches to social change we should be grateful that two accomplished scholar-practitioners  like Penman & Jensen help us better understand what it means to “live in communication” as we pursue personal and social growth.  In Making Better Social Worlds, you will read no better introduction to the conceptual and practical foundations of the Coordinated Management of Meaning and will receive no better encouragement to change the way you approach human interaction.


Benjamin J. Broome, Professor, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University, USA

Although a lot of attention today is focused (rightly so) on how issues such as climate change and increasing wealth inequality will affect our future on the planet, an equally ominous trend is the assault on the communication processes that hold together the social worlds we inhabit. Living in a global society that is divided along political, religious, economic, and educational lines, stoked by both politicians and “the media”, we face an uncertain future, where qualities such as empathy, trust, compassion, and concern for others seem to be declining. This not only decreases the quality of life for everyone, it also means that we have difficulty findings ways to productively talk to one another and engage in collective action on tough issues such as climate change. This book challenges us to think about what kind of social world we want to live in, and it provides a proven way to move forward in creating it.

Drawing primarily on the work of communication pioneer and legend, Barnett Pearce, who developed the communication theory he termed “Coordinated Management of Meaning” or CMM, Penman and Jensen present the basic CMM concepts in ways that will appeal to anyone who wants to improve their communication and relationships. They show us that there is hope for creating better social worlds, and they provide us with tools to be more self-aware and reflexive and to expand our ability to engage in joint action. Importantly, they help us understand the nature and place of dialogue in dealing with differences in worldviews, perspectives, and cultural values. The authors challenge us to move beyond ethnocentric forms of interaction to a more cosmopolitan form of communicating that emphasizes mystery and moral obligations to making the world around us better. They encourage us to look for richness and flexibility in interpreting others’ actions, providing more options for moving past differences, and to engage in holistic listening that is based on empathy and emotional attunement skills. By developing new patterns of communication, we can build social worlds that allow us to go beyond the “us vs them” game that inevitably leads to an endless cycle of revenge and recriminations. Instead, we need to adopt an “we’re all in it together” mind-frame that leads to collaboration, coordination, and moving forward in tackling the issues that confront our planet.

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