Career practitioners as sense makers

Published in Australian Career Practitioner, Vol 26, Issue 2, Winter 2015, pp. 15-17

As a sense-making specialist of long-standing, it has been intriguing to observe the discovery by vocational psychologists of constructivist approaches and the inclusion of meaning making into the career development lexicon. The demands of unravelling the abstractions of much academic writing makes translating gems into practical applications challenging. From a private practitioner’s perspective (with a past academic career) my goal is to show how sense making is a core skill set for career development professionals and their clients.

The constructivist approach to narrative counselling

My extensive, though not exhaustive, reading of key Australian and American writers in the constructivism field – and here I risk comebacks of the ‘but what about …’ variety pointing to exceptions, gaps and oversights – leads me to several observations:

  • The bulk of the writing is from an individualistic, psychology perspective.
  • Little reference is made to relevant literature outside this field. [I]
  • Use of the terms constructivism and social constructionism is confusing.
  • A primary focus is on creating a personal, consistent, coherent story that holistically accounts for life and career, and enables career decisions and actions.
  • The career development practitioner as expert is downplayed. Practitioners are positioned as story co-author and caring editor.

The inclusion of systems theory positions a client within a broader context.

The practical how is still being explored.

The Professional Standards for Australian Career Development Practitioners point out that not all career development practitioners are career counsellors, plus those that are need to be able to demonstrate theoretically-driven career counselling practice. Story-focused, narrative career counselling may be the theory of choice for some practitioners. Certainly many practitioners, (myself included) do not primarily conduct life story career counselling, working as we do with clients who are time-poor, and seek services that meet specific needs.

Narrative counselling from a constructivism perspective does focus on creating meaning with clients. Sense making (or meaning making) is a fundamental skill for practitioners and one that is increasingly recognised as critical for clients. So what is it and how is it used in practice?

What is sense making?

I’ve been using a sense making framework for nearly three decades, based primarily on the social sciences, semiotics, discourse analysis, and communication theory. Everyone is a sense maker, daily applying interpretive actions to convert their world into something that hangs together. As sense makers, practitioners and clients both need to be skilled in making sense of what is happening and in managing meaning for themselves and others.

Sense making is under-pinned by several beliefs about how the world works: [ii]

  • The world is not a fixed or objective entity. It is constructed by people through their social practices.
  • Sense making is about creating plausible (workable) rather than accurate understandings.
  • Language is central to sense making. Language is not a neutral, transparent medium of expressing and constructing ideas. Rather it reflects systems of values, beliefs and social practices.
  • We use a range of language practices depending on what the issue is and how important it is to us. These practices influence the social identity we have of ourselves.
  • We are constituted by not one, but many senses of identity which are bound up with the cultural contexts we inhabit.
  • Identity is an ongoing, fluid, contested process, with people constructing and reconstructing various aspects of their identity throughout different experiences in their lives.
  • Some interpretations of how the world works are privileged over others. Power is expressed in acts that shape what people accept, take for granted, and reject.
  • Taken-for-granted knowledge needs to challenged so as to understand how conventional understandings come to be regarded as ‘natural’ or ‘true’.

This interpretive approach to sense making sees individual preferences as in part, socially constructed. They result from both positive and negative interactions with parents, teachers, friends, peers, colleagues. They are influenced by social norms and beliefs. Therefore, context cannot be ignored.

What a career practitioner does is explore how the client’s world comes to be endowed with meanings, and how these meanings are reproduced, negotiated, and transformed through social practice, including language. They also explore how meanings are constructed in other contexts of interest to a client, such as parental comments, specific organisations, or retirement. Clients may need to make sense of their own history, job descriptions, job searching, values and strengths, career transitions, sabotaging thinking processes, gender issues. Each of these taps meaning making and meaning managing processes.

Such a sense making perspective is consistent with practitioner skills, practice and professional standards. Practitioners are aware of the complexities of clients’ social contexts, using a range of linguistic skills to construct possibilities, including agenda setting, framing, labelling, categorising, information-unearthing questioning, subtle distinction drawing. They interpret material such as labour market information and vocational assessment tools. They have knowledge of people’s sense making processes such as cognitive biases, mental models, cognitions-feelings-behaviour relationships, perceptual processes, use of metaphor, and communicating styles.

So rather than focusing on one form of meaning making – a life story -, or on one form of practice – narrative counselling –, I’m proposing we see sense making as a core skill critical to being a career development professional, and to a spectrum of career development practice.

Sense making skills

Career Development Practitioner Standards refer to providing context in several standards, notably in needs analysis, labour market information and program delivery. The Standards also imply the need for practitioners to have well development sense making skills so as to foster career management strategies, understand clients, and interpret information.

While there are many skills relevant to sense making, the key ones for me are set out in Table 1.

Table 1: Sense making skills

Meta-skill Micro skills and processes
Making sense Mindfulness: control over attention

Making thinking processes explicit

Awareness: noticing what meanings are being applied

Suspending judgement: respectful curiosity

Managing meaning Connecting: building rapport

Listening for understanding

Questioning to unearth understandings

Linguistic flexibility: language choices to place stories in context

The mental pantry is a metaphor I use for understanding how we make sense of our worlds. Our mental pantry is stocked with beliefs, ideas, assumptions, expectations, concerns and fears. Just like our kitchen pantry, some of the contents of our mental pantry are well past their use-by date, no longer serving us well. Some are staples, helping us live through each day. Then there are those one-off purchases for an exotic recipe that didn’t work out. These are the beliefs and ideas we tried on once but didn’t incorporate into our habitual repertoire. Plus there are those untried products that have never taken up residence in our pantry. This larder is what career professionals work with in much of their practice.

Given some people stock curious items in their mental pantry, practitioners need to suspend judgement, and approach a client with respectful curiosity in order to unearth how a person comes to think as they do. When thinking ‘How on earth could Sam possibly consider becoming a [fill in any work that is bizarre, outlandish, impossible from your point of view]’ you’ll know what I mean. In such situations practitioners need to make their own thinking practices explicit, at least to themselves.

Linguistic flexibility is critical to managing meaning. Clients seek guidance as to how to position themselves for particular contexts – redundancy, retirement, promotions, specific jobs, career choices. Managing meaning applies the fine art of choosing language to fit the context. This can be called branding, self-promotion, marketing, showing relevance and transferable skills. The practitioner has skills to show a client how to achieve this juggling act.

This means that practitioners have valuable expertise to offer clients. Why else would they pay for our services? Articulating sense making skills is part of our market positioning.

Professional knowledge is socially constructed

In line with a view of the world as socially constructed, David Blustein and colleagues have usefully pointed out that our work is not value neutral.[iii] The concept of ‘career’ is based on knowledge derived from middle-class, privileged, choice-rich people. Career professionals largely fall into this group. The writers also point out that ‘choice’ is not a typical construct for working class, poor, and other marginalised people.

Online information about jobs (e.g. My Future) is socially constructed using assumptions, occupational categorisation standards, education structures and skill frameworks that we take-for-granted as ‘normal’. These tools are used to identify possible work roles, educational pathways and key skill sets that can be matched to a person’s interests and values.

There are risks with taking this information at face value. Firstly, some jobs just never come up. I’ve never had one of these tools deliver Professional Speaker as an option, even though this has been my primary professional role. Secondly, the information treats work roles as discrete entities unrelated to other work roles. My research into the inter-relationships between work roles during major projects has confirmed that many roles need to work cooperatively with others in order to complete their work.[iv] Yet this information is absent from these tools.

Thirdly, it is impossible for a practitioner to ‘know’ about every job available, so they need to exercise respectful curiosity to avoid assuming their own knowledge is sufficient, and to encourage a client to seek further information. A recent ABC radio interview with Canadian Chris Hadfield, commander of the International Space Station, highlighted that while we primarily think of astronauts as spending time in space, in total this time represented six months out of 21 years.[v] Most of that time was spent training to handle a vast range of dire situations in space, including pulling a tooth, removing an appendix, fixing the toilets and changing orbit to miss space debris.

Fostering critical consciousness

A sense making perspective supports Blustein’s view that part of our role as practitioners is to foster clients’ critical consciousness so as to challenge taken-for-granted knowledge and explore how some interpretations of the world are privileged over others.[vi] This knowledge includes how organisational practices, language choices and gendered ideas work, and how they could impact clients.

Take language, a primary resource for making meaning. The words people use have serious consequences. For evidence of just how powerful, read Elizabeth Thomson’s report on how language use in the Department of Defence supports or resists social inclusion.[vii] Thomson shows how language choices in both the formal, officially endorsed leadership language and the informal, everyday talk of the workplace maintain the power of the dominant group, privileging some values and types of people over others.

We know that children establish gender role stereotypes as early as the age of two and an emerging career identity by middle school. Research shows that the portrayal of occupational roles is largely gendered in family films and prime-time TV shows.[viii]

A New Zealand study aimed to examine the interconnections between gender, gendered ideas, and careers decision making, with a particular focus on how and why young people navigate or avoid trades-related pathways.[ix] The authors write that young people are exposed to a range of interacting discourses with the dominant individual choice (and responsibility) pathways discourse mixing with ideas about what kinds of jobs are appropriate for young people with different academic abilities, and what kinds are appropriate for different genders. They also found that males and females do experience the contexts of career decision making differently.

The emphasis on pathways and choices obscures the fact that differential access to resources and structural barriers constrain individuals from ‘choosing’ particular pathways The authors conclude: ‘The findings presented in this report unsettle the veneer of equal opportunities, limitless possibilities, and individual choices apparently provided by the New Zealand ‘pathways’ framework. The findings point to pervasive gender inequities, and, in particular, they show that there are not just inequities in what young people decide to do (e.g., more builders are men) but in how and why they come to these decisions.’[x]

Making sense of our profession

It’s not just clients who need to consider and question their narratives. We bemoan the fact that people don’t understand career development. Could it be that the lens of career development is at odds with how many people view their world?

Working lives do comprise a series of decision points – subject selection, course selection, job selection, retirement options. Our social structures – schools, colleges, universities, organisations, government policies – reinforce this event rather than process perspective. Generalisations we make about how work is changing are at odds with some people’s lived experience. I still come across people who spend most of their working life in one organisation or in one profession. And there are people who have a career constructed around stepped promotions up the ladder to success. Clearly, there is still much sense making and meaning management to be done so that people understand what we do and why it’s important.

[i] Disciplines with something to say about sense making include: cognitive science, neuroscience, neuro-linguistics, sociolinguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, post structuralism, cultural psychology, cultural studies, behavioural economics, semiotics, literary studies, rhetorical studies.

[ii] Recommended reading on sense making: Karl Weick, Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1995; various articles by Colleen E Mills, including Making organisational communication meaningful, Australian Journal of Communication, vol 36 (2) 2009, pp.111-125; V Burr, An Introduction to Social Constructionism, London: Routledge, 1995.

[iii] David Blustein, Alexandra C Kenna, Nadia Gill, Julia E DeVoy, The Psychology of Working: A new framework for counselling practice and public policy, The Career Development Quarterly, June 2008, Vol 56, p. 295

[iv] ACT-based projects are: Cotter Dam enlargement, National Arboretum, Red Centre Garden ANBG, Floriade Festival.

[v] Sunday Profile:

[vi] Blustein et al, pp. 300-301

[vii] Dr Elizabeth A Thomson Battling with words: A study of language, diversity and social inclusion in the Australian Department of Defence, Department of Defence, Feb. 2014,

[viii] Geena Davis Institute on Gender Media,; Center for Gender in Organizations,

[ix] Trading Choices: Young people’s career decisions and gender segregation in the trades, Report prepared for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs by New Zealand Council for Educational Research, September 2008,

[x] Trading Choices, p. v..

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.