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Global Flipchart #9


September 2017
| Issue #9

Storytelling and facilitation: six perspectives

By Mary Alice Arthur

Earlier this year, I was delighted to be a keynote at the Beyond Storytelling conference in Germany. I presented my six perspectives of Story, and how I see the future of Story. Let’s explore those six perspectives:

1. Story as a leadership practice

Story is often used in the corporate world as a tool for influence. And for good reason. From a leadership point of view, Story can:

  • awaken the leadership potential in everyone
  • create the frame for collective action
  • share the vision and journey
  • illuminate mission, vision, values, and ethics
  • strengthen the collective field within a business, industry or community
  • make “safe enough” spaces to show up more fully, allow the dissenting voice to be heard and enable the hard conversations to be had without breaking the system
  • create collective muscle for “leaning in”.

These first four points fall under what I'd call Leadership Storytelling. Leaders can tell strong and well-crafted stories to enable people to work well together and to know how their part fits into the whole. Humans need meaning and humans at work also need purpose. If I can see how what I'm doing matters, then I'm more motivated, more committed and more likely to bring more energy, enthusiasm and creativity to my working life.

The last three points fall under what I'd call StoryWork. Being able to work with the stories already alive in workplace or community is paramount to people feeling like they are heard, invited to contribute and able to listen to others.

Once we share stories, we can never see each other the same again. We build connection, as well as the collective muscle for leaning in - staying together, rather than falling apart when difficult discussions need to be made.

2. Seeing self and Story as positive change agents

Stories are a potent support in positive change making. We seem to be mesmerised by stories of violence, fear, anger and war. Stories can also be used to help us grow courage, collaboration and connection. It all depends on what you are using your stories for. For me, seeing self and Story as positive Change Agents has these components:

  • Creating emotional resilience so I can also listen to others even if their stories are different from mine
  • Discovering the stories in the field around me
  • Using StoryWork to help develop the potential for positive change
  • Reinforcing the Heliotropic Principle
  • Embodying the Principle of Enactment.

None of us is a single narrative. We are all a mix of stories - stories we tell about ourselves, stories others tell about us, stories from our past, our family, society, ethnic groups, and religions. These stories create our lens on the world and influence how we take action. So the more familiar you are with your stories and the dissonance within yourself, the more resilient you can be to stories you don't agree with. They are just someone else's lens on the world.

The last two points come from Appreciative Inquiry practice. The Heliotropic Principle is inspired by the way sunflowers turn to follow the path of the sun. Our stories can turn positive change into a light that that people can turn to and follow.

The Principle of Enactment is also called "The Gandhi Principle" - be the change you want to see in the world. In New Zealand, people call this "start in the way you mean to go on". Tell the stories that encourage you to act in new, open and more courageous ways. Be that and keep telling stories that will help others to be like that too.

3. Story as a learning practice

The human mind is organised around stories. We capture our experiences and make sense of the world through the stories that form our lens on reality. Since our knowledge is captured in story form, it makes sense to use stories as the fastest medium for organisational and group learning. Story can:

  • be an organisational currency
  • be a medium for learning in various configurations
  • be a knowledge management tool
  • make collective sense and meaning (especially Collective Story Harvest)
  • create connections and learning pathways.

Whether you know it or not, story is already your organisational currency. Stories create the culture we work in: stories we share about the organisation, our experience of it, the products or services we deal in, and the people we work with. Story will trump fact (and I don't use this phrase lightly!). As Peter Drucker said: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." So what currency are people in your work dealing in? Are their stories bringing others down or intended to lift up the culture?

Stories are powerful at helping groups of people find collective meaning. For the past six years I've been working with process called Collective Story Harvest. Groups share stories of projects, initiatives, teams, organisations, communities, and learning pathways. They then comb through the narratives to find the gold that will take both the storytellers and the group further. In doing so, they build teamwork, the ability to listen between the lines, strategic thinking, energy and commitment.

4. Story as a process partner

Story is a potent partner to other individual and group processes. Story can:

  • strengthen, clarify and deepen individual and collective processes
  • support change and transformation processes
  • strengthen respect, trust, empowerment, and engagement
  • create shared understanding
  • build capacity for deep listening, witnessing, and harvesting
  • create capacity for being in the “not knowing” or Groan Zone together.

Sharing stories does what I call "depthing the field". When we listen carefully to each other and harvest the gold from our stories together, it is like growing a collective root system. We find common ground, and from there, the possibility for higher ground.

Storytelling can create capacity to be in the "not knowing" together. In participatory practice the space between divergence and convergence - literally the space between ideas and action - is called emergence. This space of emergence was named "the Groan Zone" by San Francisco based facilitator Sam Kaner and his colleagues, because this foggy place of "not knowing" can appear terrifying, even painful. It can make you groan out loud! But it could as easily be called the "Grown Zone" because it is a place of fertile possibility IF you can stay in it well together.

5. Story as a resonance tuner

Everyone knows how music can set the tone. Pop music can make you want to sing along. African drum music can make you want to dance. The important thing to remember about music is that the more you hear it, the more you resonate with it.

Stories also carry a resonance. Stories of challenges overcome can make us feel uplifted. Stories of violence and abuse can make us fearful. Stories of injustice can ignite a fire in us for change.

When negative stories circulate, they begin to create a negative resonance that spirals out. Positive stories create a sense of community and intimacy. Good stories we share together make us want to be part of community. They make us want to share more.

Stories speak to our experiences, but also to our longings. For this reason, they act like a tuning fork, vibrating us into the resonance of the story we are in. Story acts as a resonance tuner by:

  • setting the tone
  • building resonance
  • shifting the tone
  • using harmonics.

Stories that continue to be shared set the tone, whether they are true or not. The stories leaders share are very important. They build a resonance throughout the wider system. People continue to look to leaders to see how to navigate the system they are in. What you say is equally as important as what you do. When these two align, this is integrity.

In the same way, stories can also be used to shift the resonance or recalibrate the system. To their chagrin, many leaders have found out that facts cannot trump a compelling story - only a story can trump another story. If you want to change the course of the system, you need to find the compelling story that will help you gain traction to shift it.

6. Story as part of the art of practicing humanity

How can we awaken more humanity in our structures and organisations? Story is about the art and practice of being human. It supports our awakening humanity by:

  • creating shared understanding and expanding perspectives
  • welcoming and engaging diversity
  • building empathy and commitment
  • creating a more resilient foundation through strengthened relationships
  • meeting in our humanity and sharing what it is to be human
  • encouraging self-responsibility
  • creating a bigger now
  • reclaiming the truth of stories

A resilient community is not the community with more resources, but the one that’s more connected. Creating spaces for people to meet and share their stories of work, learning and life is an important ingredient in strengthened relationships that lasts. This can also be applied in the workplace.

In my early 20s, I had a three-month internship at IBM's International Education Centre in Belgium. Many people told me they valued their colleagues and the stories they shared above all else. Some even left only to come back again, saying: "I just couldn't find the kind of conversations I have here anywhere else!".

We all have challenges. We all have coping strategies. We all have hopes and dreams, fears and frailties. Listening to others helps us to make sense of the wonderful or frightening mess we find ourselves in. Hearing how others cope encourages self-responsibility and action.

I've noticed that when any group meets, first healing is needed. This need may be expressed overtly: "Now I need you to listen to me!". Or covertly - there is something unspoken in the room and people feel stuck or trapped. Either way, the need is like a threshold the group must step over in order to do good work together. Storytelling can take a group over the threshold, enabling them to create enough understanding to form the basis of a new conversation, and from there, wiser action. The understanding and community feeling that arises from storytelling can build the foundation for a positive future.

Mary Alice Arthur originally wrote about her six perspectives in three parts on her LinkedIn blog. Read the full blogs here: