Monday, June 29, 2009

Guideline for Working with a Group's Stories - Part 4/5 of 9

4. Be authentic

Whether we are conscious of doing it or not we are constantly evaluating the authenticity of others. Whenever we detect even a hint of falseness or any other form of selfishness or negative intentions in someone we shut them out. Any hope of building a bridge constructed with mutual active listening is completely destroyed and most of the time there is very little chance of rebuilding it once we lose the trust of others. You might share an experience or two as a means of engendering credibility with a group. However, avoid telling stories for self-aggrandizement. It never achieves the kind of long lasting impacts of reflective, experiential learning that stories are perfectly suited for.

5. Make sure there is congruence between your stories and your behavior

We lessen the potential of our personal stories when our actions and stories do not correspond with each other. No one is asking you to be perfect. When leading a group we often need to accentuate ideals. If there is a blatant contradiction between stories we tell and how we act, we will ruin the climate of trust, openness, and reflection we have created by working with stories.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Guideline for Working with a Group's Stories - Part 3 of 9

3. Be willing to be vulnerable with a group

Stories are not for the faint of heart. Stories open the space between us and others. They are a scared tool for deeper reflection and insight. We have to let go of our need to control the thoughts, reflections, and learning processes of others. In their truest sense, stories are not a behavioral tool for hitting the right button in others to produce a desired, predictable outcome. The experiential nature of story demands vulnerability. Are we willing to learn in front of others? Can we remove the artificial boundaries that we erect in learning environments to protect our authority? Stories broaden our awareness before they focus it. Imagine an hour glass. The top of the glass is wide. The sand drops down through a narrow crack before it falls into a wide basin below. Stories are similar in this respect. As we explore the interconnections between our stories and their relationship to other people’s experiences the learning environment might feel scattered and chaotic. People might ask, “Where is this going?” Inevitably you will ask yourself the same question. Until suddenly the story drops through the narrow hole of analytical discourse and opens into a new vista of insight and meaning. The story has been a catalyst for learning and is a new buoy for anchoring future ones. None of this is possible if we do not make ourselves vulnerable with a group. Sharing a personal story is a wonderful way of softening a group and modeling the openness stories require to work their magic.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Guideline for Working with a Group's Stories - Part 2 of 9

2. Incorporate material relevant to the group into stories

Good storytellers know how to customize a story to a group. Think back to when you were a kid and your teacher personalized a story by using your name or one of your favorite things as a detail in the story. Didn’t you feel engaged and excited to become an integral part of the story? Was your imagination stimulated? The same is true for adult learners. We love to see ourselves in the situations being painted by a compelling story. Our techniques for incorporating relevant material into stories with adult learners can be as simple as weaving in a personal fact to richer ones such as referencing other people’s personal stories. As you become more adept at this you will find yourself naturally weaving in all sorts of artifacts from the group’s process or history. In this way stories cease to be stale since they offer tellers a way to stay invigorated. The very act of weaving in new material with the story will create opportunities for the teller to uncover new nooks and crannies of meaning.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Guideline for Working with a Group's Stories - Part 1 of 9

Over the next series of posts I'd like to share with you nine general guidelines I have found useful when working with groups and their stories.

1. Be Able to Expand or Collapse a Story

Stories can vary in length. Stories can be as short as a sentence or two. In fact I have been in situations in which a single word becomes associated with a story already known by the group or that has emerged from my time with them. For example, consider the sentence, “The emperor has no clothes.” If a group of learners were wrestling with a theme of mass denial, the reference to the classic Hans Christian Andersen story of an emperor who is wearing no clothes, and the reluctance of people to point this out, could bring quick clarity to learners.

As a facilitator, it is your job to decide what the right amount of detail for a story is. If you are using a story as an energizer or to give the group a chance to catch its breath, lavishing a story with rich detail may be a wonderful way of massaging people’s tired brains and emotions. On the other hand, if you are stringing together a complex set of interconnections between ideas in a discussion and key learnings, your story will be more succinct. The composition of the group also factors into your decision of how much detail to include. This necessitates that you can reconstitute a story with either less or more detail, depending on your analysis of the group and its needs.

Even if you are not the one telling a story, it is your job as a facilitator to guide participants to share their stories with the appropriate amount of detail. This is done by acting as a good model, anticipating the tendencies of individuals, and, if necessary, giving them some constraints before they launch into their telling.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

StoryMatters - Season 2: Episode 6

Increasing Your ROI on Life's Lessons at Work
Terrence Gargiulo ( & Brian Remer (

StoryMatters is a format for maximizing learning from experience and applying it in the workplace. Stories are used to spark deeper conversations creating multiple layers of meaning that have relevance to team members. The StoryMatters process promotes a culture of continuous learning within an organization by modeling the skills of advocacy and inquiry. In this way, StoryMatters can become an invaluable tool for any learning organization.

StoryMatters: The Process

I. Read or tell three 99 word stories – these stories act as triggers to spark listeners' imaginations
II. Listeners recapitulate the stories to find index words that capture the essence of the stories
III. Listeners leverage the index words to find personal stories along the same theme
IV. Those stories are shared and people hearing them share their reactions
V. Conclude with a dialog and conversation of themes and relationships between stories

StoryMatters: Why it's Effective

• Stories are a common form of communication – people do not notice how often they tell stories – and how comfortable they are with stories.

• In conversation, we get ideas of our own stories but we don’t drill deep enough to derive much meaning from them.

• Offers a framework and format for active reflection and learning

• People react to the stories and build upon them

• Creating a story space heightens the possibility to make more stories present

• It’s the reflection of two or more people that makes the process work

• Stories don’t have to be complete with beginning, middle end – especially when the stories are collaged or combined

• Single stories have the danger of becoming one-dimensional and trite like Chicken Soup for the Soul.

• Only by putting stories together do you develop a three dimensional space of shared meaning

• The format gives everybody a chance to talk. This doesn’t always happen in conversation – even with just two people

StoryMatters: Tips and Tricks

• Use three or more stories to provide enough triggers for a rich conversation*

• Keep stories short, share the air time

• Leave stories open ended, avoid moralizing or insisting on a particular interpretation

• Give people time and space to develop their index words

• Leave 'em hungry, you don't have to tie up every loose end. People will continue the conversations that are meaningful to them off line.

• Be comfortable with ambiguity, trust that the time spent will be meaningful even if you don't know exactly where it will end up

What Do We Mean By Indexing

Stories are tagged with meta-data. Our experiences are stored in our minds as stories.
Loosely speaking, these stories have labels associated with them. Facilitating with stories requires us to be aware of how stories are triggered. The StoryMatters process stimulates people’s indexing schemes. It will help them expand their index and at other times to help them use their index scheme to relate their story to other stories. When our experiences are well indexed, we are able to see connections and relationships more easily. A strong index functions like a hub. New experiences and other people’s stories can be quickly plugged in. This of course leads to insights that can result in performance improvements.

So Why Three or More Short Stories

Stories in isolation are of limited value. Emergent sense-making is engaged by the interaction and inter-relationship between stories. The richness of stories and the insights to be gained are produced by the crisscrossing pattern of stories being related to one another.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Nine Functions of Stories...

One of the ways I have been able to wrap mind around stories is to think about some of the different ways they function and the unique effects these functions have. Here's a summary chart:

Stories are used to:

Stories have the following effects:

1. Empower a speaker

2. Create an environment

3. Bind and bond individuals


Create trust and openness between yourself and others

Elicit stories from others

4. Engage our minds in active listening

5. Negotiate differences

Listen actively in order to:

Understand context and perspective

Identify the root cause of a problem

Uncover resistance and hidden agendas

Shift perspectives in order to:

See each other

Experience empathy

Enter new frames of reference

Hold diverse points of view

Become aware of operating biases and values

6. Encode information

7. Act as tools for thinking

8. Serve as weapons

9. Bring about healing

Create a working metaphor to illuminate an opinion, rationale, vision, or decision.

Establish connections between different ideas and concepts to support an opinion or decision

Think outside the box to generate creative solutions and breakthroughs.

When you tell a story to a group think in terms of how it will help you set the stage and model the ground rules you wish to follow for a learning event. As a general rule of thumb, if we are a little vulnerable, circumspect, and reflective, and if we don’t take ourselves too seriously, our intentions will spread through the group and positively affect its behaviors. People will also form better bonds with one another. Each story told exposes more points of connections between people.

Steer away from using stories to just to encode information. Stories that encode predigested messages such as allegories or fables offer the weakest form of communication and learning. For example,

The Fox and the Lion

When a fox that had never yet seen a Lion, fell in with him by chance for the first time in the forest, he was so frightened that he nearly died with fear. On meeting him for the second time, he was still much alarmed, but not to the same extent as at first. On seeing him the third time, he so increased in boldness that he went up to him and commenced a familiar conversation with him. Acquaintance softens prejudices.

The story above illustrates a point but lacks richness since it is being used as a vehicle to deliver a simple message. Encoding information is only one function of stories and any story will always have information encoded in it. When we limit stories in a premeditated way to carrying one or two simple messages, we throw away the opportunity for complexity to emerge. Although it is probably one of the most familiar functions of stories, it is often the least useful one for creating compelling experiential dialogues that can catapult learners to new insights. Experiential learning requires us to help people suspend their habitual ways of thinking to make room for new perspectives.

The most important function of stories is that they require active listening. By their nature stories trick us into hearing ourselves and each other in deeper and fuller ways. When people listen actively to one another they enter the world of another person. Our understanding of another person’s story is gained by working with bits and pieces of our own stories to find common connections between the story being shared and our own experiences. While we are dependent upon our experiences to construct meaning out of what another person shares with us, we are less likely to narrowly fixate on evaluating their story in terms of our world view. Like dreams that can present contradictory elements yet still be real (e.g. swimming and flying at the same time, or a person that appears in the dream is two people at the same time) stories invite us to work with conflicting things. When we actively listen to someone’s story we are not as emotionally invested in our point of view. Differences become opportunities. Empathy can be a wonderful byproduct of stories. Since experiential learning bridges the gap between people’s current knowledge and desired learning, stories facilitate leaps of imagination that might never be realized by other modes of instruction.

Stories are wonderful tools for thinking. You can place people vicariously into a story and use it to work through new ideas and solutions. For example, if we you were leading a discussion on leadership you might ask the group to explore how the story and characters of the Wizard of Oz offer insights into the nature of leadership. As long as people know the story they will jump right into it and use it as template for abstract thinking. The energy this creates in a group is contagious. The story mode of discussion will touch every kind of thinking and communication style in the room. Creative types will love coming up with zany connections between the Wizard of Oz and leadership while more analytical types of people will enjoy exploring the details and nuances of the connections being found.

Stories as weapons or tools for healing are the last two functions of stories. When someone uses a story to coerce a point of view or manipulate people’s perceptions to serve their agenda it becomes dangerous. Influence is a natural and ever present facet of communicating but when the power of stories is used to maliciously mislead people it constitutes an abuse.

Whether we use stories as a weapon consciously or not it’s a violation of people’s imagination and disrespects the space of active listening created by stories. Here’s an example. I was attending a costal planning meeting. During the course of heated debate on where boundaries of a no-fishing zone should be drawn someone held up a picture of a handicapped person fishing off a pier that was located in an area of the no-fishing zone being proposed. A picture is worth a thousand words and a story is worth a thousand pictures. Put the two together and you have a powerful punch. The commissioners at the meeting were taken by the picture and its story about providing access to handicapped people to fishing. It affected their vote. The pier depicted in the picture was not included in commission’s no-fishing zone. Later it was discovered that the picture had been posed; the person in the picture was not even handicapped. The picture and its story had been used as a weapon.

Conversely, stories can be used for healing. There is a rich tradition of the role of narrative in many therapeutic practices. Facilitating group processes even in an organizational setting can unearth some intense emotions and perceptions. Revisiting a story and examining how the story relates to other experiences adds unpredictable layers of meaning and dimensionality. During the process of sharing a story, dialoging with others about it and reflecting, the story is released from the past and given meaning in the present. In this way stories provide the raw material for encouraging new insights that can lead to creative solutions and the possibility of healing.

When stories commingle with each other pathways emerge. Stories can unlock novel ways of seeing ourselves and making sense of the world. I was facilitating a leadership workshop where after sharing many experiences a senior level executive became aware of how he had a habit of showing disrespect towards his colleagues. Without any sermonizing or prescription on my part or the group, this executive saw a pattern in his stories. These stories projected a reality he was not satisfied with and one which he wished to alter. Through the stories he gained an invaluable lens that helped him to see himself more honestly and which gave him the courage to free himself from repeating self-defeating stories.

As you become more aware of how the nine functions of stories operate you will get better at naturally leveraging their unique effects to facilitate breakthrough communication and learning. I no longer think about it. Sharing stories and eliciting people’s stories is what I do every time I am leading a conversation with a group. I have developed sensitivity to how these functions of stories and their unique effects impact group processes. I strive to seize the opportunities they create while remaining attentive to the ethical implications of putting people in learning situations they may not want to be. Stories can be raw and not everyone wants to either look at themselves or be exposed in front of others. There are no hard and fast rules about this stuff, as you develop a feel for healthy boundaries learn to watch people in the group carefully to discern subtle cues as to how much they are willing to share and how deeply they want to reflect on it with the group.