Saturday, September 26, 2009

Leadership & Storytelling Part 14 of Many...


“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else
than in the human power to reflect.”
Vaclav Havel

We all could do with a little more thinking. Introspection is under valued and unpracticed. It is another one of those seemingly fuzzy things left outside of the walls of business yet nothing could be more important to the success of an organization and the well being of its members. Our ability to reflect is a defining characteristic of being human. So why do most of us prefer our bliss of oblivious autopilot in lieu of a more mindful orientation to the world around us? It takes time, discipline, and commitment. Given the finite nature of these assets we do not part with them easily. Socially, as evidenced by our educational system, we do not make reflection a priority. In many instances we go out of our way to discourage it.

Reflection requires focusing our attention in a single direction with circumspection. The image of an hourglass is useful in understanding the state of mind we need to achieve in order to benefit from our efforts. Individual grains of sand pass through a narrow point before they drop into a large collection area. When we concentrate it is akin to the narrow point of an hourglass. When we review an experience and it yields a wealth of insights it is akin to the large open collection area that the grains of sand fall into. From that narrow point of concentration a new vista of perception becomes possible. Our minds open up to new possibilities. We are able to look at our experiences in a totally new way. A reflective mind discovers insights in otherwise meaningless experiences.

The insights we gain from reflection are transformed into knowledge, which become raw chunks of reusable information. Herein lays the greatest challenge. How do we use these chunks? Knowledge provides us with a construct to manage and manipulate abstractions mined from our experiences but we have to find a way of applying them to new situations. When we look for applicability of our knowledge by being attentive to the moment we discover points of intersection. A new experience has some correspondence to a previous one. We leverage the pattern capabilities of our minds and move knowledge into the present. This pattern match guides our behavior. Some benefits include avoiding mistakes we have made in the past, exhibiting a greater capacity for empathy, demonstrating new understanding, or acting with greater confidence. When it comes to interpersonal or intrapersonal dynamics, knowledge applied in the present is wisdom. Arguably, the greatest personal power that we can pursue is wisdom. While information by itself is useless and knowledge brings with it a certain degree of influence, wisdom deepens us. The bottom line is that we cannot be effective without reflection. The feedback gained from flexing our internal powers of observation is invaluable and cannot be procured through any other means.

Now that we have established the importance of reflecting, how do we do it? Reflection can be broken down into four parts:

1. Visualizing
2. Sitting
3. Inviting
4. Sifting

Part I. of Reflecting: Visualizing

Reflection is made possible through the use of visualization. The word visualizing can be misleading. We need to use all of our senses when we visualize. The more senses we can invoke the richer our visualizations will be. Saint Ignatius of Loyola wrote a guide for monks called The Spiritual Exercises. He like others before him had an intuitive grasp of how our minds work without the benefits of psychological research we have today. The spiritual exercises are a collection of guided visualizations on Jesus Christ’s life. Loyola instructs priest to begin imagining a scene from Jesus’ life by walking through the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of it. The result is a vivid and personal re-experiencing of a story. Athletes offer another perspective on the power of visualization. Mental rehearsals have been shown to result in muscular activity that can be measured. These mental rehearsals enable athletes to practice, learn, and improve motor skills. They can also be used to strengthen cognitive and psycho-emotional skills such as concentration, focus, and stress management. Visualizations are effective because they are not just mental phenomena they engage our whole being.

In order to reflect on our experiences we must relive them. Visualization offers us this ability. We re-enter our past experiences as an observer. Our imaginations fuel our archival inquiry and engage us as active observers. Like the spiritual exercises, we can also reflect on stories outside of our personal experiences. Whatever we visualize is projected into a space where we can begin to manipulate it. In this way reflection has the potential to be more than an analytical rehashing of an experience. Visualization creates a story while analysis by itself creates a collection of linearly associated data points. If we are to win any insights from our experiences or effectively find connections between our experiences we will need to work with them as stories.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Leadership & Storytelling Part 13 of Many...

The Process Ring deals with how we work with information in our minds and store it. The Process Ring is composed of three competencies Indexing, Synthesizing, and Reflecting. All three competencies taken together capture the interplay of internal processes that result in learning. Stories are used as a way of codifying experiences. For example, the Indexing competency stresses the importance of consciously developing a robust array of descriptors for our experiences so that they can be easily reused in various settings. The bigger our indexing scheme the more we have learned from our experiences. A good index increases our capacity to learn in new situations by drawing upon past ones and integrating the news ones into a fabric of knowledge. Our capacity to communicate with others is also improved. Once our experiences have been transformed into easily retrievable stories that have been well indexed, and cross-indexed then we can be sensitive to other people’s experiences and converse with a greater range of nuances and understanding.


Indexing is how we classify our experiences. The better the index the easier it is find information. The problem with an index is deciding what descriptors to use to classify our experiences. Indexes are further complicated by the fact everyone will chose different “key words,” or descriptors to classify their experiences. If we cannot access our experiences due to an inadequate index or one that does not match someone else’s, our experiences become dormant. They are left in the proverbial warehouse of our mind available to our unconscious but collecting dust. Effective communicators and learners naturally develop extensive indexing schemes. They draw upon lots of different experiences and can recall these experiences in the form of stories.

Triggers activate indexes. Triggers are any kind of stimuli that results in a search of our experiences and in a recounting of it. An item in our index can be stimulated by a variety of triggers. Therefore we need to be vigilant in creating a vast index and become more aware of potential triggers. If we think in advance about what kinds of themes, ideas, perceptions, learning, or emotions, are contained in our experience we will be able to leverage this awareness by becoming sensitive to a multitude of triggers. For example, take a conversation. Thoughts and ideas are expressed one after another. Given the flow of a conversation we can be swept along without ever consciously drawing upon our experiences. We are using them in the background in order to understand what is being communicated but we are not bringing them to the forefront of our minds. This in turn limits our ability to infuse the conversation with greater depth and energy. Our experiences left running in the background by our minds generates a base level of understanding but will cause us to miss vital opportunities to increase our learning and communicate with greater depth. From our previous discussions we have established the complex nature of our experiences stored and recounted to others in the form of stories.

In order to be an effective communicator and learner you need to have a wealth of stories. You are mistaken if you think you do not know or have a lot of stories. Our lives are rich with experiences. The trick is we need to make ourselves aware of these experiences by focusing our attention on them. The Personal History exercise is a sample of how you can recapture dusty memories and shake them off.
Let’s step back for a moment and realize that this process of experiences becoming stored as stories, indexed for retrieval, and our use of them in conversations and learning settings happens all the time. Why not invoke this mental process? We can strengthen this natural phenomenon by increasing its frequency on a conscious level. To do this we must have a solid foundation built. A big well-organized toolbox of personal stories will get the job done.

The first step in building an index and developing an awareness of triggers is to reconstruct as many of our experiences. This will result in an active collection of stories, which we can then index and associate with some potential triggers. The next exercise presents a method for building a collection of stories, identifying some major themes, and anticipating potential triggers.

Exercise: Indexing – Personal History

In this exercise you will create a timeline of your life. One end of the timeline should be marked with “birth,” and the other should be marked as “present.” Think back upon the years of your life and start scanning them for memories that stick out. As you create your timeline use the following list of seven historical triggers to help you jog your memory.

1. Major Event
Were there any significant things that happened?

2. Influence
What things had a formative effect in shaping your ideas, beliefs, values, or attitudes?

3. Decision
Did you make any decisions that had an impact on your life or the lives of others?

4. Change
What changes occurred?

5. Success
What were your major accomplishments?

6. Failures
Did you make any big mistakes or experience any failures?

7. Disappointments
Were there any

8. Significant People
How did certain key people affect you?

Be sure you find the stories behind each of these triggers. If your memory surfaces more as a fact, then spend a moment with the memory and try to reconstitute all of the details surrounding it. This will transform your memory into a story. The richness of a story is what lends itself to indexing. Facts get lost.

Some people find it useful to do this year by year while others will start randomly filling in their timeline with memories as they occur.

Once you have your timeline filled in with stories develop a two columned list for each story that includes story triggers and themes. Your triggers will be any situation or time where you believe your story could have applicability. At the same time, examine your stories for themes. These are in essence things that you have learned and insights you have gained from your experiences. If you are aware of what themes can be found in your experiences it will help you index them based upon potential triggers.

All of these skills can be measured with the only assessment in the world that measured story-based communication skills (recognized in 2008 with an HR Leadership Award from the Asia Pacific HRM Congress).

Story-based Communication Assessment: Click Here...

I also have a book of self-development exercises to work on these skills with yourself or others. All of these exercises that map to the nine skills of the competency model

Book of Self-Development Exercises: Click Here...

I also recommend my book, Once Upon a Time: Using Story-Based Activities to Develop Breakthrough Communication Skills. It contains a collection of group process activities aligned with these story-based communication skills.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Leadership & Storytelling Part 12b of Many...


Let’s move to the second aspect of modeling. Explaining an idea with words can take a fair amount of time. Each piece of the idea has to be carefully laid out and all of the pieces have to be put in order. I am always amazed at how much time it takes me to present an idea when I lecture. The same idea can almost always be quickly grasped with a simple illustration that takes a fraction of the time compared to more didactic modes of communicating. That of course leaves us lecturers without much to say and our recipients with more retention. The problem lies in the effort it takes to come up with a compelling illustration.

I was teaching a technical writing course. In one of the exercises I had the group write a technical explanation for some engineering principles that could be understood by a twelve year old and that used an analogy to help explain the principle. They were forced to use constructs that an average twelve year old would know. It proved to be tough to come up with analogies but when they did they were amazed at how simple the principles really were and how easily they could be explained. There is a natural fear that if you over simplify an idea people will miss out. That is an incorrect assumption. Once a construct is in place it is far easier to refine it. Much of what we assume to be important turns out to be unnecessary detail that cannot nor need not be retained by most people.

We can model with words by coming up with analogies, similes, anecdotes, or metaphors to illustrate our ideas. This is a form of synthesis. We are using a known entity to explain a new one. A new entity can be explored by establishing a baseline with a known one. In essence we are creating word pictures. Through words we are painting vivid pictures. The assumption is that these pictures have a correspondence with our listeners’ experiences. We are invoking their imaginations. Our models as word pictures serve as tantalizers, which summon rich associations. Without some form of association our ideas will fizzle before they ever come to life. This next exercise explores the key questions you need to answer in order to effectively model with words.

Exercise: Modeling Competency – Answering the Key Questions

Here is a mental checklist of questions to run through when you are interested in using verbal models:

1. What do I want to communicate?
2. What constructs are known to this person or group?
3. How does the new construct relate to what is already known and understood by them?
4. Are there gaps between the two constructs being related to one another?
5. If there is a gap, can we work within the proposed model to explicate the differences?

Pick an occasion when you will need to explain something to an individual or group. Walk through the questions above and come up with some potential models. Try them out and evaluate the impact. How did you close the gap between the model you used and the full construct you were trying to communicate? Did you notice any difference in the recipient’s level of engagement? How did they respond?

It is not important for our model to be perfect. Inevitably it will fall short. However, once we have a fertile learning space we can expand our model and allow the recipient to refine it to successfully complete the transfer of information. Stories are tools for thinking. When we use word pictures and facilitate a discovery process to close the gap between the model and the desired construct being transferred we are engaged in using stories as tools for thinking.

Organizational Practices for the Interaction Ring

Communications can be so stiff in organizations. Efficiency rules and stories are deemed as inappropriate. We do not make the time to work with stories. I’ve already argued that stories are the most efficient way of storing, retrieving, and conveying information. Since story hearing requires active participation on the part of the listener, stories are the most profoundly social form of communication.

In one of my workshops I had a Director of Engineering. He was an extraordinarily bright individual, fair minded and even in his approach to all things. However, he struggled with how to invest time in the people around him. When a project called for it he would gladly work with whoever needed his guidance but as a general rule he preferred the solitary peace of his unperturbed work environment. Throughout the workshop I kept pushing him to see the value and long-term speed of a sinuous path between two points. In other words I was challenging him to discover that sometimes engaging in inefficient behaviors such as mutual storytelling sows seeds for future benefits. He could see my point intellectually but I could tell he was struggling with its application. So I gave him a homework assignment. I instructed him to come in the next day with three or more stories that he was instructed to weave together into a story collage. The next morning he came in very excited. He shared with me how he came up with three stories while he was running. Upon examination he was surprised to realize that the stories were not personal. In fact, he further realized that he had a habit of never using personal stories. Next he sat down and started thinking about some key personal stories and before long he had a string of them. The class was amazed when he sat in front of the group and began his web of stories with an explanation of the instructions I had given him the day before and the series of events leading up to his discovery of his personal stories. That was just the tip of the iceberg. His series of stories was rich, engaging, and full of insights. When he was done he sat back and smiled. Nodding his head he said, “Now I understand what you mean by a sinuous path being the shortest distance between two points.” He experienced the value of selecting and telling stories and realized they would not get in the way of him being more efficient. I also set him up to experience the model and I have the added pleasure of sharing his actions with you to reinforce my assertions.

Leaders need to promote telling stories, modeling behaviors to generate stories, and verbal models by practicing these competencies. We are not talking about the use of these competencies during only all-hands-on meetings or other large events. These competencies need to be seen all the time in every type of interaction. For less verbally oriented employees, written communications provide just as much of an opportunity to leverage the competencies of the Interaction Ring as any other. Individuals do not need to carry the burden of coming up with effective stories or models all on their own. This means these stories can be discovered in a collaborative process. People can work with one another to turn an idea into a compelling story or model. Until it becomes second nature, story facilitators can be used to help organizations develop repeatable processes for leveraging the competencies in the Interaction Ring. These processes should be woven into a wide range of organizational activities. As a facilitator I might prompt someone to support the introduction of a new idea by telling a story or providing a model. Clear command of an idea is demonstrated by the use of either one of these.

Selecting stories is a central part of an organization’s’ knowledge management efforts. What stories are chosen to become a part of the formal institutional memory? Contrary to what many assume, these stories are better selected by employees rather than its leaders. Certain stories will naturally rise to the surface. Stories like how the organization started, what some of the early days were like, etc… The stories with the greatest impact will come from the memories of individuals both inside and outside of the organization. These are all the hidden gems. If leaders encourage people to remember stories and carry them forward there will be less pressure on them to broadcast the perfect story. In this sense, organizations can support the development of all the competencies in the Interaction Ring by providing employees with ample opportunities to share stories.


The competencies in the Interaction Ring are the most visible but the least important. The Process Ring and Core are the foundation. Selecting stories depends upon a rich index of stories that can only be gained through reflection, synthesis, and all of the listening competencies in the Core. We looked at some ideas on how to determine what kind of story to select. Telling stories was shown to be less concerned with execution and more concerned with being sensitive to expanding and collapsing the amount of detail in a story, eliciting stories from others, and telling stories in an interactive manner. We concluded our tour of the Interaction Ring by looking at the different ways we can use models.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Stories & Manipulation

Before continuing with our story-based communication skills and leadership series I thought I would take a moment to share a recent question I got from an attendee of a recent webinar Shawn Callahan from Anecdote and I did on leadership.

The question deals with manipulation and truthfulness of stories. Here is David's question in his own words and the resposne I emailed. I'd love to hear people's thoughts on the questions. It is a rich and very important question - lots of room here for deep reflection - so please add your voice...

I found myself later thinking of what was said about plausibility in stories. Perhaps it was a casual comment, somewhat unrelated to the main topic, but I believe that it's important to deepen into the issue of "manipulating" through storytelling. When I talk to people about how to improve communication and training skills at work, and explain how storytelling works, I sometimes get asked whether that's not plainly deceiving, as, in a way, it creates a parallel reality where facts match the storyteller's beliefs, values and messages. Just as in political propaganda, as they point out. This is a question I have some trouble answering, as I tend to appeal to personal ethics but some people find this argument too weak.

Stories can function as weapons. There are countless examples of how people abuse the power of tapping into the emotions and imaginations of others to coercively manipulate their constructs of reality. Clear violations such as con artists are easy to classify. However, the question is not a black or white one – thus why I quoted Mark Twain, “sometimes you have to lie a little bit to tell the truth.” At the end of this message I’ll share with you a traditional tale that was one of my mentor’s signature stories.

By their nature stories are fluid. Stories overlap memories with the context of the moment. I find stories in collages and clusters to be more truthful than pinning the entirety of a message in a single story. All the greatest stories are vast little universes with an orbit of small story fragments. The depth and veracity of stories is more easily perceived when scanning the pattern and intention of stories in proximity with one another. I am naturally distrustful of single isolated large perfect stories with clean beginning, middles, and ends and unmistakable story arcs. In many instances these stories have already been warped around the gravity of a pre-digested message. Stories are creative acts and furthermore I view them as co-creative stages on which themes, drama, and meaning emerge in a process of co-creation. The story is only one small part of the key. The decoding and collaborative sense making space generated by telling a story to trigger the stories of others is sacred. My experience has been that when this space opens up, storytelling and listening is authentic, deep, and responsive to the needs of the moment. The space falls apart when listening ceases and any one person returns to advancing a monocular agenda.

Stories told in the moment will adapt themselves to the language, vocabulary, and experience of listeners. It is a mark of an integrated storyteller to share stories in a way fitting to the audience. If that means elaborating upon an aspect of the story or coloring it with a nuance of detail previously untold or which stretches the factuality then I do not view this as either coercive or manipulative.

I feel your instincts of asking people to become aware of their intentions are a marvelous starting point. Stories allow us to imagine paradoxes and contradictions. So I feel that if we become wrapped up in equating honesty and integrity with authenticity we miss the richness of what stories have to offer us.

I hope my response is of some help to you.

Story of Lady Truth...

Thomas had done it all. At the age of 50 he had become CEO of a Fortune 100 company; he had a beautiful family and all of the material things he could ever want. However, there was a gnawing question in Thomas’s mind. He remembered as a young boy listening to a gospel story about Jesus. In the story, Jesus is asked, “What is Truth?” Thomas had always wondered why Jesus never replied. So one day, Thomas turned to his wife and said, “Honey, I am so happy. Our life is wonderful. But I need to go on a quest for Truth.”

“Well, honey,” she replied, “if it is important to you, I think you should go. I’ll pack you a nice lunch, and you can give me power of attorney, and then you can head out tomorrow morning.”

The next morning, Thomas took his lunch and hit the road. He left his BMW in the garage; somehow he thought he should conduct his pilgrimage on foot. So Thomas walked and walked. He stopped at his company’s manufacturing plant. He had heard that workers hold the keys to Truth but he found no Truth there.

Next he went to the White House. He found a lot of hot air but no Truth. Then he stopped at the Vatican to speak with the Pope, but again he found no Truth. On and on he wandered, until he found himself in a very remote part of the world. At long last he saw a sign with an arrow pointing up a hill. The sign read, “Truth This Way.”

Thomas stumbled up the hill and came to a little shack with a blinking marquee, “The Truth Lives Here.” He nervously knocked on the door. A moment later the door began to creak open. Thomas craned his neck around the corner to get his first glimpse of Truth. What he saw made him jump back five feet. Standing before him was the oldest, most hideous creature he had ever seen. It was all hunched over. In a high-pitched, cackling voice, it said, “Yes, dear?”

“Oh, I am terribly sorry, I think I have the wrong house. I was looking for Truth.”

The creature smiled and said, “Well, you’ve found me. Please come inside.” So Thomas went inside and began to learn about Truth. For years Thomas stayed by the creature’s side, absorbing all of the intricacies of Truth. He was amazed at the things he learned. Then one day he turned to it and said, “Truth, I have learned so much from you, but now I must go home and share my wisdom and knowledge with others. I do not know where to begin. What should I tell people?”

The hideous old creature leaned forward and said, “Well, dear, tell them I am young and beautiful.”

In the words of Mark Twain, “Sometimes you have to lie a little bit to tell the truth.”