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.”

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