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.

1 comment:

Thank You!
Adding your stories and thoughts to this conversation is enriching for everyone.