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Beyond Storytelling — 6 perspectives on how stories work

Source |  |  BY:Mary Alice Arthur, Story Activist at SOAR

It was both an honour and a delight to be invited to keynote at the Beyond Storytelling conference that took place in Heidelberg, Germany on 19/20 May. Not only did I experience and connect with a whole new part of the story practitioner “tribe”, but it was also a chance to take my own thoughts deeper on how story works from my perspective. As one participant told me later, “I felt I was both hearing things I knew and having the doorway to the future flung open at the same time!”.

During my keynote I offered both my six perspectives and a look at how I — and other colleagues — see the future story of Story. The six perspectives are:

  1. Story as a leadership practice
  2. Seeing self and Story as positive Change Agents
  3. Story as a learning practice
  4. Story as a process partner
  5. Story as a resonance tuner
  6. Story as part of the art of practicing humanity

Let’s take a closer look at these first two — story as a leadership practice and seeing Self and Story as positive Change Agents.

Story has gained visibility rapidly within the corporate world as a tool for influence. And for good reason. From a leadership point of view, Story can do all of these things:

  • Awaken the latent leadership potential in everyone
  • Create the frame for collective action
  • Share the vision / path / journey
  • Illuminate/reinforce – mission, vision, values, ethics, stance, etc
  • Strengthen or work with the collective field within a business, industry or community
  • Make “safe enough” spaces for: people to show up more fully / allow the dissenting voice to be heard / 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. It makes good sense for leaders of all ages and stages to learn how to tell strong and well-crafted stories in order to pave the way for people to both 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, though, 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. We can never make totally safe spaces for people to share their stories, but we can make safe enough spaces. From a community or societal point of view, this is absolutely pivotal now, as fear of “the other” and fragmentation grows. 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 hard stories or big emotions arise or when difficult discussions need to be had. Where is that place that stories can be shared at work or in the community?

It is also important to realise that stories are a potent support in positive change making. At this point in history 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:

  • Working with my own StoryField / creating emotional resilience so I can also listen to others, even if their stories are very different to mine
  • Discovering / exploring 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, each of us is the intersection of the stories we hold about ourselves and all the stories others hold about us. Add to that the mix of stories we receive from our family constellation, society at large, our ethnic groups, religious or belief practices and we are each easily the most amazingly unique story cocktails! Since story is our lens on the world and therefore the filter for how we take action, becoming more aware of your own storylines is important. The more you have worked with your own stories and the dissonance within yourself, the more you can be resilient around stories you don’t agree with or find confronting. Literally, they are just someone else’s perspective on the world, but it might not feel like that!

The last two points in this list come from Appreciative Inquiry practice. The Heliotropic Principle takes its meaning from the way sunflowers (and all growing things) turn to follow the path of the sun. Our stories can shine a light on positive change that can be made and they encourage people to turn in that direction too. The Principle of Enactment might be subtitled “The Gandhi Principle” or be the change you want to see in the world. In New Zealand, people used to 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.



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