Monday, January 18, 2021

Introducing the Participatory Narrative Practitioner Network

Today I want to talk to you about the PNI Institute, its history, its ending, and its successor.

(Book update: I am still working on the last chapter. It is shaping up well, though more slowly than expected. I hope to be ready to send the book to my early readers in the next 3-4 weeks. If you are not on the early reader list and want to be, send me an email.)

The rise and fall of the PNI Institute

The PNI Institute was created by myself and three colleagues in the fall of 2014. Our goal was to support and advance participatory narrative inquiry. Over the past six years, our main activity has been a monthly Zoom call. We have had about sixty Zoom calls. Many have been excellent conversations, with lots of attendees, lively discussions, surprising insights, and plenty of camaraderie.

However, the original energy of the group has waned. Two of the four founders dropped out almost immediately (for reasons they could not foresee or change). Myself and the other remaining founder kept the group going for about five years. For the past year or so, it has been mostly me keeping the group going. In collaborative efforts, I believe, whoever does the work should get to say what happens. At this point, I think I have earned the right to decide what happens to the PNI Institute. And I think it's time for a change. 

To start, I never liked the name. It has been a thorn in my side all along. It seemed, and still seems, pretentious to call a bunch of people chatting an "Institute." Also, call attendance has been dropping off over the past year or two. Often it is just me and one other person on the call. The calls I looked forward to six years ago have slowly descended into obligations I would rather do without. 

None of this is anybody's fault. It's just the normal ebb and flow of a social group.

What should come next?

This fall, I put out a survey to ask people what they thought the PNI Institute should do next. Out of over 130 people "registered" on the site (all of whom got a pleading email), there were 11 responses. From the low response rate, and from the responses themselves, I got the sense that there is only weak interest in the PNI Institute continuing and growing into something bigger.

This lack of interest dovetailed with a concern that has been growing in my mind for the past year or two. I keep seeing people mention PNI as though it belongs to me. As though it is my thing, as though people can use it but can't change it. That was not what I wanted. 

I wrote a book about PNI, but I never wanted to own it. I still don't. I want to share it. I want people to join me inside PNI, to work on it with me, to improve it and enlarge it. Of course it will change somewhat as people do that; but I've always been okay with that. I've been hoping to see more books come out about PNI, or at least some book chapters. A few articles and a few Ph.D. dissertations have mentioned PNI. But I had hoped for much more.

One way I can counter the PNI-is-me trend, I think, is to stop talking only about PNI. Having a group that talks only about PNI keeps it separated from other approaches. But the truth is, most of the people who use PNI use it alongside other approaches. Hardly anyone uses it all by itself. I see that as a good thing, and I would like to explore it.

So I have decided that I no longer want to run a group that talks only about PNI. I want to talk about bigger things, wider things, of which PNI is just one part. I think that might be the best way to help the approach survive and grow -- as part of a family of approaches.

A wider view

What should a group that goes beyond PNI talk about? Should we drop the participatory part of it, and open the door to non-participatory, extractive methods? No. I would not want to join such a group. It would suck all the joy out of it for me. Helping ordinary people make sense of their lives, families, communities, and organizations is why I do what I do. 

What about a group that discusses participation but without the narrative aspect? Again, I would not be interested in joining such a group. I have a special fondness for stories. And, I believe, they are being used too little to help people and too much to manipulate them. I want to keep talking about helping people work with their own stories.

What about inquiry? Could we talk about participatory story work that does not (necessarily) focus on finding things out? 

Of the three possibilities, I am most open to this one. I care about people and I care about stories. I don't care as much about data and trends and proof. Besides, the sensemaking that is at the core of PNI happens whether or not you gather reams of data. I have always seen that part of the work as optional, nice to have, supportive but not central.

Introducing the Participatory Narrative Practitioner Network

I would like to invite you to join a new discussion group: the Participatory Narrative Practitioner Network (PNpn). 

In this group we will talk about many approaches to participatory narrative, including: narrative therapy, narrative medicine, narrative coaching, appreciative inquiry, participatory narrative inquiry, oral history, action research, and participatory theatre. (We may change this list as we talk, but that's what we have right now.)

If you are a practitioner or a fan of any of these approaches, we would love to talk to you. Whether participatory narrative is the only thing you do, or whether it is one of many tools in your toolbox, we invite you to join us. You can read more at the group's new web site,, which I encourage you to look at.

We will continue the same Zoom calls as we had for the PNI Institute, but our topics will range much more broadly than they did before.

What are we not going to talk about? Story work whose primary goal is persuasion, promotion,  influence, self-expression, performance, or entertainment. There is nothing wrong with any of those goals. They are just not what we plan to talk about.

To join us, send an email to the address on the PNpn web site (it comes to me) and tell us why you want to join. I will send you an invitation to join our Zulip chat server, which we are using to talk between our Zoom calls. All details of the calls (dates, times, topics) are on the chat server. If you have any questions, send them to me via email.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Questions for you, questions for me

Two posts in a row! Hooray! To be honest, I miss writing in the blog. It was fun. I'll see if I can start doing it at least once a month again. However, I will need to hold myself back from writing those long essays that took up weeks of my time. Must not get in too deep. Must not get in too deep.

Anyhew, I have been thinking a lot about the PNI Institute lately. We started it six years ago, and it has not grown into what I hoped it would become. This is what I was hoping to create:

  1. A lively discussion
  2. A free online quarterly or biennial peer-reviewed journal for PNI practitioners, with papers that spread techniques, share tips, recount experiences, and play with ideas
  3. An annual or biannual online conference that brings people together to brainstorm, learn, talk, share experiences, get to know each other, and help PNI thrive

We have done the first of these things, with 60+ phone calls during which we talked about many things PNI-related and PNI-adjacent. In that sense the effort has been a success.

However, I still want to do the other things. (I always say "do the other things" in a JFK voice.)

On our last phone call in September, we talked about doing two new things:

  1. We will hold a series of three special calls, starting in January, to discuss The Future of PNI and the PNI Institute (please say that in a Carl Sagan voice). We will talk about how we could ramp up to a bigger and better PNI Institute that better supports PNI practitioners.
  2. I have set up a survey to find out what people want from the PNI Institute in the future. If you have used participatory narrative inquiry, or even if you are just interested in it, I would very much value your opinion about what the PNI Institute should do to support you. (Please fill out the survey in your own voice.)

That's it!

Wait - one more thing. 

A colleague recently sent me an excellent question about PNI in practice, a question that had come up in a workshop. I answered the question, and then I thought - Hey, wait a minute. I used to have a "mail bag" series on the blog, where I would post answers to questions I got in email. I stopped doing that, but it was a good way to feed the blog.

So here's the deal: if you have a question about PNI, send it to me in an email. If I think everyone would benefit from the answer, I'll answer it here. (Otherwise I'll just answer it to you.) Deal?

Now, I don't want to push this blog post off the top of the blog, because I want people to fill out my survey. So I'll just tack my "mail bag" answer on to this post. 

 The question was:

In our story sharing session yesterday, we had a discussion about removing data such as a telephone number and a name that someone mentioned in their story. Some people said they thought removing the information would hurt the integrity of the story. Others said it wouldn't. What is your opinion?

What belongs in a story and what doesn't belong depends entirely on context. In some groups and communities, at some times, about some topics, and in some circumstances of story collection and spread (meaning, who told the stories and who will see them), the inclusion of personal information can contribute to the integrity of a story. However, context can change in a second.

When people are sharing stories in person, they constantly renegotiate what belongs in the story and what doesn't. For example:

  • A person who is in the middle of telling a story might suddenly change tack and reduce the amount of personal information they reveal when a new person enters the group.
  • On the other hand, if the new person shares telling rights and can corroborate what the storyteller has been saying, the storyteller may gain confidence and add more personal information, because they now have backup.
  • If a person they are nervous about leaves the group, a storyteller might shift to telling the story more openly. Conversely, if that person was providing the storyteller with social support, the story might suddenly become more circumspect.
  • Say a group is walking together and they pass from a quiet corner into a busy hallway. The story that is being told may suddenly shrink until the group gets back to a quieter place again, when it may expand.

In other words, from moment to moment, stories shift their shapes depending on the shifting contexts in which they are being told.

The problem with collecting stories is that once a story has been recorded or written down, it can no longer adapt to its environment. It has been frozen in one contextual state.

Thus when you collect stories among groups of people who are talking to each other, their stories might become frozen into states that make less sense, or sound strange, or even pose dangers to the storytellers in other contexts.

It doesn't seem to me that people are aware of this. They don't notice that they are renegotiating the shapes of their stories as they talk, and they don't realize what freezing their story in one context and thawing it out in another is going to do. 

Of course, sometimes there are no freezing-and-thawing problems. But when the topic is personal or emotional, freeze-thaw damage can be significant. And it's invisible. It's not like people are going to tell you that they regretted participating in your project once they saw their story in another context. They'll just walk away the next time you ask them to tell a story. Or they'll tell you a safer, less meaningful story. And you won't know why.

I feel like it is the responsibility of the facilitator to help people avoid falling into situations they would never be in without the artificial freezing of their stories. That's why I ask people to leave personal information out of the stories they tell, even if they are talking to other people in person, and even if it supports the integrity or meaning of the story in the present context, because what they say will be heard in other contexts than the one in which they are telling it.

I have even gone so far as to remove personal information from stories to protect storytellers from contextual changes they didn't see coming when they told the stories. For example, in one project where stories were collected over the web, lots of people put their names and phone numbers, and the names and phone numbers of other people, into their stories (even though we asked them not to). If that information had been kept with the stories and posted somewhere, say online, it could have led to harassment of some people. I felt that it was important to take that information out of the stories, partly because I myself didn't know in what contexts the stories would end up being read.

For the same reason, I like to give people in story collection sessions the option to review their transcripts afterward and ask for changes. Hardly anybody ever asks for changes, or even asks to see the transcripts, but I think that knowing they can change what they say later on helps people to open up and trust the process.

I guess I would say that storytelling is both powerful and dangerous, and that the power of stories to communicate and make sense of the world cannot be accessed until the danger inherent in telling stories is kept under control.  

That's my answer to one of your questions - now what are your answers to my questions?

Monday, September 28, 2020

What I have been up to

Hello people. It has been increasingly bothering me that my last blog post was over a year ago. I wonder if people might think I have vanished off the face of the earth! Not yet. 

I have been working on a book. I have been working on it harder and more exclusively than I usually work on books, to the point of refusing paid work, shunning correspondence, and not keeping up with other projects (including this blog). But now I'm close to being done with the book, close enough to tell you about it.

It is not the book you think it is. For the past several years I have been working on a book (At Home with Stories) about the interplay between commercial and conversational storytelling. Two years ago, I was putting a lot of time into that book project, and I felt like I was maybe six months away from finishing it. Then I suddenly got a rush of consulting work that lasted for several months. I was glad to make some money! Then I was eager to get back to the book.

But then, just as I was getting started on the book again, my mother suddenly passed away. She was 87 years old, but we thought she had another year or two left, and besides, my mother was not the kind of person who did things without a plan. Anyway, last summer I ended up spending a lot of time at the house I grew up in, helping to clean it out and sell it. 

There is nothing like being suddenly orphaned to draw your attention to what you are going to do with the rest of your time on the planet. That's probably why I found myself thinking a lot about the Confluence framework. It had been years since I had put any time or thought into it, but somehow, at my childhood home, it reached out to me and asked me to work on it some more.

The Confluence framework is a series of two-dimensional spaces that people can use to think about organization and self-organization in situations they care about. From 2001 to 2010, its basic form (its first space) was part of the Cynefin sensemaking framework. In 2010, I started calling it the Confluence sensemaking framework. Since then it has existed only as a page on this blog. I wanted to develop it into something better, but other projects kept getting in the way (see above). Then, last summer, as I said, I decided to spend a little time on it before I plunged back into working on the At Home with Stories book.

My first thought was that I should write an academic paper. As an independent researcher, I try to publish peer-reviewed papers every so often. But I can't say that I enjoy the process. Finding the right publisher, figuring out what they want, writing the paper, dealing with the editing process, and then realizing that hardly anybody will ever read what I have written . . . is a little disheartening. Writing for everyone on earth, like I did with my first book, gives me a lot more creative energy. So I decided not to write an academic paper.

Then I thought: maybe I should make the framework into a game. I mean, it is a game, in the sense that it is a group exercise people do with materials and instructions. So I thought: why not make it into a nice cheap or free card game that lots of people could download and use? So I started working on card designs and board patterns. 

One part of the game, an essential part, I thought, was a series of example cards: situations people could think and talk about as they placed them on the spaces. I started working on a series of example cards. The explanatory texts on the example cards kept getting longer. And the game's instruction sheet kept getting longer. Then one day I realized that the Confluence framework didn't want to be a game with a book in it. It wanted to be a book with a game in it.

Another book? I was still in the middle of writing At Home with Stories, and I had started writing that book in the middle of writing More Work with Stories. Did I really want to live inside three nested book projects? But I thought: well, maybe I can write this new book quickly, and then I can get back to the other one (and then the other one after that). So I tried writing just the first chapter of the book, as a test. It took two weeks, and it was a lot of fun. So I thought, well, maybe I can finish the whole book in six months. 

It has been over a year since that day, but I am close to finishing the book. These are the chapters as they stand right now.

  1. Two Forces -- Organization and self-organization
  2. Thinking in Space -- How to use this book
  3. The Jungle -- Self-organization considered alone
  4. The Machine -- Organization considered alone
  5. Inundation -- How self-organization influences organization
  6. Regulation -- How organization influences self-organization
  7. The Mix -- How organization and self-organization interact
  8. The Void -- When organization and self-organization are weak
  9. Exercise Materials -- Copy these pages
  10. FAQ -- Questions about Confluence

Eight of the ten chapters are finished, reviewed, and revised. The ninth chapter (The Mix) is about halfway done. After that only one chapter remains (The Void). As of this writing I am fairly confident that, barring any emergencies, the book will be ready to publish in . . . January? February?

This is the book cover as it stands right now.

Writing this new book has been an act of faith and patience, but it has also been a joy and a revelation. It has helped me to develop the Confluence framework into a state that I believe will be much more useful to the world. I have reworked all of the framework's spaces, added two more spaces, and improved all of the diagrams. In fact, I now wince every time I have to look at what I wrote about the framework before. That's an excellent sign of progress.

For each of the seven book chapters that describes a space, I have allowed the space itself to suggest several situations and stories that I think will help readers understand and make use of the space. In all there will be about fifty of these examples. 

The process of discovering and exploring these examples has led me on many journeys through subjects I knew little about to start with. Some of the journeys have been simple and straightforward; others have been long, frustrating, and full of surprises. All of them have been revelatory, in the sense that I understand the ways in which organization and self-organization come together much better than I did before I started the book project. Hopefully some of that improved understanding will make its way to the people who read the book.

Even though the worked examples fill up most of the book, they are not its main purpose. They are there to support the book's main purpose, which is to help groups of people think about and talk about situations they care about. For that reason, the book contains game-like instructions and materials that I expect people to photocopy and use in group exercises. My hope is that people in families and work teams and citizen groups and all kinds of decision-making bodies will use the book to enhance their situational understanding and decision making.

The book has an upbeat, every-person style like you'd find in a science magazine. I am aiming it at a general readership with a late high school or early college reading ability. And I am forcing myself to keep it short: no longer than 200 pages in total. (That goal alone accounts for a lot of the time I've spent on the book. If I could write as long a book as I wanted, it would probably be done already.)

I have been having three people read and comment on each chapter as I have written it. In addition, I have a list of sixteen people (of all ages and backgrounds, some of whom know nothing about complexity) who have agreed to read the entire book when it's ready and send me feedback before I publish it. If you are not on that list and would like to be, I would be happy to add you. Just send me an email. The only caveat is that I am asking people to send me their feedback within two weeks of receiving the book draft, so I can get it ready to publish soon after it's done. 

So that's what I've been up to. I hope to get back to writing the other book (At Home with Stories) sometime next year. And even though I haven't been working on that book, I've been working on it in the back of my mind. I have a better plan for it than I did before. So putting it aside for a while might end up being a good thing in the long run.

A quick note about NarraFirma. I did plan to work on it for a month this fall. I have a list of small bugs and feature requests I was hoping to address. However, I decided to put off any major releases until the book is done (I do not want to lose momentum). I do plan/hope to spend a good few months on the next version of NarraFirma in the early new year. If you have any ideas for NarraFirma, or if you find any bugs, please let me know. I will be getting to it again soon.

A quick note about COVID-19. I had it. Don't get it. It's not fun. A few tips in preparation: Learn to sleep on your stomach. Find some breathing exercises online. Practice them daily. Strengthen your lungs. Get lots of aerobic exercise. Take Vitamin D. Buy a pulse oximeter, some cough medicine, some licorice tea, and a good heating pad. Take care of yourself. Practice your gratitude.

In conclusion: I am still here. I am still working hard. I hope to have something to show you soon.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Even more NarraFirma

I have just finished another NarraFirma release, again based on commissions, with more new features. Chiefly this:

I am calling it a "correlation map." It shows relationships among all the scale questions in your project in one graph. When you hover over a link you can see the scatterplot of combined values (as in this example). When you hover over a bubble you can see a histogram of values for that question.

You can also see how relationships among scale questions appear for subsets of stories based on answers to choice questions, like this:

Also included in the new release are more improvements to the catalysis process based on user feedback. For details see the blog post on

About improvements to NarraFirma

If you are a NarraFirma user, you should know that (a) I am interested to hear about your experiences and suggestions; and (b) I offer an excellent rate for open-source development commissions. You might want to look over the NF commissions page to see some of the ideas I am considering for the future of NarraFirma.

About this blog

I have not been posting on the blog much this year. I am not sure if anybody is reading it. Also, when I can find time between consulting gigs, I am working on two (nested) book projects, and I want to save my precious writing time for those. I will continue to announce things on the blog when I have things to announce; but the days of "feeding the blog" are, I think, over. (Unless a really great idea pops up that demands to be written about. That's different.)

Friday, May 17, 2019

NarraFirma keeps getting better

Last month I received some more development commissions to improve NarraFirma, so I have been working on it again, and I released a new version today.

The focus of this release has been on improving the flexibility and usability of the catalysis process.
  • You can now easily set up multiple observations per pattern and multiple patterns per observation. 
  • Many new options make your graphs and reports look the way you want them to.
  • There are new fields and new report types. 
  • The interface has been improved.
You can review the full list of changes at the NarraFirma blog.

By the way, if there is anything you would like to see improved in NarraFirma, I offer a pretty low development rate (as long as the changes are open source and reasonably useful to everyone). I am happy to talk about any improvements you would like to see.