Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Of meals and membership

Would you like me to tell you how to cook pasta? No? Pretend you do for a minute so I can make a point. It's about stories, I promise.

First, choose a pot with a good thick bottom. If the pot's bottom is thin, the water will not boil evenly, and the pasta will clump. Fill the pot with enough cold, filtered water to cover your pasta, plus another inch or two. Put the pot on the stove. Add a teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Set the burner heat to maximum.


To read the rest of this blog post (which is not about pasta), please visit the PNI Institute web site, where I've posted the whole essay.

Why is this blog post not on my blog? Because a few months ago I promised to write one short blog post for the PNI Institute per month. Since then I have succeeded in writing blog posts, but I have not succeeded in making them, um, short. So I will probably need to do at least a little cross-posting to keep up both commitments.

While you're over there, I encourage you to take a look at our new membership structure. We are actively recruiting new members at three levels:
  1. forum members, who are interested in PNI in general (and who will participate in lively discussions on the site forums)
  2. associate members, whose work overlaps significantly with PNI (and who will participate in forums and blog quarterly)
  3. practicing members, who are actively engaged in PNI project work (and who will participate in forums and blog monthly)
If you're interested in any of these forms of membership, sign up on the site and tell us what you'd like to do in the forums or via email.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Including the unincluding

Here is a question I've been mulling over for the past few months. How can you include people who don't believe in inclusion?

Put in other words:
  • How can you find common ground with people who do not believe in common ground?
  • How can you help people discover multiple perspectives when they firmly believe that only one perspective exists?
  • How can you tolerate the intolerant?
  • Is it possible to accept the views of people who refuse to accept other views?
I'm not making up this problem. Here's a quote from a recent New Yorker article about Hong Kong:
Last year, when the Party faced mounting complaints over deadly air pollution, Internet censorship, and rampant graft, it arrested lawyers, activists, and journalists in the harshest such measure in decades, and circulated an internal directive to senior members. The notice identified seven “unmentionable” topics: Western-style democracy, “universal values,” civil society, pro-market liberalism, a free press, “nihilist” criticisms of Party history, and questions about the pace of China’s reforms.
Is it possible to negotiate on the basis of universal values when universal values are themselves unmentionable?

I've been asking this question to everyone I meet for the past few months, and the most frequent response I've heard has been, "That's a good question."

One person I asked about this, let's call her Joan, told me a poignant story about inclusion. She said that she had been in a group, and they were talking about a military conflict. Several people said what they thought about the conflict, and then another person spoke up and said they disagreed with all of what had just been said. As the facilitator prepared to listen to the disagreeing person, one of the people who had already spoken said something like, "I can't stay here and listen to this! If this person is allowed to speak, I will have to leave." I asked Joan what happened next. She said something happened next that unexpectedly changed the subject (I forget what it was), and the person with the different view never got a chance to speak. So in a sense the excluder won, if only by accident.

The situation came up again (everything comes up if you are looking for it) when I saw a movie at the NCDD conference called Bring It to the Table. This documentary had a simple premise: asking Americans of all political persuasions to sit down at a table and talk about their views on current issues. At one point in the movie, the documentary makers asked a man on the street if he would like to contribute to the documentary. They told him that they were trying to include people of all views. He said something like, "Yeah, but the way you're saying that, I can tell you're a liberal. I'm a conservative, so I won't be part of it."

Another instance came from a person who told me about people at her church who had been eager to talk about inclusion - until she tried to help an actual homeless person, at which point they all got too busy to talk to her. After that happened, she struggled with the question of how she could include the suddenly-busy people in the inclusion she herself believed in.

So I've been brainstorming some strategies for including the unincluding. My question is: what can a group do when they want to include everyone, but some of the people they want to include are not willing to include everyone? If excluding excluders is out of the question, what else can be done?

I've worked my way up to sixteen strategies one might be able to use in this situation. Most of these ideas are pure speculation, since I've haven't done them in practice; but I'd rather speculate than give up. I'll explain the strategies, but I also want to ask you for help in developing this - this - whatever it is. Call it a resource. As you read the strategies, please make mental notes on things you disagree with, and on more strategies I didn't think of, so you can add them in the comments. Maybe if we work together on this we can come up with something that can be useful to people facing this situation.

Meeting people halfway

My first category of strategies has to do with accommodating excluders in some way, not necessarily by letting them exclude others, but by taking their views seriously and trying to work with them rather than against them.

Listening. You can hear excluders out to understand in detail what they want and why they want it. It can sometimes happen that when you really listen to people, you find out that you can accommodate them without excluding others. It can also happen that when people feel fully heard, their demands can lessen to objections.

Listening more deeply. The Non-Violent Communication approach believes that all feelings, including anger, come from unmet needs. A person who wants to exclude other people from a group must need something that they feel they would get from excluding people, even if they don't know themselves what it is. Finding out what people need, deep down, might help you find ways to help them get what they want without excluding others.

Bargaining. Sometimes it is possible to give excluders something they want in exchange for an agreement to include everyone. It should not be anything that gives them special treatment, but it could be something that helps them feel safer, like the option to drop out of a meeting, or the opportunity to respond in writing to something they don't like. Of course, if they get this thing, everyone should get it; but just coming up with an option that will help people feel compensated for the discomfort they feel can help people come to the table and start talking.

Collaborating. Another approach is to ask excluders to brainstorm solutions with you. Instead of participating in their black-and-white view of what can happen (those people are in, those people are out), you can say, "What are some things that might help you feel more comfortable about everyone being included?" You can ask excluders to use their imaginations to help you find creative solutions to the problem they perceive.

Giving in. Sometimes people make reasonable demands about inclusion. For example, workers might object to including their boss in a participatory workplace session, or community members might not want to include convicted felons in discussions about school plans. There are times and places in which it is not capitulation but reasonable compromise to keep some people or views out of consideration. It's important not to let your own ideas about inclusion blind you from seeing real conditions on the ground.

Bringing people around

This category of strategies has to do with changing the way people see the project or yourself so that they will accept the inclusion of everyone.

Reframing. If people responded to your presentation of full inclusion by demanding that some people be left out, you can examine the language you used to introduce the idea. Was there a subtle bias in the words you used? Can you describe the effort in a different way? Maybe you can ask someone you know who shares views with the excluders (but understands your intent) to rewrite your invitation in a way that presses fewer hot buttons.

I saw somebody use reframing during the NCDD conference I just went to. A presenter was talking about the Exhale "pro-voice" project, which gathers stories from all perspectives about abortion. An audience member spoke up and said she was uncomfortable with the project because it seemed to be coming from the left. The presenter responded that she had heard the same hesitation from both left and right. Each side thought the project was coming from the other side, when in fact it comes from no side at all. This claim helped the audience member understand that her concern, while valid, could also be seen from the opposite point of view.

I'd like to call this method - surprising people with a view of the same project from the opposite side - mirroring, because it shows people a mirror image of their concern. So one way of reframing the effort is to show excluders a mirror image, perhaps of people who want to exclude them from the project. You could say something like, "We asked them to include you; and we'd like you to agree to include them."

Enlightening. By this I mean helping people to understand that there is more common ground between themselves and those they seek to exclude than they may have realized.  Story work is particularly useful, and in use, in this area, because showing people what life looks like through the eyes of other people is often a first step towards inclusion.

This is not a quick-and-easy solution. I'd say it's more like transferring water with a sieve. Every time someone reads or hears a story, there is a chance that the story will resonate with them in such a way as to bring them into a new world of understanding. But which story will work for which person in which context is impossible to predict. You just have to keep dragging the sieve through the water, and eventually things will happen. However, sieving stories is not as bad as it sounds. Because stories spread, the effects of resonance are not linear but multiplicative. And once a story resonates, because stories are memorable, the effect usually stays around for a long while. Using stories to enlighten people about other lives is effective work for the patient and faithful.

Sponsoring. This method depends not on arguments but on relationships. If the excluders in your group don't trust you when you say your goals are positive, they might trust someone they know better. In the above example of the man distrusting the documentary makers he thought were liberal, he might have been persuaded to participate if a conservative friend had asked him to join the project.

The sponsoring approach is often used in community projects. People go into a community and persuade the leaders to participate, then ask the leaders to help them approach everyone else. I've used this method myself in collecting stories.

I've also seen sponsorship used in a more creative way by the Living Room Conversations project, which brings together people who disagree about political matters in the US. The basic setup is simple: two friends who disagree about a political matter find a few more friends each, and they meet in somebody's living room to talk. The web site provides simple instructions for structuring the conversation around questions that get people talking. This type of effort merges sponsorship with self-organization, and I think it holds promise.

Creating conditions that limit damage

These strategies are for situations in which it is impossible to work with excluders or change their minds, but you do have some control over how people will interact in the group.

Censoring. It is reasonable to sometimes limit what people can say when you know that what they plan to say will destroy the inclusiveness of the group. The best strategy, I think, is to limit everyone equally by setting up ground rules that apply to all. You might say something like, "Everyone is free to say how they feel, but no one here is allowed to make personal attacks on others." If you know people will enter the group determined to campaign against the membership of some others, you can set up ground rules that forbid such campaigns, as long as they apply to everyone.

Marginalizing. If you know that some people will attempt to get other people removed from the group, you can set up multiple group roles, some of which have less power to make decisions, and not allow excluders into the "inner circle." This seems manipulative to me, but when you are doing something with inclusive goals, maybe sometimes you have to defend your vision of inclusion. Allowing people to be in the group yet not in control of the group's actions (like pushing people out) can help you to include everyone - at some level - without causing the group to splinter because of it.

Staging. What I mean by staging is creating a series of projects that slowly move from separation to inclusion. I've used this method in story projects. Let's say you have two groups, and each is unwilling to include the other in their work with stories. You can lead the two groups through the process of working with stories separately. Then, when people have developed some trust in the process, you can let the stories mediate between the two groups. Eventually, you may be able to bring people closer to a place where they are willing to work with each other in the same project. Even if the actual people never speak directly to each other, getting people to the point where they are willing to consider the stories of the other people is a step in the direction of inclusion.

Obfuscating. Another way to limit the damage caused by excluders is to make identifying information about group members difficult to find. Making information impossible to find might backfire, as people will feel they have been tricked. But if the information is not obvious, most people will not try very hard to find it.

I've been thwarted in being intolerant by obfuscation myself. When I read an article in a magazine, I've noticed that my eyes often flick to the author's name, looking for information on gender and ethnicity. I don't do this on purpose, and I don't even like that I'm doing it. But somehow I just can't help checking people out. I'll bet everyone does this. It's probably because "hearing" people "talk" in writing without seeing their faces and hearing their voices is a relatively new phenomenon in human life. We want contextual information to help us evaluate what people say, and we can't help looking for it. But I've noticed that in some magazines, the ones where I know that the person's name will be at the end of the article, I don't try to check out the writer, even though I know I could. I just read.

This makes me wonder if most of our in-group, out-group feelings are not conscious choices, on which we are prepared to spend energy, but momentary flickers of impulse. And this makes me think that it's at least possible that thwarting momentary impulses might reduce the extent to which people exclude others before listening to them. What would happen if people read stories and only found out who told the stories later? Might they, at least once in a while, learn something about the people they seek to exclude?  

On the other hand, there's a dark side to obfuscation. I've been on enough anonymous internet forums, and probably you have too, to know that being unaware of the true facts about people creates its own problems. It's hard to know who to trust when nobody is who they say they are. And it's way too easy to be hurtful when nobody can see your face.

But not all information is the same. Information on the way people behave toward others does not have to be coupled with identifying information, such as gender or sexual orientation, that might cause people to want to exclude others (without considering their behavior). I believe that the tension between thwarting prejudice and eroding trust can be managed if the system is designed to separate labeling each other from learning about each other.

I've seen (and you've probably seen) healthy online communities where people manage the tension between labeling and learning in online forums, even when the system they are using is not designed for it. People use cartoon images and movie stills for their profile images (that's obfuscation of labels), and they develop ways to denote reputations (that's learning about each other) through responses to posts (nova992 is a troll, when smartguy12 talks we listen, alex_p knows a lot, etc). But people shouldn't have to fight with the systems they use to create healthy communities. I've seen some promising signs, such as systems that replace the idiotic "like" button with more useful things like "useful," "insightful," "informative," and so on. But the bulk of online software does not yet support a healthy balance, and as long as that's true, people will have structural problems being inclusive in online environments.
Using community norms

The previous three categories had to do with using direct contact and structural design to deal with excluders. This last category uses the strengths of the community itself to fix the problem.

Ignoring. As any parent or pet owner will tell you, sometimes the best way to deal with difficult behavior is to simply ignore it. Sometimes it works to pretend that people didn't try to exclude anyone, and hope that they will use the space your silence gives them to come around to inclusion while saving face. When people object to other people or views being included, you can change the subject or get too busy to respond, and hope the problem goes away. If the group is an ongoing one, ignoring exclusion might give people time to reflect quietly and perhaps act differently the next time the issue comes up.

Modeling. If you are the leader in your project, even if you are not a leader in your community, people will take their cues from you. Within reason, what you do and how you speak to people will have an impact on what other people think is acceptable. So you can model inclusion as you speak to people about the project. And you can hope that excluders, and everyone else in the group, will notice what you are doing.

Modelling can also be combined with sponsorship. If you can get people who disagree with you on some important things to agree that the group should be inclusive, each person can model that behavior to others who respect their opinions more.

Exposing. Sometimes it's useful to simply make it known to everyone in a group that some people want to exclude others. I've noticed that when people want to change a group in ways that they think will not be popular, they tend to pull the leader aside and whisper in their ear. If someone is singling you out with demands that the group should exclude some people, you can repeat their demands to the full group and see if they still want to insist on them. This is also a good way to test your own biases, because once the full group knows about the demands, they will be able to provide a variety of perspectives on them. You may find that you are not as aware of what the entire community wants as you thought you were.

Restoring. It's natural to look at attempts to exclude people as hostile acts. But there is another way to look at it. From the point of view of restorative justice, attempts to exclude people are signs that the entire community has a problem. What if you were to view excluders not as obstacles to progress but as indicators, as canaries in your coal mine?

The Wikipedia page on restorative justice says, "Restorative justice involves both victim and offender and focuses on their personal needs." You know that you see your excluders as offenders, but in what ways do they see themselves as victims? What can you learn from looking at the problem in that way? Can you create a dialogue between the excluders and others, even if it's only an indirect one, about why they want to exclude people, and what that means about the community? Can you heal the rift in your community that is causing some people to want to exclude others, so that you can all begin to work together?

But what if your attempt to form an inclusive group was an attempt to heal rifts in your community? Then it's not the right time for that kind of solution yet. There are many methods that address community problems, and not all of them involve everyone speaking to each other. You can include people in a project without including them in a group. I've done lots of story projects where we heard from different groups without pressuring them to include each other in anything. It's not an ideal situation, but you have match your methods to the conditions on the ground. If you don't know the conditions on the ground before you start trying to include people in something, you had better do some separated, parallel listening before you attempt to bring people together.

Seen in that way, excluders are enablers, because they can help you see more clearly what you need to do to bring people together when the time is right. In fact, I would go so far as to seek out views on exclusion during parallel listening. If I wanted to bring people in my community together into one inclusive group, I might ask people a question like, "If you were in a group session, and the presence of somebody in the room made you want to leave, who would that be? What would they say or do that would make you want to leave the session?"  That way I might avoid some unpleasant surprises later on.

In conclusion

What have I learned by doing this little exercise? I feel that I now have a deeper set of resources to call on when (not if) I encounter this situation in the future. I also feel that my original assessment of the situation - excluders are unpleasant obstacles - has changed over the past few months of mulling over this idea. Now I can see that, not only might excluders be real people with real concerns, but they might even be helpful (in a not very nice, but still useful, way).

In general, I think that if we got into the habit of always coming up with lots of strategies to deal with difficult situations - even if we already have one we particularly like, or maybe especially so - we might be able to respond in more creative ways to whatever comes next. If the goal changed from "let's find a solution" to "let's think of as many solutions as we can," we might be better able to put together something that works.

As I said above, if you think of any more strategies, or if you think of any flaws in the ones I have listed here, please let me know in the comments section. Comments make the world go round!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What I learned at the NCDD 2014 Conference

So I'm back from my first real conference in ten years, and I learned a lot. This is the conference I mentioned a few blog posts back, of the National (US) Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.

The first thing I learned was: I'm ten years older than I was ten years ago. Conferences have always been exhausting, but this one felt like a strange dream in which crowds of faces surged and receded while I surfed on crests of ... of ... lots of stuff. However, I survived; I have vague memories of the event; and I have some things to tell you.

Natural story workers

One thing that surprised me at the conference was how many people there do story work. Only a few people said they do story work, but a lot of people worked with stories in some way, while they were trying to get people to understand each other.

My initial reaction on pointing this out to myself was, "Sure, but they don't really do story work. It's not as intense or authoritative or authentic or deep or...." And in the midst of trying to justify myself to myself, I realized that I may be on my way to becoming pompous.

Do you remember the thing I'm always saying about how the best storytellers are the people who don't realize they are telling stories? About how, once people begin to be proud of the quality of their storytelling, the quality of their storytelling declines? I'm starting to wonder if there is a parallel process in doing story work. Maybe the best story workers are people who work with stories without knowing it. Maybe, over the years, I have become not only a story performer but a story-work performer as well. I'd like to think I have passed through the story-work-performer state into a state of deep wisdom, where I have become both natural and skilled; but, alas, I find that my skills of denial cannot rise to the challenge of this assertion.

Solutions to pomposity and story-work performing I can come up with include the following.
  1. I could stop doing this work for a while - six months or longer - and see if the pomposity goes away. However, this is not an option, because I still have many promises to keep.
  2. I could keep reminding myself that I am not the owner of anything (except my good name) and that many people have had great ideas about story work. But I've been doing that all along, and it doesn't seem to have saved me. No, humility alone is not enough. I need to take positive action.
  3. I am always encouraging people to share stories. So why don't I encourage myself to share story work? If I can make a conscious effort to recognize, respect, and connect with the story work other people are doing - even if they don't call it that, or maybe especially if they don't call it that - I can regulate myself to open my mind to all forms of story work. I've done some of this in the past, but honestly, I've done far less than I could have done.
Number three is my new plan. One part of the plan is the "translation dictionary" idea, which I think I mentioned here before. This idea is to develop a set of (relatively brief, don't worry) writings about how PNI connects to as many fields and approaches and methods as I can possibly find. Before I went to the NCDD conference, I thought I should build a translation dictionary because it would be helpful to you. Now I think I need it even more than you do.

My least-favorite assumption is still alive and well

I am sorry to tell you that the "story work means telling stories" assumption is still going strong. People are still very little aware of natural, everyday story sharing and the functions it provides in society and in communities and organizations. When people talked to me about ideas for using stories in their work, their first impulse was always to talk about how they might use stories to communicate with the public -- i.e., to tell stories.

I don't ever want to minimize the function of storytelling as purposeful communication. It is reasonable and laudable to convey essential messages through stories. However, if this is the only thing people think they can do with stories, or get from stories, that's a sad thing. Because using stories to communicate is just the tip of the iceberg of what stories can do for a community or organization (or society). Those of us who care about stories have more work to do to get that word out.

It's getting crowded in here

In More Work with Stories, I connect PNI with nine other fields. But I have been realizing lately that I could probably connect it with ninety, if I broadened the scope to methods and approaches as well. Getting involved with the NCDD has helped me to learn that I have been hiding in a hole in terms of the many ways people have developed to help people make sense of things together. Just because a method doesn't say anything about stories doesn't mean it doesn't have anything to do with stories. If it has to do with people and communication, it has something to do with stories.

For example, as part of my NCDD learning, I recently bought The Change Handbook, which describes 61 methods for helping people create positive change. Can you guess how many of those 61 methods I was familiar with before I found the book? Eleven. Why have I not been building more connections? (Because I've been writing a book, that's why; but still.) Now I want to know: How does PNI connect with the World Café? The Art of Hosting? Dynamic Facilitation? Wisdom Circles? Bohm Dialogue? Open Space? Systems Dynamics? Charrettes? Non-Violent Communication? Future Search? And so on.

This universe of connections is yet another reason to build a translation dictionary. I had been thinking about the dictionary as a way for people to understand PNI, and above I described it as a way I could share story work more completely. But a translation dictionary could also help people move back and forth between PNI and a variety of other methods as they build the suites and composites that best fit their contexts and purposes. 

I started thinking through what a template for a translation dictionary might look like. I came up with this process:
  1. Summarize each of the two approaches with a paragraph or two. (One will always be PNI, but I'm trying to be general.)
  2.  Look for pairings in each of three areas: goals or principles; concepts or ideas; and methods or techniques. Come up with at least one and at most three pairings in each category.
  3. For each pairing, decide whether it's a similarity or a contrast. If it's a similarity, describe how the two elements are similar, and how they are (subtly) different. If it's a contrast, describe how the elements differ, and how they are (subtly) similar or at least complementary.
  4. For each pairing, describe how it might be used in practice to combine what is best in the two approaches.
I visualize the whole pattern as something like this:

...where the grey circles indicate similarities, and the yin/yang symbols represent contrasts. Here I have vertical circle placements showing the relative centrality of each element to each approach, but that might be too fussy. I like diagrams, but I know some people would not get much out of the extra visual information.

So as I thought about this template, I realized that I had seen something similar before. What I was creating looked a little like a template for a pattern language. You could even say that my categories of goals, concepts, and methods are like the pattern language elements of context, problem, and solution.

Here's a question for you: Everybody loves pattern languages, and rightly so, but why do we have to stop there? Could there be more kinds of languages than just of patterns? What about connection languages that, instead of describing patterns, describe connections? Might pattern languages, which are typically used within approaches (or transcending approaches), contribute to a lack of sharing among approaches? Maybe pattern languages could connect to connection languages, so that you could follow links from inside a particular approach, through its connection language, and into the pattern languages of other approaches.

What if lots of people made connection languages? What if, someday, it would be considered uncool to talk about one's approach without also showing one's connection language? What if connection languages were printed on cards, and people could use them to brainstorm about ways they could combine different approaches and methods to get results for their communities and organizations? What if, instead of going shopping for isolated approaches, groups could find the best combinations of methods and ideas for their contexts and purposes?

These are just wild speculations, and some might not agree with them. My plan right now is to make a start on my own connection language, using a template like the one above (which will evolve), and fold it into the second book. If you are interested in the idea of connection languages and want to work with me, or do something similar, let me know.

The great benefit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time

I went to the NCDD conference pretty much by accident. A champion of my book told me that he was going to the conference and planned to tell people there about my book. I said, hmm, what's this, and if people there might like my book, should I think about going too? I had been thinking that I could start going to conferences again, now that my son is old enough that I can (stand to) leave home for a few days. So I joined the NCDD and signed up. (Sadly, my champion was not able to go due to a family emergency.)

Ending up in what seemed to be the wrong place at the wrong time was a revelation. Even though I might never have chosen this conference without someone else planning to go there first, it was just the right conference for me to go to. I have long complained about how there are no good story-listening conferences to go to, how people who do the work I do have to show up as beggars at knowledge management and decision support and management conferences. But I've now come to realize that this poverty is a strength in disguise. I would have learned so much less at a conference where everyone already knew what I had to say, and where I already knew what everyone else had to say. It is so very mind-expanding to go to a conference you feel like you have no reason to go to! In fact, I am now resolved to seek out conferences that have as little as possible in common with what I have done before. If I will not be hopelessly lost and over my head, I should not go. If you know of a conference I should not go to, please let me know about it!

Essential energy

What excited me most about this conference was that I was able to connect with people who shared my passion for helping people get along and create better futures together. I sometimes feel alone in what I do, like nobody cares if we stop telling each other stories, like people are content to see stories used only to manipulate and influence. Our nascent PNI Institute is building a new community in the story space, so that's changing already. But the people I met at the NCDD conference really cared about participatory democracy; about inclusion; about bringing power to the people; about bridging divides; about finding better ways forward. They didn't consciously work with stories for the most part, but they cared about the things I cared about. Is this my tribe? I'm not a one-tribe person; I like to flit among several tribes. But this might be one of them.

The rest of the story

I have placed my full conference notes here for those who would like to read about what went on (that I saw) at the conference.

My favorite quotes from my conference notes:
  1. Where do you find the public voice? It's not a trained voice. We hear it every day in every place. In waiting rooms, in bars, around water coolers, in lines at the grocery stores. It is all around us. So why is it unavailable? Because we don't recognize it for what it is. It is too ordinary.
  2. There is no them once you know them.
  3. It's healing for people to experience people with other beliefs just listening to them.
  4. Polarization is the antidote to American ingenuity.
  5. Deliberation by itself is not nearly enough when big systems have strong tendencies, and when a merciless climate clock keeps ticking. It is not just an absence of public voice, but strong structural problems. There needs to be an ongoing critical conversation about what our world needs.
  6. We need real human experiences, and a non-judgmental, non-politicized space to describe experiences.
  7. Instead of coming to agreement, we can take the need to agree away and simply try to understand each other. If you do that, it is easier to understand, and you get to deeper issues.
  8. We need to listen to each other in an open-hearted way. We need to have collaborative solutions that have the possibility of going to the next level of facing big issues.
  9. We learn from breaking things, making mistakes, trying to do things when we don't know how. A game is like that: a challenge you need to approach via play. People know how to play games. If we want to make it accessible, we have to draw on things they know. Drawing on inherent forms of communication and action works.
  10. Giving people a voice ensures that justice and peace aren't just about fighting each other. It's the fact that people can work out their issues on their own. Justice will come about because of a common sense of peace.
  11. We have the world's greatest renewable resource: creativity.
Hooray for creativity! And for collaboration.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Introducing the Participatory Narrative Inquiry Institute

Well, folks, I've gone and got myself mixed up in another crazy scheme to save the world.

The PNI Institute is a new membership organization for people who are enthusiastic about growing and improving participatory narrative inquiry. It has been created as a collaborative effort by Aiden Choles, Ron Donaldson, Harold van Garderen, and myself.

Our group is in its early days, but we agree on a few important things:
  • Our focus is on quality and constant improvement;
  • we want to form a self-organized, fluid network of equals;
  • our diversity is our strength;
  • we want to share our knowledge with each other and with the world; and
  • we want to keep doing PNI, so we will collaborate on getting funding for PNI projects.
You can read more about these founding ideals on our about page.

Right now the site hosts a group blog, to which I will be posting monthly (don't worry, I will keep this blog up as well). I've already written my first post, in which I recount my history with PNI and list my hopes for the institute. (The other first posts are also worth reading. The diversity of the group is already exciting!)

We plan to expand our membership, though exactly how we go about doing that is still in discussion. An online forum, a collaborative wiki, an online peer-reviewed journal, and some sort of unconference are all being discussed as well. Expect to see more details on the web site as time goes by.

If you have any ideas about what sort of organization you would like to see grow around PNI, or if you want to get involved in the PNI Institute, please let me know, either in the comments or in email. I'm all ears.

One more thing: I will be in Washington, D.C. from the evening of October 15 to the morning of October 20, to attend the NCDD conference. If you live nearby and would like to meet me in person, send me an email and we'll see if we can connect.

Monday, September 22, 2014

From the archives

I have some top secret projects going on right now, but I have nothing ready to show you just yet (mwahahaha). However, the other day I was poking around in some old files (can't remember why), and I thought, gee, I wonder if some of my blog readers might like to see this old musty stuff. So if you have been following this blog for a while, maybe you'd like to see what some of these ideas looked like when they were getting started. I don't pretend to have been doing this work long enough to retrospect seriously, but as I approach 15 years in story work I can't help looking back and thinking about how things have changed (and how they haven't).

Story-colored glasses: These are slides from a talk I gave in mid-1999 about several issues related to stories: representation and visualization; indexing and deconstruction; virtual communities; and a "story circle" idea (which later became rakontu). The talk was called "Story Colored Glasses," and I liked the joke so much I used it again for this blog. (I actually posted this talk on the rakontu web site months ago, at the request of a correspondent, but I doubt anybody noticed it there.)

Observations: These are slides from a talk I gave at the end of 2000 on the things I had learned while researching stories in organizations for two years. This was the original "eight observations" talk, which turned into the first posts on this blog. If you've read (or glanced at) my book you will find that almost all of these slides look familiar.

StoryML: These are slides from a 2000 project in which I collected 400 questions people ask (have asked) about stories. That project led to the story dimensions of form, function, and phenomenon. (I am embarrassed to admit that in this talk I was still referring to the third dimension as story "trace." I didn't think of the alliterative term "phenomenon" until years later.)

Mass Narrative Representation: This is a report from a 2004 research project I did (for a US defense subcontractor) whose goal was to explore representations and visualizations that could help people consider lots of stories at the same time. The "MNR" project (as I called it) was only a four-month project, and half-time at that, but it had a big impact on my work in the years that followed.

I learned a few things by looking back at these old files. First, my embarrassment rule is in fine working order. There are a lot of things in these old files that I find just plain silly a decade or more later.

It's also true that I'm still working on a lot of the same ideas as I see in these pages. I could be embarrassed about that, but I don't think I am. People sometimes criticize novelists for writing the same story over and over. But what is life for, if not to find ourselves coming round again to the same places? And aren't we lucky when we can do that? And isn't society better off when we can? I'm glad to look into the faded mirror of the past, and to think about reading this blog post again (with some embarrassment, I hope) another 15 years into the future.