Friday, November 20, 2009

Eight observations - 4th: listening: dangers

(This is the fourth in a series of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. See the first post for more information about the origin of the "eight things.")

(And then, in the fourth of the series of eight, this is the third in a nested series of four: telling stories, making stories happen, listening to stories, and herding stories.)

(And then, this post was getting so long that I decided to just go through the dangers in listening to stories, and leave the opportunities for the next post.)

Ahem. Sorry about the nesting.

Listening to stories usually means collecting stories by asking people to tell them to you: in person, in workshops and other group sessions, over the web. But it can also mean looking through already collected material for the stories in it: phone logs, reports, historical documents, and so on.

I am more familiar with the dangers and opportunities in this area than in some of the others, since I've done more work professionally in this area. So I'll describe three dangers and three opportunities, each in increasing order of magnitude.

First listening danger: Dead silence

The smallest danger in story listening is that the collection attempt fails. You try to collect many stories but get few. I've seen this happen when the people collecting the stories don't have a lot of experience in designing questions, or when people don't know how to recover during an interview or workshop when stories are not getting told. I remember on one story project we had to add extra tags to distinguish the relatively few stories from the great mass of opinions and lectures. It wasn't the fault of the respondents that so many non-stories got collected; the problem was in the project and question design. Sometimes communication about the nature and goals of the project can lead people to give you other things than stories. People are not used to being asked to tell stories, and if you are not quite clear about that you will often get other things such as opinions, statements or scenarios.

The reason this danger is the smallest is that you can recover from it by trying again. It is not always easy to get the same people to give you more time, but you can often get other people from the same group to talk to you. In fact, I usually recommend to people who are just starting to collect stories that they plan some very small collections at the start, of even 20 or 30 stories, so they can see for themselves what works and what doesn't. After they do this, they are more able to adapt when they start doing larger projects.

Second listening danger: Self-delusion mastery

Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessep: [shouts] You can’t handle the truth!
 - A Few Good Men, 1992
Sometimes people collect stories, but they sabotage their own goals when it comes to getting anything useful out of the effort. This can happen because of inexperience, but sometimes it happens because deep down people don't really want to know the truth about the issue they are exploring. They may be intentionally giving it lip service, or they may not be aware of their own fears and mental blocks. Inexperience and self-sabotage are mutually reinforcing, because as people gain more confidence in doing story projects they become less afraid of what they will find.

I class myself in the same category as those who sabotage their own projects, by the way. Anybody who has ever said "Does this dress make me look fat" or "How did you like the soup" or "What do you think of my resume" is also in the same category. Meaning to say: everybody; but everybody can learn to recognize self-sabotage and do less of it.

There are many ways to accomplish the feat of self-sabotage, intentionally or otherwise. As I looked back over projects I've helped clients with, I came up with fifteen ways, and I'm sure I've missed a few. In fact I'd say this is the most common negative outcome I've seen in story projects. Self-sabotage is particularly prevalent in organizations or groups where a culture of denial is strong. People collect stories and then say, "See? We knew there wasn't a problem" or "See? We knew those people wouldn't tell us anything useful."

With each of these ways to collect stories while avoiding collecting stories, I've made a suggestion about avoiding the situation in carrying out your own projects.

1. Too-safe questions. Sometimes people want to know something, but are afraid to ask the tough questions, so instead they ask very safe questions that tiptoe around the issue. As a result they don't get the stories they need to address the problem. You'd be amazed by how many people have said "we'd love to know about this issue" but when you show them some questions they say "oooh, we can't possibly ask that!".

Granted, this problem is often not imaginary. Asking revealing questions can be tantamount to publically admitting guilt. But there are ways to work out compromises so that you still get most of what you need without showing your dirty laundry. There are ways to protect your public image while still getting the stories you need. You can ask people to sign non-disclosure agreements so that they will not tell everyone what you have asked them about. Or you can ask the safer questions widely and the more dangerous questions in smaller groups. Or you can ask about a general issue and hope the specific problem you want to find out about comes up. Or you can anonymize more heavily than usual so that people will tell you more of the truth you need to hear. Or you can restrict what is done with what is collected so that only a small number of "coal-face miners" are exposed to all of the nasty raw truth. It's sort of like working with dangerous chemicals in a laboratory with proper ventilation and rigid safety protocols: much can be done if you are careful. It sometimes takes some sensemaking work (including opening old wounds) to find these compromises, however, and not everybody is ready or able to do that.

2. Coded questions. Sometimes people ask questions with hidden codes whose message is "yes we are asking about this but you had better not tell the truth about it." This is also known as the "do you want to keep your job" survey. There are many, many ways to transmit signals of expected compliance, and many of them get inserted without the project planners even knowing they are doing it.

Sensemaking exercises and deliberate diversity in the planning group help with this issue. But the best guard against this danger is to pilot-test questions and ask people for their reactions to the survey. Such pilot testing has to be done carefully, however, since coded messages of expected compliance can reach all the way into questions about coded messages of expected compliance. In other words, the question "does this survey make you feel like it is asking the question do want to keep your job?" might be interpreted as "if you want to keep your job, say this survey is not asking the question do you want to keep your job." Sometimes a naive outsider can help unravel that mess because they can say what cannot be said.

3. Hopeless questions. Sometimes people have low confidence in the people they are asking to tell stories, or in the process itself; so they ask limp, redundant, pitiful, self-apologizing questions. This conveys a sense of hopelessness so that respondents feel the survey is not worth answering. Respondents might feel that what they say will not be listened to, or the questions may simply be so boring that they don't engage people. This sometimes happens when people have to write questions for people they have disagreements with or contempt for or little knowledge of, or when they are doing a project because someone else is making them and they don't think it will work. It reminds me of when my sister and I used to sell cookies door-to-door as kids. Our iron-clad winning pitch was, "You don't want any of these cookies, do you?" (We also had a pattern of either running away or collapsing in a giggling heap when people answered the door, which also didn't work.)

Pilot testing helps with this issue; but if you try to write questions and they come out limp, you might want to consider why you are doing the project and whether you really want to do it. If you can't summon the energy to find something that excites you about the project, you won't be able to get respondents to respond with energy either. Use fantasy to bring out your hopes and dreams for the project. What would make it succeed fantastically well? Then harness some of that energy in what you ask people to tell stories about.

4. Fantastic questions. Sometimes the people planning a story project get so caught up in the story-ness of it that they want to hear amazing, astounding stories, and they try too hard to get people to tell them. They ask questions that are too elaborate or require too much of a creative response, or their questions have a hidden invitation for people to perform Hollywood versions of their experiences. The result is two-fold. Some people step up to the challenge and provide wonderful performances that reveal almost nothing of their true feelings or experiences. Other people decide they are unqualified to perform their meagre tales and walk sadly away. If you want to ask people to tell stories, put away your McKee first, and put away all the grand narrative ideas that go with it. You need to communicate to people that you really do want to hear what they have to say, even it if is very simple and plain and boring. If you ask people to polish their experiences, or even hint that you are looking for polish, you will get polish without meaning. An indicator: if you catch anybody apologizing for their stories, you are not asking the right questions in the right way.

5. Off-base questions. Sometimes people ask questions that make no sense to the respondents, or are even offensive or inappropriate, because those asking don't know enough about the worlds of those answering to ask the right things (and sometimes don't want to know). The few responses that do come back are nonsensical, sabotaging or self-promoting.

An extreme form of the off-base question is the question so far off-base that it invites manipulation of the purpose of the project. The project planners never know that what they got makes no sense because it was deliberately destroyed. This reminds me of something that happened when I was in college. I had a physics professor whom I thought was a great teacher. He was always showing us wonderful experiments, and his delight in his subject was infectuous (at least to me). The only problem was, he was under-confident and didn't convey authority. He stammered and mumbled, and some of his experiments went wrong, and he often wasn't sure what he was going to say or do next. I thought this was endearing, but some of the students thought it was a great opportunity to make fun of him. When we were asked to do an evaluation of this professor, I heard some of the students laughing about how they would ruin his evaluation as a joke. Some of them even cheated by putting in multiple bad reviews. He didn't get tenure, partly because of that bad evaluation. I wrote a letter to the university supporting him and telling the story of the cheating, but I'm not sure it made any difference. To some extent I blame the survey instrument the university used in making that outcome so easy for the students to game. I can't remember that professor's name, but I always hope he went on to a stellar career. He reminded me of myself, kind of blundering and not very confident but useful if given a chance.

If you are asking people to tell you stories and you know nothing at all about their worlds, try doing some broad, undirected story collection first. Just ask people to talk about happy times and sad times, or surprises. Or find some other sources of information about their lives. Find a few "informants" who can give you insights, or find works of fiction that delve into the experience of those you want to talk to. Pretend you are a method actor and get into character. Learn more about the points of view and experiences you want to tap into before you try asking people about anything specific.

6. Poorly aimed questions. Sometimes people ask questions that are focused on one issue, and that issue turns out not to be important to respondents, so they don't respond to it. But the burning issue that all the respondents want to talk about is not asked about. I've seen this happen when story projects are embedded in larger "task force" type projects where goals are so rigidly structured as to plan against surprise. This is self-sabotage by excessive planning. Usually if there are some things you really do need to know about, it is best to balance focus with breadth and ask a few questions that open the field to anything people might want to contribute.

7. Question overload. Sometimes people ask good questions, but they ask too many of them. Usually this is because their project's goals are overly ambitious, or they think they will never get people to answer their questions again, or their storytellers are required to answer, or they are under-confident in the process. If you ask more than seven or so questions per story you are pretty much guaranteeing that you will get nothing useful after the first few (not even the first seven, because people peek ahead and are discouraged). I remember one project where somebody forced respondents to answer close to a hundred questions about each story. You can imagine how many of those answers represented real thoughts. I've written more about this subject, including the consideration of the cognitive budget of your respondents, in the Asking about stories section of Working with Stories, so I won't say more about it here.

8. Asking the wrong people. Sometimes people ask good questions, but they aren't willing to ask the people who will tell the stories they need to hear. For example, they can't stand the idea of asking the patients so they ask the doctors, or they can't stand the idea of asking customers so they ask the customer-facing staff what the customers think. Again, this results in stories that don't address the issues, giving people a way to sidestep the real problem.

What I've done sometimes to help clients plan whom they will ask to tell stories is to use the Cynefin framework to talk about formal and informal communities or groups that might have stories to tell about the issues of concern. For example, known-space groups might be those with official duties in the area; knowable-space groups might be professional associations; complex-space groups might be support groups for people with problems; and chaotic-space groups might be people protesting some aspect of the issue. Often while doing this people become aware of opportunities for exploring an issue through story listening that they had not considered before.

9. Asking at the wrong time. Sometimes people ask good questions of the right people, but they pick inopportune times for it. This usually happens because the project planners don't know enough (or don't want to know enough) about the people telling stories to know when is a good time. They call people during dinner, or they try to catch people on their way out of the doctor's office, or they ask people for failure stories right after a success, or vice versa. Pilot testing and knowing more about storytellers is the cure here.

10. Mismatched collection methods. Sometimes people write good questions, and the right number of questions, and they find the right people, but they approach the collection in the wrong way. This is often a "looking for your keys under the light because that's where the light is" problem. Sometimes people want to do what seems more comfortable even if it isn't the best way. I worry about people gravitating to web surveys because it's cheaper, when it doesn't work for all groups and topics. There are many ways to collect stories, but not all work equally well for every group and about every topic. For example, it's hard to get most older people to answer a web survey, and it's hard to get teenagers to come to a group session. Delicate topics require extra thought and planning.

Sometimes I've seen people with projects where they need to approach two groups of people, and the two groups need different approaches, but the idea of colllecting stories in different ways is too difficult, so they just pick one and run with it. However, what happens in that case is that one group gets over-represented in the story collection, or one group tells different or better stories, because one group had a better fit with the collection technique than the other.

The best antidote to this problem is knowing your storytellers and knowing the pluses and minuses of the different collection methods. Be careful reading collection-method documents in isolation, because not all such documents tell you what can go wrong or where the methods are not appropriate. It's better to get a sense of the spectrum of methods available before you choose one (or two).

11. Not collecting stories. Sometimes people don't know how to ask questions whose answers are stories, or don't bother to learn. Worse, they don't know they aren't getting stories, so they don't try to fix the problem until it's too late. So they go all the way into trying to work with the stories, but since they didn't actually collect stories the magic of narrative is missing and they get only bland predictable outcomes. They do everything "right" except that they are using story methods on non-stories, so nothing works. This can sometimes be a problem with "naive interviewing," or having inexperienced people conduct narrative interviews. It can be a great asset to have interviewers who are naive about the subject of the project, but they need to know a little bit about how to recognize storytelling and how to encourage it. Making sure that you and all of your interviewers/facilitators know the basics about stories and storytelling helps avoid this problem.

12. Turning away from stories. Sometimes people ask the right number of great questions of the right people, and in the right ways, and at the right times: but then when the stories are collected, they don't want anything to do with them. They go to all the effort of collecting things, but when it comes down to actually confronting what people said, they can't bear it. This is as human, raw, and understandable as what is in the stories themselves; but it can ruin a project. Sometimes people want an outsider to be a sort of emotional sponge: to read everything, "distill" the emotional rawness out of it, and "boil it down" into something they can better handle. Boiling down is useful in a logistical sense because collected stories are often redundant. But sometimes part of the motivation in having someone like me "handle" the collected stories is to avoid confronting the mass of narrative oneself. Granted, it is easier for an outsider to handle the mass of narrative, and if it helps the project come to a useful conclusion it may be worth doing. But I won't pretend that reading raw stories is easy for anyone. On some projects, especially those dealing with disease or mistreatment (perceived or real), I have had a hard time coping with the mass of disappointment and pain in the stories. It wears me out emotionally, as my family will attest. I have to warn people who haven't done this yet: the colors drain out of the world when you are exposed to hundreds or thousands of stories of tattered hopes. The kind of catalytic work I do helps best when it complements exposure to raw stories, not replaces or reduces it. I try very hard to pass on the emotions I find in stories, even or especially the negative ones, in what I produce to catalyze sensemaking and discussion. I try to highlight, not hide, the raw emotions I find.  But sometimes people are so determined in their efforts to turn away from what has been said (even if they displayed great energy at the start of the project) that they pick and choose from what I attempt to highlight.

When people turn away from the stories they have collected, there is not much chance of any real change taking place and the project was essentially doomed from the start. This is another "do you really want to do this project" issue. If you are going to start collecting stories, you should be prepared to find out what they say, and you should prepare others who are involved in the project to face it as well. Think about Dune or some other "fear is the mind-killer" story and brace yourself. It will be difficult, but it will be worth it.

13. Fighting with stories. Sometimes people do all the up-front stuff right and collect some great stories, and they read them, but while they are reading them they work their hardest to deny everything the stories say. They fight with what they have collected. Many times I've seen people find a reason (any reason) to disqualify the stories that challenge their world views. They say the stories are "hysterical" or the storytellers are "uneducated" or "irrational" or ... many, many other manifestations of denial. When people "yes but" the stories they have collected, they are destroying the insights they could be gaining, because whether the stories are hysterical is beside the point. The point is that people felt that way about their experiences, and that is what you wanted to find out. Again, if you really want to hear what people have experienced, prepare yourself to let the stories ripple over you without struggling against them. Listening to real, raw, wild stories is like being caught in rapids: if it doesn't hurt, you're not in the rapids yet.

14. Letting story projects die. Sometimes people collect great stories, and take things all the way through looking at them, sensemaking, finding patterns, getting to insights ... and then they let the project, and the stories, die. They write a bland report and stuff it in a file repository somewhere, then move on. It reminds me of the way some people go to church on Sundays: we did our soul searching and now we can get back to normal business. People reason: if anybody says we don't listen to our customers we can drag this thing out and display it, but we never actually expected to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to change. 

I can think of two ways to keep story projects alive and producing new insights: repeat them on a regular basis, and fold them into new storytelling. Repeating story projects is as simple as making the project into a yearly ritual. Folding projects into new storytelling means that you don't stuff a file into a repository but keep the results of the project as an assemblage of parts that can be re-assembled when a new need arises. For example, say the result of a story project is a set of story elements (like characters, situations, or values). Those need not sit in a file somewhere: they can form new elicitation devices for new storytelling, which produces new insights. Many other results of sensemaking around stories can be folded back into an ongoing process.

15. Hiding story projects. Sometimes people do great story projects, but keep them hidden in a pocket of the organization. Hiding story projects can be a necessary evil, because story projects need a degree of openness to disturbing truths that tends to evaporate in the highest strata of management. So pocketing is not always a danger; sometimes it's a disturbing truth. If you are doing a story project in an organization, be aware that the appropriate degree of exposure is not always apparent at the start. I've seen several projects that had high promise and produced illuminating results but could not travel safely without being ripped apart by those to whom maintaining the status quo was an ongoing interest (hidden or otherwise, self-aware or otherwise). I'd say it's better to create a pocketed but enlightening project that might someday leave its nest than to try to spread a project so widely that it can never reach completion.

To conclude the self-delusion section: All of the dangers in this category come about because people have conflicting goals and emotions about listening to stories. To some extent this is a natural conflict, but if there is to be any lasting positive effect from listening to stories people need to be aware of the dangers of self-delusion mastery and work to prevent them.

Third listening danger: Breaking the machine

Far worse than the danger of not getting stories or deluding yourself with stories is the danger of breaking storytelling itself. When this happens, you may blithely collect great stories from the right people at the right time, and do all sorts of amazing things with them that help you in many ways. However, what you have done has an impact on the people who told you the stories that damages something deep within the universe of storytelling: trust. This danger can come about through inexperience, but it more often results from ... I'm going to be kind here and say greed or stupidity, and not complete evil. Sometimes people ask people to tell them stories, but they lie about what they are going to do with the stories, who is going to see them, or how they are going to be used. This sort of danger is the worst because it is unseen. It is the customer who never returns; it is the kid who grows up hating; it is the citizenry that turns suspicious.

When you look at The Experience Project, the front page is inviting. "Be real. Be yourself. Anonymously connect and share with others just like you!" Nearly three million "experiences" have been collected here. How to share? "It's fast, free, and fun!" Being the suspicious person I am, I read more. Low down on the page it says "Join now and get started in seconds, or [grudgingly, it seems] learn more about Experience Project." I click there and read more wonderful stuff, with plenty of exclamation points about wonderful things! At the end of this list, it says "Have more questions? Check out our thorough Frequently Asked Questions." Ah. Click. Question nine: "How does Experience Project make money?"
Given EP's architecture, where people claim the experiences and topics that are most important to them while remaining anonymous (e.g., we don't know a user's address, phone number, or real name), EP provides advertisers a way to reach the people most receptive to their products-- without overstepping boundaries.
So that's the "project" of the Experience Project: selling access to storytellers. If this is completely benign, if no boundaries are overstepped, why did I have to navigate to a cranny of the web site where probably something like one percent of people will dig down to find it? Why isn't this on the main page, next to "It's fast, free, and fun!"? I wonder what would happen if the top page said "Help us sell your personal story to advertisers!"

The advertisers page (hidden even deeper) says: "Reaching exactly the audience you want has never been easier or more accurate." Okay, so people need to advertise, I accept that. I don't have a problem with selling advertising. I have a problem with lying about it, which is what hiding something under pages of happy-clappy exclamation points is. People are posting things here about unrequited love and grief and depression. I'm sure talking about these things is useful to people - but can these people all know that they are being watched and targeted? I doubt that very much. I saw one post on the site that mentioned how ads kept appearing that were strangely appropriate after they had told stories. The poster was wondering how that coincidence could have come to pass; so clearly people are using the site without any awareness of how it operates. (I welcome the people who run the Experience Project to prove me wrong by pointing out some giant button on the main page that explains all this and that I somehow missed.)

To provide a contrast, consider This service keeps personal stories for sharing "forever" either within one's family, friend or support network, or with the world. Networks on cost a fee, but this is explained up front (though I could not find out the price without registering, as far as I could tell). The difference in presentation between these two sites is striking. At, the privacy policy is prominent, clear, detailed and well laid out; all of the people involved are described in detail; the mission and goals of both the non-profit that funds the site and the for-profit that operates it are well explained. Nothing is buried deep; all this is quickly and easily accessible. In fact, the first tab you see on is "Why Us?" and this leads to a page about the goals and policies of the site. The site even goes to pains to make it clear that advertisers are not given access to personal stories. These people seem to understand that helping people tell stories requires transparency, respect, and care. (Whether people are better off entrusting their personal stories to a proprietary, closed-source, centralized, fee-based, remote system is another issue; but that is not the issue I am talking about here.)

So: in my considered professional opinion (that is code for "some people are not going to like this"), it is never necessary to trick people into telling stories, and it is always damaging, no matter how laudable your project goals are. If you feel the need to hide anything about why you are collecting stories, who will see them, what you will do with them, who is paying you to collect them, or how they will be kept and distributed, you are in danger of breaking the storytelling machine itself. The damage may not be apparent soon or even within the lifetimes of those who plan such projects. But stories don't like being mistreated, and they know how to bite back. And that impacts all the stories and all the storytellers in the world.

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