Monday, May 10, 2010

Resolving tensions between storyteller and story elicitor needs

Here's another question-from-a-correspondent going-into-the-book post (thanks correspondent!). The question is: how do you write questions so that people don't latch onto the "right" answers instead of telling you how they really feel?

Tensions between needs

There is a tension in asking questions (both for and about stories) between what you want to know and what people want to tell you. These are some situations where the tension is greatest.
  1. Dependence. If your storytellers are in some way dependent on you, their first priority will be giving you what they think you want them to give you (which is rarely what you really want).
  2. Identity. If your storytellers feel that the topic of the questions taps into their identity, their first priority will be keeping the image they present to you positive, coherent and under control.
  3. Conflict. If your storytellers are in conflict with you, their first priority will be either undermining whatever purpose they think you have in mind or promoting a different purpose. (Be careful here because what matters is whether they think they are in conflict. Sometimes it's hard to guess.)
  4. Distrust. If your storytellers do not trust you, their first priority will be getting through the exercise without disclosing anything.
  5. Disinterest. If your storytellers don't care about you or about your topic, their first priority will be getting through the exercise as quickly as possible without thinking too deeply about anything.
A great way to find out whether you have any of these situations is to run some pilot story collections and either observe people as they come out of the session (or finish telling a story), or simply ask them how they feel about what just happened. Then look at what they said, thus:
  1. Dependence. A storyteller who feels dependent will finish the storytelling and say, "There! I think I did that right." Or, "Hope that was good enough!" If you hear people saying words like right and good and better and correct, you are probably dealing with dependence.
  2. Identity. A storyteller who feels the elicitation touches on their identity will finish the storytelling and say, "There, I explained what it's like to be a doctor." Or, "It was interesting to think about my motivations in teaching." People accessing identity tend to use words like explain and inform and clarify, because more emotionally-laden words are too threatening.
  3. Conflict. A storyteller who feels in conflict will finish the storytelling and say, "There! I guess I gave them a piece of my mind." Or, "That should shake them up." Here you want to look for action words, like give and take and disturb and bother and shake up and surprise, because their storytelling is an action. They hope to change something by it: either you or the thing you are trying to do.
  4. Distrust. A storyteller who feels distrustful will finish the storytelling and say, "Can I see that transcript? I want to change something." Or, "Let me see that privacy policy again." Or, "I'm not sure I should have said that." People who don't trust you tend to replay the experience over and over in their minds, looking for problems and being retrospectively anxious.
  5. Disinterest. A storyteller who is not interested will finish the storytelling and say, "Time for lunch!" Or, "I wonder what's on TV tonight?" Or, "I've got two more meetings today." In other words, the minute the storytelling session is over, it's gone from their minds. If you ask them about the session itself, they will either not respond, or they will say things like "It was all right" or "nothing to say" or "sure, great."
If you gather enough reactions to the storytelling event, you wil get some hints as to whether, and how much, any of these tensions is present. If you can't run a whole pilot project, just ask as many people as you can, of the groups involved, to tell you a story casually. Even as few as five reactions can be useful.

So let's say you have gathered some stories and you have surmised that one or more tensions will be involved in the storytelling you will be asking people to do. What to do next?

Your view, their view

What I do and recommend in crafting questions is to tack back and forth between meeting your needs and meeting the needs of your storytellers. Start with your needs first. Write the questions you would ask in an ideal world, if you could peek into the minds and hearts of your storytellers, if they had no inhibitions and were guaranteed to answer every question honestly and completely. Go ahead and write the questions that ask the things you wish you could ask. (Just don't show them to anyone yet!)

Now, tack to the storytellers' side. Here you need to do a bit of role playing. For each of the tensions you've discovered, look into your past and come up with a situation you remember well where you were asked to disclose information and that tension was important. Some ideas:
  1. Dependence. Think of a particularly tense job interview, one you forced yourself to get through. To ramp up the emotions, think of one where you really, really wanted or needed the job, but where you didn't think your qualifications were perfect for it. (I think all of us remember some times like that, when we were stretching our claims of ability, just a bit.) Another one that works here is to think about a time when you were financially dependent on somebody or some organization. Perhaps during college you got a scholarship? Or you received a gift from a relative? It's okay to go all the way back to childhood, as long as you can get into the mindset you need. I remember asking Mrs. Masters up on the hill for a piece of candy and feeling her scrutinizing have-you-been-naughty eyes on me. That sort of memory.
  2. Identity. Think of a time when you felt a great need to be who you said you were. One useful experience that comes up for me is when I've given talks at conferences: I feel on the spot, challenged to prove that I am who I say I am and that I know what I've said I know. Think of times when your position as a whatever-you-call-yourself was on display. Even non-professional titles can be useful: mother, sister, neighbor, grandchild. Tap into one of those times when that little voice in your head keeps joking, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."
  3. Conflict. Think of a time when you tried to tactfully get through a conversation with somebody you had to be nice to, but who said things you felt like screaming at them about. To ramp up the emotions, try to select a time when you wanted to get out of the conversation but couldn't for some reason; and look for a memory where the conflict was something you actually cared quite a lot about but couldn't say so without making a scene. I've had some useful experiences in narrative workshops with people cornering me and giving me lectures on whatever they think is wrong with the world (evidently I appear vulnerable to this), and where I felt constrained to not say, "That's ridiculous!" Not-about-the-weather conversations with relatives and neighbors can also be useful in this regard. 
  4. Distrust. Think of a time when someone asked you something about yourself that you didn't think they needed to know, and that you didn't trust them to keep to themselves. Think of those little cards that come with some products that ask you how often you wash your hair or read the newspaper. In the U.S., the census is a good thing to think of, at least if you were like me and got the "long form" the last time (why does the government need to know how much money I make and when I'm not at home?). Look for memories when the distrust tension was not strongly associated with the dependence tension: it's probably not good to think of a time when your boss or employer wanted to know something. Go for somebody more distant, like a big company or the government. I remember one time I did an interview for a radio show, and I knew they were going to splice and dice what I said with what other people said, and that made me a little nervous. You can also use memories of personal interactions, like a blabby neighbor who asks more questions than you'd like to answer.
  5. Disinterest. Think of a time when you were bothered by somebody asking you about something you didn't care about. A perfect example is telephone surveys about ordinary domestic things, like toothpaste or Coke or telephone service. Or remember a time when you were walking through a shopping center, museum, or other public place and were accosted by a person with a clipboard. (You tried to avoid them but they were endearing or looked unhappy and you felt sorry for them.) Bring back your tangential participation in the event; remember how you were about to hang up or walk away at every moment; and remember how you kept saying "does not apply" in a bored way. Or how you tried to make sport of the whole thing, just as a diversion on a rainy day. Or how you tried to make the interviewer break from their script, just to see if you could. Get into that silly I-don't-care frame of mind.
Okay, so now that you have chosen a bona fide memory -- and it should be something that really happened to you, else it won't be powerful enough -- place yourself into that memory and read your questions again. Pay attention to the emotions that surface. See which questions and answers jump out at you and flash messages. Some questions and answers will flash red -- danger, danger -- and others will flash green -- safe, safe. Both extremes are dangerous to your project's goals. The dangerous questions and answers won't collect any responses, even if they should; and the too-safe questions and answers will collect too many responses, even ones that should really be elsewhere.

Next, take off the memory and go back to being in your current situation of wanting to find things out. Remove the red and green flagged items, then find places where you've lost significant information as a result. Which changes jeopardized your chances of meeting your goals? Picture yourself looking at the collected data, and think about whether you will get what you need. Keeping in mind your simulated storyteller's reactions, tone down the questions and answers you need to keep, and try to arrive at something they will not run from (red flag) or cling to (green flag) but that you can still use. Then put your memory back on and become the storyteller again. Keep doing this. Keep finding flags and removing them until you get to a compromise everyone can live with.

At some point the pendulums you are swinging should come to rest, but at a different place for each question on the spectrum between what you want and what they want. For some questions you may have to face the fact that there is no way to get exactly what you want. For others you may decide to hold out for greater disclosure; but when you do that, make sure to provide a good non-response response to divert the flow and keep the true responses pure.

An example

Let me give a little fake example. Let's say I'm working on a project in which I wish I could ask a question about coping skills at work, dealing with deadlines and such. Let's say I've written this question: "Do you think your work skills cope well with deadlines?" And the answers run the gamut from, "Yes, I have great confidence in them" to "They used to work but things are getting worse and I can't keep up" to "I've never coped well with deadlines."

Now let's say I've gathered, through some casual story elicitations, that dependence will be an issue with this storytelling group. Here I would drag out some of my memories from college, when my ability to keep attending school depended on keeping my several jobs and keeping my scholarship. Now I read that question about "work skills" in my mindset as a dependent student. Immediately the "great confidence" answer glows green (safe) and the other two glow red (dangerous). Admitting any weakness or uncertainty is the last thing I would have done in that context. It's clear how I would respond.

Of course these are not the flags I would raise in my own mind today, outside of that memory context. Today, I'd just choose that I'm horrible with deadlines. I don't mind admitting it. Even if I am in a dependent situation, I'm comfortable enough and confident enough in my abilities that I don't mind saying I avoid deadlines by doing a lot of the work up front, because I know very well that I fall apart when things get down to the wire. Now some of the people in my storytelling group will respond as I did. Nothing will glow red or green for them. But that's not a problem. I said I sensed a tension, and that means I sensed that a significant portion of the people will be affected. Those are the people I am compromising with; the others will participate without any such compromise. That's why it's always better to increase the range of answers to give the people with tensions something to choose or a story to tell. But don't lose anything: enhance, don't narrow. Don't make it work for one group only to lose another.

So, having finished my memory-context reaction, I now go back to my project-planning self and see what other answers I can come up that suit my goal of helping people develop stronger coping skills without raising those red and green flags. Perhaps I'd add more answers, or perhaps I'd come with another axis of variation that would be less likely to raise flags but still give me useful information. It might be better to ask about what sorts of coping skills work best in what situation, or whether their coping skills have changed over time, or what they have learned about coping skills as they have been in their job. There is often a lot of terrain between what you want and what they want: you just have to explore the landscape and find it.

Test, test and test

The final stage, if you can do it, is to test your questions with some real storytellers before you start the larger project. If you plan to collect lots of stories, say more than a few hundred, this is very important, because the more stories you collect the more of a tragedy it is when you don't get the answers you hoped for. Play-acting with your memories as a guide gets you part of the way, but real storytellers will almost always surprise you, at least a little.

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