Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Context as trap and tool

So I'm looking at an old copy of National Geographic a few weeks ago and I see an advertisement that makes me ponder. And ponder. And write.

Two guys holding things

The advertisement strongly featured two photographs. Here is the first.

Being a visual person, my eyes immediately went to the photographs, and right away my stereotype crew sprung into action. You know the crew I'm talking about, it's those little people inside you who read one sentence of an article, jump to the author's name/affiliation/party/picture, and say "Oh, it's written by a ____, that's why it says that" or "Can't expect anything good/bad/right/wrong out of somebody like that" or any other of a variety of knee-jerk reactions to surface appearances. My crew works as well as yours does (or better!) and here is what the crew came up with.
  1. What a puny vacuum cleaner. Underpowered. There is no way it will be able to pick up all that stuff on the floor. 
  2. Ewww, look at that old couch, what a horrid color. Are those scuff marks on the wall? What is that in the room beyond? More banged-up furniture? Creepy place.
  3. Look at this guy's pants. They look old and dirty. His shoes look old and weirdly out of date. I wonder if he found them somewhere. Cheap thin Wal-mart shirt. 
  4. What is a guy doing vacuuming anyway? Where is his wife? Maybe he lives alone. Maybe nobody likes him. He looks unhappy.
  5. He looks more than unhappy. He looks distressed, in pain. He looks like he is about to cry. Why is he so distraught? Because he is lonely? Because he is --
  6. Wait -- is that sweat on his pants? Could he be working? At a dingy motel or something? Oh. This is very bad. A man using a vacuum for money is about the lowest you can get in this society.
This is not what I thought, mind you, it's what the stereotype crew came up with, and I don't listen to them. (But I can still hear them.) 

Further down the page there was this photograph.

The crew said:
  1. Oooh, rich man.
  2. Golf clubs, open space, nobody in his way. Probably a private course. 
  3. New white pants, spiffy. Look at that sheen, must be nice fabric. Nice black shoes, very professional. Probably had them cleaned professionally. The way that thin shirt lies on him, it must be silk. 
  4. Look at that fancy specialised golf glove, must be important. 
  5. Look at that look of intense concentration on his face. He looks like the kind of guy who knows what he wants and always gets it.
  6. A man like that is on top of the world. That's about the highest you can get in this society. 
A second later, the considered-opinion consortium (they are most decidedly not a crew) commenced their oration on the subject. First they pointed out that doing cleaning work is perfectly reasonable and respectable. They reminded us that we had put ourselves through college partly through working evenings as a janitor at a day care center. It was in fact one of our best jobs ever. We loved buffing the shiny floors, monitoring our tiny queendom of cleaning supplies, and serenading the acoustically perfect bathrooms. Most importantly, doing the physical work of cleaning gave us a welcome respite from thinking in classroom and library all day. Cleaning freed our minds to do the sober work of reflection and mental development. We have often, said the consortium, reflected back on those cleaning days and wondered if we chose wrongly in pursuing an occupation that kept our minds busy instead of calling on our hands to do their part. We implore you, they argued, to recall the man we met who owned a janitorial service and was free to take university courses and explore as he found topics appealing because his needs were supplied by his capable hands.

Similarly, the consortium's reaction to the second man was that, yes, he looks important, but he might be stressed out because of the many people who depending on his decision making power, or the way the department is being run in his absence, or his upcoming announcement of a new and ambitious program. Do not take appearances too strongly, and so on and so forth. Sadly these speeches were given to an empty auditorium because the knee-jerk crew never sticks around long enough to hear the consortium speak, having run off to their next panicked reaction. But I was listening. When both groups had spoken, I reflected and decided that I'd still rather be the golf guy. He just looks happier, I thought. Those looks on their faces are like night and day. You can't miss that.
It was only at this moment, after all the preceding took place, that I realized the man in both pictures was identical. His shirt and shoes were the same, but most importantly, he had the exact same expression on his face. (Look closely, he does.) The people who made this advertisement pasted the same picture onto two backgrounds. Only the context is different. (You could say that the second visible arm in the second picture represents a change in the man, but really that second arm is contextual as well, since it only exists to provide a place to display the fancy golfing glove.) Inside the unchanging parts of the man, nothing is different, but it looks different. What looked to me like sweat and dirt in one picture looked like sheen and quality in the other. And the identical facial expression came across as near breakdown in one picture and top-guy focus in the other.

Seize the day?

The advertisement is from a lottery offered by Dubai Duty Free called Double Millionaire. In this lottery tickets sell for about $550 US, only 5000 are sold, and the prize is two million US dollars. The large text on the advertisement reads, "Live a New Life."

Let me ask you something. How many people do you know who are willing or able to spend US$550 on a 1 in 5000 chance? I know ... let me think ... zero. In fact I think I can say that I have never even met a person who would think of doing this for more than about ten seconds. So probably very few of the people who bought a ticket for this lottery could possibly be seen in that first photograph. They would have to be living in the second photograph before they would buy the ticket. That's strange, isn't it?

Here are some statements by winners of this lottery (and other similar ones by the same group) from press releases:
I’m thrilled to win such a beautiful car! This is my fourth ticket for a BMW and I still cannot believe that I finally won it!
I am still proudly driving my winning car and thankful for Dubai Duty Free for such an amazing prize but winning two million dollars is just truly a great surprise! [This person won twice in the course of 18 years.]

My family and I always buy tickets in Dubai Duty Free’s promotions when we travel. I never lose hope to win a prize and thankful to Dubai Duty Free for making this happen.

It was my first ever visit to Dubai when I purchased my lucky ticket. I was excited to shop in Dubai Duty Free on the way back and to my great delight won my dream car!

It took a long time before I finally got the prize and I’m happy that the prize was worth the wait!
I am so excited to have finally won in one of Dubai Duty Free’s promotions. It’s been seven years since I purchased my first ever ticket and I never lost hope to become a winner. I would like to thank Dubai Duty Free for making my day a very memorable one!
I have noticed a few things about these comments.
  1. Five of these six people have not bought one ticket but have bought at least two and often several. So these are not people who, once in their life, followed a dream and spent a large amount of money on a chance at riches. These are people who spend that amount of money regularly. That places them further away from the vacuum guy than before.
  2. Half of the people mention "finally" winning or hoping to win, which seems to imply that they had some expectation of winning. Granted, the number of tickets sold was small, 5000 for the Double Millionaire lottery. But still, the odds of winning are small enough that people should not think of this as something you can win "finally" by trying several times. It almost seems as though the winners felt they were entitled to win the lottery after buying several tickets.
  3. A partial list of the stated occupations of the winners above: owner of an auto supply business, owner of a trading company, student at a private school, "Promotion Manager" at an international corporation. One stands out because he "runs a gas refilling station" and so is closer to the first photograph. (I notice that man's occupation is more widely reported in newspapers - more noteworthy?)
Please note that I do not mean to disparage any of these people, not the winners and not the lottery providers. I am simply pondering the curious fact that the creators of this lottery chose photographs that represented the material wealth of its audience as far lower than it actually is. Why did they do that? What is it, exactly, that they are trying to show with this contrast? What story were they telling?

My guess is that the story is not about wealth at all. It is about control. The man in the top picture looks miserable because he has to vacuum the floor. The man in the bottom picture looks intent because he doesn't have to swing the golf club. The first man is a loser, a victim, a put-upon pawn. The second is a winner, his own man, on top, in charge. Everyone identifies with the loser because everyone loses, no matter how rich or poor they happen to be. Nobody is as much in control as they would like to be.

Context as trap

Curious about how the advertisement creators composited the pictures, I tried to pull the two guys out of their contexts so I could compare them. On doing this I found out another interesting feature of the advertisement. I used Photoshop's "magic wand tool" to try and select both men based on color alone. Here is the man with the vacuum.

And here is the golf man.

The vacuum man disappears when you remove his environment, but the golf man doesn't. Whether this was done deliberately or by accident, it is part of the story being told. The vacuum man is one with his environment, trapped in it, you might say. The ugly couch matches his ugly shirt, and the smudges on the walls rub off on his sweaty pants. The black line in the doorway runs right through his head! He cannot escape his context but is a victim of it. If he walks out of this picture he will take it with him.

The golf man, by contrast, stands out from his environment and can escape it. He can walk away from the picture (even the golf club) and carry himself intact. Isn't that what we all want, the ability to walk out of the picture we find ourselves in -- the parts we don't like, the smudges and drudges -- and insert ourselves into another picture? Isn't that a potent fantasy, to change your world without changing yourself?

It was turning out to be very difficult to pull both men entirely out of their context given the color issues, so I just pulled the heads out by hand. Here are the two guys face to face.

Can you tell which is which? I can only tell because I know I made a divot in the vacuum guy's head trying to pull him out of the door frame. He's the guy on the right. If I try I can make either of these guys look intent or miserable. Can you? I'll bet you can. His expression is like one of those is-this-a-vase-or-a-lady illusions. It was only the picture they were in (trapped in or strolling through) that made us think otherwise.

I was typing things into Google like "how rich do people think they are" and so on, and I found an essay called Six Ways of Thinking Rich by T. Harv Eker. A relevant excerpt:
Rich people believe "I create my life." Poor people believe "Life happens to me." If you want to create wealth, it is imperative that you believe that you are at the steering wheel of your life; that you create every moment of your life, especially your financial life. If you don't believe this, then you must believe you have little control over your life and that financial success has nothing to do with you. That is not a very rich attitude.

Instead of taking responsibility for what's going on in their lives, poor people choose to play the role of victim. Of course, any "victim's" predominant thought process is "poor me." And presto, through the law of intention that's literally what they get; "poor," as in money, me.
Mr. Eker proposes a bit of "homework" that entails taking responsibility for one's situation -- by not complaining -- for one week. He says, "You can be a victim OR you can be rich, but you can't be both. It's time to take back your power and acknowledge the fact that you create every moment of your life."

So why didn't the lottery owners just show a harried executive, maybe an owner of an auto supply business or a Promotion Manager at an international corporation, at his desk doing things he doesn't want to do? Why push it all the way to unskilled, unwanted, dirty labor? I'm guessing what they wanted to get at was the superlative emotion of powerlessness. They are not selling wealth but the ability to seize control of one's own destiny. They ask people: Do you want to be this poor victim or this powerful man? The implication is that buying the lottery ticket is itself an action that amounts to seizing control. The lottery group wants the lottery customer to see himself as empowered not because he has enough money to play golf when he wants to (which he might have already) but because he is acting out the context of the second photograph, the context of having seized control of his life.

What strikes me as ironic about this is that buying a lottery ticket with one's money is the opposite of seizing control. It is throwing control to the winds. Would it not be better to use $550 to, I don't know, buy books or classes or expert help to develop your skills in some area? Or to reduce your risk in some area so that you would be less vulnerable to whatever hazards are inherent to your context? I can name you ten thousand things I could do with $550, and not one of them involves random chance. It seems to me that if this advertisement has succeeded in convincing people to buy a lottery ticket (which it may or may not have done) it has succeeded in getting them to act precisely opposite to their self-interest. That's powerful, isn't it? That's the power of context.

The meaning of dirt

A story sprung to mind when I saw these two pictures, this one about context in the reactions of other people. It happened one day several years ago when my husband and I were moving to our current house. We had accidentally lived for four years in an affluent suburb of New York city and were just leaving. (I say accidentally because we found a house to rent that took dogs and was within walking distance to the train -- a great feat -- without realizing we had chosen the one cheap block in an otherwise affluenza-infected town. On our first day in the house, my husband met a man walking by on the street, introduced himself and enthusiastically pumped the man's hand in his excitement. "Do you know what I like about this town?" said the man. "People leave each other alone." It was pretty much that way the whole time we lived there.)

So here we were leaving the affluent town four years later, and here I was walking down the street to the drug store as we packed our last load of stuff into a rented truck. We had hired movers, but we had to do a lot of the packing and moving and cleaning ourselves. As a result, on that day I was absolutely filthy. My jeans and t-shirt and hands and face and hair were covered with dust and grime. As I walked down the sidewalk the body language of people passing me practically shouted. It said, filthy, must be the help, not of our class, keep away. People looked away or down at the ground and practically fell into the street trying to keep their distance.

Three hours later we were at the new house. We needed something and I went to the nearby town to get it. (This time it was seven miles away instead of a thousand feet. Ah, country life.) So here I was again, walking down a similar street towards a similar drug store and wearing the same t-shirt, jeans and dirt. Again people passed by and again I watched their body language. What a change. Here the body language said, filthy, must have work! good for her. Nobody moved away. Some people even nodded as they looked directly at me and smiled. The same signs that meant "danger, avoid" in one context meant "safety, accept" in another context. If this hadn't happened on the same day just a few hours apart I would have never noticed the strong contrast.

Recalling this made me think: What if the vacuum man strode onto the golf course? How would people react? How would the man react? Would he censor his own actions? Would he seize the day? Should he? How would he know if he did?

Context as a tool

The skillful or accidental manipulation of context can encourage people to take actions that are opposed to their self-interest and damaging to others. Why? Because the impact of context usually surpasses our awareness of it. This is not a controversial statement; volumes have been written about it by sociologists and psychologists, and the entire industry of advertising relies on it. What I am most interested in, in my context of helping people work with stories to make sense of things, is that for the same reason context can be used as a trap to manipulate it can be used as a tool to empower.

The skillful manipulation of context is often a critical factor in effective narrative sensemaking. Many of the exercises people use in sensemaking involve deliberately moving objects -- stories, facts, opinions, feelings, characters, beliefs -- into and out of different contexts. This is where the power of context is put to use in a most positive way. When we are unaware of context being used on rather than by us, we may be in some danger. But when we control where the man goes and what rubs off on him, we can use that power to inform our decisions and empower ourselves.

What does it mean to skillfully manipulate context in the course of narrative sensemaking? Well, stories are the vacuum and golf guys, of course. They are the things we see as having expressions of pain or concentration on their faces. As facilitators we can manipulate contexts using three types of method.
  1. We can manipulate the interpretation of stories, such as answers to questions about them: Is this a positive story? Did it turn out well? Who is it about? Why was it told? Who should hear it? And so on.
  2. We can manipulate the exchange of stories. We do this when we collect stories from multiple groups and consider them together, or when we ask people from different groups to trade stories.
  3. We can manipulate the construction of larger stories built out of and around stories, in the form of constructed artifacts like landscapes and timelines.
What varies from one context to another? Most often it is groups of people as defined by their relationships, characteristics and/or roles. But sometimes we vary context by time, both in its overall relation to past present and future, and in specific references to time periods (in the first year of the project, after the accident, after the restructuring, etc). Sometimes geography or some other measure of space is varied. Or we vary the topics of stories: dangers and opportunities, stories about them and about us, and so on. Things are getting complex here, so I will just collapse this dimension to a simple "our stories" and "your stories" distinction, where the distinction could be any of group, time and space, or any combination thereof.

Now, I can think of four configurations in which we can place stories and contexts: juxtaposing, splitting, merging and crossing. The amount of trust required, and the potency of the output, increases as you move down the list.

Juxtaposed context

Juxtaposing two narrative contexts is the least difficult and weakest form of manipulating context. Here stories are not moved out of their original contexts. Instead the two contexts are placed side by side at their nearly-but-not-quite-joined edges.

If we are using interpretation, juxtaposed context means the patterns of our interpretations of our stories are compared with the patterns of your interpretations of your stories. I often do this in projects for clients. For example, I might look at the relationship between reported feeling about a story (happy, sad, relieved, etc) and perceptions of responsible behavior (reprehensible to admirable). If I can look at the same pattern in patients and in doctors, I can hold up those patterns next to each other and compare them. The formation of patterns, however, is contained within each context.

If we are using exchange, juxtaposed context means our stories are held up next to your stories and we look at them side by side. This is like books that offer translations or adaptations of important texts with the original (sometimes facsimile) and translated versions on facing pages. You could do this, for example, by preparing a booklet that shows sets of, say, three stories per topic from each of two groups, each set printed on facing pages (where the page border is the literal edge of the context). Such a document could be used to jump-start sensemaking in groups working separately or together.

If we are using construction, juxtaposed context means we build something with our stories and you build something with yours, and we compare what we have built. This is a common workshop technique: the bosses build their timelines or archetypes - with their stories alone - and the underlings build their own, and then the constructed artifacts are compared. No stories leave their original contexts, but the artifacts come to the edges of their worlds and peer across the gap. Such constructions remind me of the famous Christmas truces that took place during the two world wars. Soldiers from both sides used honored rituals as constructed protections to peer across into a different context ... for a little while.
I ranked this configuration of contexts as the easiest to do and the least powerful. Why? Because nothing has to leave its original context, so there are no rough edges to sand and no rough feelings to calm. These are safe methods best used when the facilitator is inexperienced and/or the groups are unwilling to try new things or explore new ground. 

Split context

Splitting a narrative context means taking stories from one context and moving them simultaneously into two or more new contexts and considering them separately there. In all methods of this type stories must be collected up front with the intent of providing diversity of opinion and thought, sometimes from neutral or balanced sources such as historical records or news accounts, and sometimes based on prior story projects. The stories are then distributed into two or more contexts of use and the resulting patterns are compared.

If we are using interpretation, split context means we interpret a set of stories and you interpret the same set of stories, but neither of us told them. Again patterns of interpretation provide insights into how the groups are similar and different in their views. This can help to uncover opportunities for finding common ground in areas of conflict.

If we are using exchange, split context  means we read and you read the same stories together, and then we might talk about what we read. As with interpretation the source context is chosen to stimulate discussion by creating opportunities to explore varying views of the same material. This sort of thing goes on every time people discuss a literary masterpiece or a juicy bit of celebrity gossip; but conscious use of the technique can give more power to the sensemaking.

If we are using construction, split context means we create a construction and you create another, but we start with the same stories. Thus the archetypes or timelines or landscapes constructed differ in meaningful ways, which people might then come together to explore.

The requirement to build a source context from neutral or balanced materials up front limits the use of split-context methods, because rarely are people willing or able to put in the time to do that. You cannot simply collect material at random and use it; you have to study whether it provides adequate balance and diversity to feed the processes of interpretation, exchange or construction by people with different stories to tell. This takes time and patient attention. I have built a few stimulative story sets for such uses, and I can say that it does take some serious time to create a story set that is at once balanced, diverse and focused.

But having said that, I think these methods have untapped power because such a story set can challenge people to think about things they might habitually avoid considering. It is especially useful when you are trying to help people get past deeply entrenched assumptions about well-known subjects. For example, I once collected a set of stories about asymmetrical conflict throughout history. These were used in at least two instances to jump-start sensemaking in groups of analysts tasked with exploring new ways to address contemporary asymmetrical conflicts. A critical element in the success of these attempts was finding source material that would overturn assumptions by providing surprising connections. It is easy, if you look back in history, to find instances where today's superpowers were yesterday's perceived terrorists, criminals, drug-runners, and insurgents. The same goes for roles. You can put together stories of dastardly monks and sainted thieves (and even, if you look hard, sainted politicians!) with which to disrupt hardened assumptions and free up discourse and the sharing of multiple views.

People are sometimes unwilling to work with split-context material, considering it foreign, boring or irrelevant. I remember trying to use that asymmetric-conflict story set in a project about corporate conflict and finding people unwilling to make the metaphorical leap to stories about Napoleon and the Opium Wars. Doesn't apply, they said. If you can't give people something they consider relevant they can't split the context with any useful result. The need for bespoke solutions is another barrier to split-context story work.

Merged context

Merging two narrative contexts means taking two sets of stories from two different contexts and placing them both into a third, separate context together. Usually the original contexts are temporarily obscured so as to enable consideration of the third context by itself.

If we are using interpretation, merged context means our answers and your answers (about our separate stories) are considered together. We do this when we ask different groups of people, or the same people at different times, the same questions about their stories. We can then consider one set of patterns created by all the stories without distinction. I typically do a combination of juxtaposed and merged context in considering answers to questions, considering what all the respondents said next to what the teachers and students said separately. Often both of these comparisons are needed to make sense of what is happening.

If we are using exchange, merged context means we read our stories and your stories together as one body. This is the sort of intervention you might do when you want to help two groups of people find common ground. You might ask them all the same story-eliciting questions, like: When you think about values you want to pass on to the next generation, what experience stands out that you would want everyone to hear about? When stories in response to such a question are mixed together into a new context devoid of identifying information about race or class or gender, people can learn some surprising things about people they thought were very different from themselves. Here the technique of late revelation, where you have people read stories and only later reveal the identities of the speakers, can be effective in overturning stereotypes about other groups. You identified with a story, and when you find out that person happens to be a such-and-such you revise your idea of what such-and-such means.

If we are using construction, merged context means together we build something that has our stories and your stories in it. This is what we do when we ask people to consider two or more sets of stories when they build a timeline or landscape or set of archetypes or composite story together. 
Merged context is less often used than juxtaposed or split context simply because it relies more on mutual trust. Merged context is the first one in the list where stories come into close contact with alien stories. I've seen people hesitate to allow their stories to be mixed with those of others, and I've seen people refuse to consider the stories together. They sometimes insist, for example, on having identifying details returned to stories. They might say, "I can't read these stories without knowing who told them." Or they will try to circumvent the process by trying to suss out the identities of storytellers by their grammar or dialect or subject matter. People are so very good at finding out things about other people, especially about their social standing, that it can take some work to bring stories together. Even if people are not in a workshop setting they may balk when they find out that "those people" are also telling stories in the project. In a merged-context project you need to be clear about your goals and ask people to help you meet them. You also need to make sure your goals are goals both groups can put their energy into; otherwise you risk having an unequally merged project, where one group uses both sets of stories while the other uses every means they can find to exclude stories of the other group.

Crossed context

Crossing narrative contexts means transferring stories from one context to another, with a corresponding move of a second set of stories in the opposite direction.

This is the most powerful and most dangerous configuration in story work. I think the main reason it is so dangerous is that crossed contexts surface stereotypes the most strongly. When you show somebody a story and you tell them the story was told by a person in a different group - this is not merging, remember, it is crossing, so you have to let them see the original context - you do not get their considered opinion. You get to hear their knee-jerk chorus, the same stereotype crew I heard reacting to the pictures of the vacuum and golf men above. This can be hugely useful and hugely misleading. Stereotypes are amazingly useful up until the moment you forget they are stereotypes. Since this is a danger to which we are all prone, handling crossed context means watching yourself as carefully as you watch the project.

If we are using interpretation, crossed context means we interpret your stories and you interpret ours. I have only seen this done once, as far as I can remember. It was amazing. People in the two groups attributed completely different motivations to the behaviors they saw in each other's stories. As I recall it, one group ascribed an action to irresponsibility and proposed punishment, while the other ascribed it to inexperience and proposed help. These are stereotypes laid bare. Be careful if you think that simply answering some questions about stories will not impact people, if the groups are far apart. People may forget filling in a survey form, but telling and hearing stories has a stronger impact, and that impact must be considered at the start. Such an impact can be positive, but if badly managed it can deepen a divide. For example, say two groups of people are asked to interpret each other's stories, but the questions are subtly biased so that one group comes off looking better than the other. Or maybe the questions are written so that only one group can understand them, so the interpretations of one group are distorted. The results are unreliable and the people are unhappy. Pilot testing of eliciting and interpreting questions can go a long way towards helping people provide reactions without inflaming emotions.

If we are using exchange, crossed context means we hear your stories and you hear ours. This can be a transforming technique, but it can also inflame conflicts and needs to be handled carefully. One method is to maintain perfect anonymization and privacy of individual storytellers to prevent the singling out of people who "blow the whistle" (especially when their group is the one out of power). Or group processes that rely on transparency and social pressure can provide the necessary support. I am reminded here of the work of Fambul Tok, a group doing story work in conflict-ridden areas. (I am a big fan of this group and recommend their new book and documentary film.) Fambul Tok has brought together the perpetrators and victims of war crimes in Sierra Leone, some of whom live harrowingly near each other, to share their stories with their communities. Here story exchange takes place under ritualized circumstances in the presence of the whole community, and the goal is to create new "stories of forgiveness and reconciliation." What Fambul Tok has taken on is not an easy task. Strong and consistent attention is paid throughout to maintaining safety for all involved and to fostering permanent positive change. This is crossed context working under difficult conditions and creating a powerful result.

If we are using construction, crossed context means we build with your stories and you build with ours. I have seen this done, but only when the groups were not in obvious or strong conflict with each other, like between employees of merging companies or groups of professionals with different roles who regularly work together, like teachers and administrators, analysts and decision makers, historians and teachers, researchers and engineers, and so on. One use is to ask two groups of people to derive some kind of construction from their own stories and the stories of the other group in parallel. This can help groups come to new insights about better ways to work together toward mutually acceptable goals.

People are multidimensional beings, but our contextual labels sometimes make us appear unidimensional to each other. Any two people divided in one way can usually find at least one other thing that unites them, even if remotely. You can nurture such commonalities to help people work with cross-context stories. I remember doing a little research exercise once where I compared stories told by white supremacists and civil rights workers looking for some common thread. I found it. They all wanted a better world for their children. Yes, one group hoped to get it by helping everyone get along, and the other group hoped to get it by killing the other group. But they both wanted it. I've read that the reason Jimmy Carter is such a great negotiator is that he always finds one thing he can legitimately say he shares with those he meets. It might take him hours of listening to find it, but he always finds it. As I recall it he told the story of negotiating with Haitian warlords some years past, and said that he latched on to the fact that they said they loved their children very much. So did he, and they built on that. He strung that slender thread across the chasm. You can help people do that when you help them tell stories across the chasm. You can gear your questions so that they bring out commonalities you suspect people might have (or better, that you know they have based on prior separate story work).

Another mechanism that can help bridge cross-context stories is theatre and metaphorical shift. Taking raw stories and transforming them using timeless structures such as folk tales can help people build bridges through abstract forms. Here is an example and one of my favorite folk tales of all time. This is from the book Folktales from India (edited by A.K. Ramanuaan):

Once a lamb was drinking water in a mountain stream. A tiger came to drink the water a few yards above him, saw the lamb, and said, "Why are you muddying my stream?"  
The lamb said, "How can I muddy your water? I'm down here and you are up there."  
"But you did it yesterday," said the tiger.  
"I wasn't even here yesterday!"  
"Then it must have been your mother."  
"My mother has been dead for a while. They took her away."  
"Then it must have been your father." 
"My father? I don't even know who he is," said the desperate lamb, getting ready to run.  
"I don't care. It must be your grandfather or great-grandfather who has been muddying my stream. So I'm going to eat you," said the tiger. And he pounced on the lamb, tore him to pieces, and made a meal of him.
I love the layers of meaning in that story. I could imagine setting up a project where two conflicting groups of people are not asked to tell stories directly but to choose folk tales for people in another group to read. This would embed the mechanism of crossed context in a metaphorical shell of constructed protection by which groups can communicate across the chasm of difference. This is the basis of some forms of community theatre, which has cross contextual elements.

Vacuums and golf clubs galore

After all this exercise considering all the ways we can skillfully manipulate context to improve sensemaking, when I look back at the vacuum and golf guys I find them cavorting around both contexts, showing each other how to play golf with a vacuum and chase dust bunnies with a golf club. I see them striding together out of both pictures and into the city streets, onto the moon, deep under the sea, and high on a camel's back. They seem happier than they did before, neither trapped and both full of great ideas. That's where we should all be, isn't it?

A final note: I seem to have gravitated towards talking about groups of people as contexts, and about contexts in conflict. I suppose this is probably because understanding how people differ in their views depending on group membership tends to be a part of many narrative projects. And many narrative projects do involve some degree of conflict, even if it is mild, between viewpoints. If you want to build a shelf you use a t-square and a saw, and if you want to help people achieve goals with and in spite of diverse experience you use stories. But you can consider all of the twelve situations I've mentioned here (four configurations, three method sets) where the contextual differences are between stories told at different times, in different places, in response to different questions, about different topics, in different media, to different audiences, in different settings, in person and on paper, and on and on. Many skillful manipulations of context might suit your goals.

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