Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Practical ethics in story gathering

First I want to point you to Thaler Pekar's excellent two-part post about ethics in story gathering on PhilanTopic. I started writing a comment to the post but it got long ... so I thought why not put it here so I can send people over to what she wrote.

Here is my favorite bit in what she said:
You may have noticed that I've refrained from talking about story "collection," or even story "tellers." These terms are transactional, implying a giver and a taker. Story is not a commodity, something that is taken from one person and given to another. This is especially true in development work, where there often is a tendency to take a poor or ill person's story and offer it to a potential donor in exchange for a monetary gift.
The need to refrain from treating story as a commodity goes beyond nonprofit and advocacy work; it should inform all your work with narrative. True narrative intelligence respects the sharer of the story and recognizes that his or her story is a unique part of them that cannot, and should not, be taken and shared without permission.
I do use the terms "story collection" and "storytellers" simply because it's hard to get around them when you are writing how-to sorts of texts. But I strongly agree that stories should never be commodities. I tend to use biological metaphors for stories: seeds, cells, swimming fish, grazing herds. Living organisms do sometimes need to be taken from one person and given to another, if only to help them thrive. Bonds of responsibility and care need not be bonds of ownership.

This part of her article wins my "consider both sides" prize:
Be aware ... of people feeling they have no recourse but to say "Yes" when you ask them to share their story. ... [BUT] The pendulum can swing too far in the other direction as well. I've often heard well-meaning nonprofit executives say "we simply can't tell this person's story; they are too vulnerable, and we must protect them." This, too, involves a kind of power imbalance. People have the right to be fully informed -- and to make their own decisions about whether to share, or not share, their stories.
I love that. It reminds me of dogs. My son and I have recently been watching a National Geographic series called Dogtown. In one episode my favorite guy (the me-if-I-had-stayed-in-ethology guy) said that people think the best way to be nice to shy dogs is to leave them alone. But, he said, that's not the best way to be nice to them. They want to come out of their shell, they want to have healthy relationships. They just need help, and for that they need patience and respect. Stories can be like that too. The "yes yes" story is like the dog in a panic to do anything and everything people say, the dog that cowers and pees in its rush to submit. Both behaviors are signs of poor treatment, intentional or otherwise.

So as I read Thaler's article I was thinking: I'm sure there are many people who want to gather stories in an ethical way, just like there are many people who want to take good care of their dogs. But I wonder if people wonder if they are being unethical without knowing it. People need to learn how to treat dogs well, and people need to learn how to treat stories well. So, how do you know you have avoided doing harm to stories (and to storytelling)?

My best answer is: Watch the stories. You can watch stories like you watch dogs. An anxious dog puts its tail between its legs, slinks, looks away, and licks its lips. A dog about to explode in fearful aggression stares and grows rigid and still. If you watch a person with their dog you can see how the person treats the dog in the way the dog responds to their presence. Even when the dog is alone traces of the practical ethics of people they have known remain on them, and a good dog trainer can read them. In the same way, the stories people tell can show you whether the storytellers are comfortable with what you are asking them to do or are showing stress due to your lack of practical ethics (let's just assume it's from benign neglect). Over the years I have noticed some things that differ between stories told in projects with positive, weak, neutral, and negative practical ethics. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it's what comes to mind.

Engagement. When people are "on board" with you in a story gathering effort, they are in their stories. They don't hold their stories at arm's length, pinching their noses; they hug them, they wear them. If people are not with you their stories are limp and empty of presence because the people are elsewhere. Listen to the stories and ask yourself: Is there anyone in here? If not, think about what would help people enter into the stories and inhabit them. I remember one project in which the questions were carefully written to avoid actually asking anything because the project's planners didn't want to encounter anything unpleasant. Of course the respondents got the message and said nothing unpleasant; so the project had essentially no outcome. The project was like an empty house: everyone looked through the windows but nobody went inside. No engagement, no result.

Effort. In a well-working story gathering you can see storytelling muscles at work. Meaning, you can see that people are taking their responses to the questions you pose seriously. They don't say things like "STOOPID!!!!" or "dunno" - they put some muscle into it and pull along with you. A correlate of effort is patience. If people cannot spare a moment, maybe you haven't given them something worth finding time for. If you find yourself wishing for a stronger response, think about why you are not getting it and what would draw out the effort you need.

Many story projects simply must use external reward or obligation to encourage participation, just because people are busy and have other things to do. But even so, there is a big difference between the leash of compliance and the leap of engagement. Don't make the mistake of assuming people can't or won't care. I'm always amazed when people set out with excellent goals but don't bother to tell their storytellers why they are doing the project.

Try this exercise. On one side of a page, list the official goals of your project. What will have happened if it succeeded, from the official (usually funding) point of view? On the other side list some unofficial goals participants might have. What will happen if it succeeds in meeting those goals? Now look for overlaps. How can you plan the project so that it meets its funding goals while engaging its participants in meeting goals they can put effort behind? Now tell people about everything: your goals, theirs and the overlaps. Get them pulling along with you to somewhere you all want to go.

Freedom. Everybody self-censors, even when we talk to ourselves. But when things are going well in a story gathering, you can tell when people are maintaining a level of self-censoring appropriate to the context. Watch people as you ask them tell stories. If they flinch when they hear your questions, check what you are asking them to do and what you are planning to do with it. You can watch people flinch in person if you are in a workshop or interview, but there are ways to observe people flinching in other situations - hesitations, mumblings, markings. I remember once getting some scanned forms from a pilot workshop and finding that several people had drawn angry marks clear across some of the pages. That meant something, and I needed to find out what before we went any further. (As I recall, it meant a few of the questions offended the respondents' sense of identity.) Another time I remember reading the responses to a survey and finding quite a few people speaking directly to me, the person reading the collected responses. They'd say things like, "Do you actually think people are going to tell you what they really think here?" and "This project measures nothing." I did not write that survey, but I told its writers what I had found out about it.

Respect. Another measure of practical ethics is what people say about the project, the people funding it, those running it, and the other people telling stories. Sometimes I ask people to guess what other people might say about a story. Would they find it inspiring? Worth retelling? And so on. This is a good question for pilot work, when you are figuring out how to approach people on a subject. If you notice people referring to anyone involved in the project in negative ways, it might mean their perceptions of the project and its participants is not what you would like it to be. You can gather such references and consider what changes might address them. I remember once reviewing some stories collected in a pilot project concerning hospital patients. The respondents showed such a strong tendency to try to please those in charge of the project - essentially jumping up and down telling stories like a dog begging for treats - that I realized we were going to have to tone down official-sounding requests, to get people to speak freely and calmly. This was a case of too much respect, or maybe respect mixed with fear, that influenced the later project design.

Gratitude. I've come to believe that if you can't find any stories expressing gratitude in what you have collected, you have failed to explore your topic fully. There should be a proportion - small but real, maybe ten or fifteen percent - in which people say things like, "I'm glad to have had a chance to talk about this" or "It's good to tell what happened." Granted, some topics are not ones about which people will have pent-up emotion. But still, you should be able to find some expressions of thanks here and there. And the deeper and stronger the emotions the project touches on, the more gratitude you should find. I'd say that most of the tears I've shed in story work have been in times when people thanked me for listening to their stories (and I felt privileged to have been given the honor to hear them). That sort of thing makes the work feel like cooperation, not extraction, and it tells you things are going as they should. If you can't find any expressions of thanks, think about why. Did people feel their story would have no impact? Did they feel it would be misused? Did they feel it had been taken from them (as a commodity)? Did they feel put aside or ignored? What can you do about that?

Hope. At least some of your stories should express hope that they will be useful and helpful to the goals of the project. This is similar to the gratitude measure as a sign of healthy participation. One way to improve your hope score is to make sure you tell people what you are going to do with their stories (and better still, involve them in doing it). When you do a story project it's easy to slip into feeling that you are the only person in the world who cares about it. And project planners can sometimes get - if we admit it  - a bit possessive about projects. If you want your project to succeed you need to share your hopes for it with all those who participate. That doesn't just mean telling people what your hopes are. It means letting your participants have some hopes of their own, and making sure their hopes are included in the project. If you don't see any hope in the stories you hear, maybe it's because you are hoarding it.

You can use these measures after you have collected some stories in a pilot effort. But can also use them in the narrative sensemaking that happens before you begin collecting. Start by telling a story in which each measure succeeds and another in which it fails. What might happen when a person was engaged or disengaged? Think of some antecedents that could lead to each story happening. Look for mistakes you may be about to make and opportunities you may be about to let slip away. Now use those stories to contrast groups you plan to work with. Take a story of positive engagement and put a teacher, then a student, then a parent, into its main character slot. What would engage or disengage each? What does that mean you should do?

Finally, importantly, imagine that the participants in the project suddenly know everything you know about the project. Say your detailed notes and discussions suddenly become public. Or pretend that your inner hopes and dreams somehow become the subject of a tell-all documentary. What changes as a result? If the stories yelp and run away or retreat to a safe place you can't reach, are you about to act unethically, and put the project in danger, by hiding information? If the stories come bounding out to meet you full of new energy, could you be about to miss an opportunity to engage them?

This is just a short, top-of-the-head exploration of practical ethics, something jotted down in response to a thoughtful essay. I'm sure there might be much more to explore along these lines. Anybody care to discuss?


Unknown said...

Cynthia, your comment, "But I wonder if people wonder if they are being unethical without knowing it," reminded me of something I read earlier today by the decisionmaking scholar Max Bazerman, entitled "Blind Spots: Why We're Not As Ethical As We Think" ( He and his co-author assert that most times unethical acts occur in spite of our good intentions.

This I think is very much true of story-gathering. We see ourselves as on a noble crusade and may not realize the unintentional damage we can do. So, Thaler's post and your post, bringing these concerns to the forefront, are doing an important service.

regards, John

Cynthia Kurtz said...

John, thanks for the comment and reference. (And sorry to let it slip before responding. It's spring, what can I say ...)

Blind Spots sounds like a great book. I liked this quote from a blurb about it: "When we think of unethical behavior, the images that often come to mind are those of robbers, thieves, the executives at Enron, or Bernie Madoff. Blind Spots is not just about these criminals, but about a much larger problem-the dishonest actions that we all take while still thinking of ourselves as wonderfully moral people."

What I've always noticed is that a lot of criminals think of themselves as wonderfully moral people too. The difference is that while we may be amateurs at self-deception they are masters. But it's a gradient, not a barrier. In my view a binary conception of morality is dangerous, because when we place ourselves into a different group from the "evildoers" "out there" we lose sight of the slippery slope we all live on.

I've been on both sides of the finger-pointing in story work, from righteously outraged to defensive about blame. It's healthy to question both our outrages and our defenses. Luckily we have this great tool we can use to find out what people think about what we do: stories. We can work with stories to find out how we are working with stories. I know I'm overly fond of recursion, but still, it works for me.