Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evaluations of story work

I've been giving my working-with-stories spiel, telling people they can do things with their stories that can help them achieve their goals, for about, let's say, ten years now, if we consider the first two years getting my feet wet. I always watch how people respond to the spiel, and I have noticed some patterns in how people respond and how I deal with that. I thought it might be useful to write about this for other people who might be giving similar talks.

If I think of the main ways in which people respond I come up with three primary responses. Within each I find three sub-responses. (Obviously all that really means is that I like to group things into threes.) For each sub-response I have considered - guess how many - three possible explanations for why people had that reaction: they didn't know any better; they disagree; and they have a valid point.

Note that I have left out any reactions to my spiel caused by the way I give it or my personality. I originally had five overall responses, but realized that two of them were actually about me and not about story work. I could write volumes about my investigations of why people like or don't like me, and some of it might even be interesting in a funny navel-gazing sort of way. But I don't think it's useful to the exploration of this topic.

You all look like ants to me

The most common response is the insufficiency response. This response is that story work is not serious, does not scale, or has insufficient credentials.

That's cute. Now go away.

The not-serious-enough reaction happens when people assume I can only be talking about quilts and pie recipes when I talk about stories. The primary indicator of this reaction is lack of eye contact and a profusion of fidgeting. When I see people have this reaction, they might as well be making the "blah blah" hand signal in my general direction, it's so obvious that they are waiting for me to shut up. Do I get this reaction more often from men? Yes, but it's only a matter of degree.

One tack to deal with this issue is to avoid the use of the word "story" and instead use terms with more authoritative sounding prefixes like narra- and cogno- and meta- and so on. I sometimes do this (see the title of this blog) but I absolutely refuse to do it entirely or all the time. I have gained so much respect for the great power and danger of stories that I don't want to put a hair shirt on it to make it appear more serious.

How do I respond when people react as though I've been extolling the wonders of Hello Kitty? I launch a war story. I've seen stories work wonders in projects with difficult, sensitive, even frightening topics, and I have the stories to prove it. This requires time, so if there is no chance of getting enough time I let it go and move on. If you have done more than a few projects (and they were not all about chewing gum) you should have some war stories of your own.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: The war story usually helps a lot. People see that story work can be serious and want to learn more. This is not one of the hard issues to educate people about.
  2. To the dissenting: A good war story can pry open minds, but usually it takes a few or several (of ascending severity), and these people often pick apart tales of insufficiently resounding impact. That's fine; hold still and let them probe your experiences.
  3. To those with a valid point: On a spectrum from chewing gum to bomb disposal, story work is not right up there at the top. It has its limitations. The sooner you can admit that, the more energy will be freed up to help people find a place where it can fit.

This is for little people doing little things.

The does-not-scale reaction happens when people assume the only thing you can do with stories is listen to them one by one in small individual or group interactions. They perceive the approach to be possibly useful on a small scale but impossible to scale up to larger problems because it relies on intense human interaction. I find this reaction prominent when people believe their scope of attention is large, thus all small-scale solutions must be quickly discarded to save time.

To begin with, this is an erroneous assumption. Everything scales up if you have the time to do it. How did the ancient Egyptians build the giant pyramids with no earth-moving machinery? Simple. They thought there was nothing strange about pounding one rock onto another rock for ten years in a row. We believe there is no time for anything today, but sometimes we mistake choices for conditions. Some things are important enough to spend the time on, when the outcome is important enough.

However, the no-time assumption is so universal and iron-clad that I never try very hard or very long to struggle against it. Instead, when I sense a does-not-scale reaction coming, I pull out a magic word: quantification. Having lots of time may be inconceivable to many people today, but having lots of information is comfortably familiar. It is true that reading and making sense of hundreds or thousands of stories one by one does not scale well (given lack of time). But compiling quantifiable interpretations of stories by those who know them best does scale well. What's more, it scales back down too, in the sense that people in small groups can use patterns formed by hundreds of interpretations to make sense of their own local situations.

But beware: never invoke the powers of quantification in relation to stories without watching for the bounce-back soul-draining reaction. Sometimes people will counter that piling up any kind of data about stories strips them of their humanity. This reversal sometimes comes from the same people who said stories do not scale up in the first place. This is not strange; it only reflects the deep-seated conflict between our village history and the metropolitan world. In preparation for this reversal I hold in reserve another magic phrase: mixed methods research. Describing the way in which I use patterns to find stories and stories to find patterns often helps people understand that I attempt to balance the requirements of scale and meaning.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: They usually ask questions about exactly how the stories and quantifiable patterns are used together. Having some examples on hand helps.
  2. To the dissenting: There are strong biases on either side of the spectrum of qualitative and quantitative research. I've met people who wouldn't touch a statistic with a ten-foot pole and people who would sooner eat a worm than sit through a touchy-feely story. When I sense that the person I am speaking to inhabits one extreme of this spectrum, I downplay the other extreme and reassure them that due diligence is paid to their part. This is never completely successful, but it helps.
  3. To those with a valid point: Well, yes. Trying to scale up while keeping things human is a difficult balance, just as trying to maintain a winning career while raising a child is a difficult balance. Anyone who is honest with themselves will readily admit that a mixed-methods project will explore less deeply and less broadly than a single-methods project could. But on the other side of that loss (as in parenthood) is the synergism of exploring two worlds at once. Patterns and stories can help each other make sense. And I can tell some stories that illustrate that, of course. I'll bet you can too.

What university did you say you were from?

The not-credentialed-enough reaction takes place when people evaluate the worth of the approach primarily by what institutions promote it, not by what it can do. This reaction often follows on the heels of the realization that the approach I am talking about has no journal, no academic departments and no annual conference. A light goes out in the eyes of these people as they put me, and everything I say, into the "guest on Oprah" category. (The area of credentials is one place where the evaluations me as a story worker enter into the evaluations of story work itself.)

I do not fault people for this perception. I remember once as a child, on one of my family's epic treks across the country, standing in a parking lot next to some national monument (Yosemite?) watching a messy, tipsy-looking man handing out brochures. I took one. It turned out he had his own private theory about physics and the cosmos, and he thought handing out brochures in parking lots was a valid way of promulgating it. I watched the people taking the brochures too, and the greater portion finding other ways through the parking lot. (These people are essential, the soap-box people, the ranters, the unhinged. If you can find one in a big city, get a cup of coffee and find a spot to watch. Not them: the others. The spectrum of responses is simply fascinating.) From some perspectives, I am not one bit different from that man in the parking lot. A blog? A self-published e-book? A list of projects?

When I meet with this reaction I do a quick test. How high is the institutional-credential barrier? Is it impervious to utility? I usually conduct this test by telling a story. Not a story about me; a story about the power of story work. I can tell people these stories until they fall asleep, and long after that. If the person can see the utility of the approach for what it is, we can talk on. If the reaction in their eyes is "that's nice, invalid individual" I give up and move on. Can't please everybody.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: They want to hear more. They want to know where the approach came from, who was involved in it, how it was developed. They want to evaluate it on its merits and are willing to put aside its rootlessness.
  2. To the dissenting: The wall around some academic researchers is so high and strong that no story could ever breach it. I know this because I once lived inside that wall. (Do I miss it? Yes, very much. I miss the unconditional love of the affiliated for the affiliated. But I don't miss the privations and self-delusive constraints that went with it.) When I sense an exceptionally strong academic wall, I usually give up and go away. I was never one for climbing the heap. Nothing wrong with it, but it's not my thing.
  3. To those with a valid point: Certainly! I am perfectly willing to admit that I made up the name Participatory Narrative Inquiry last year. I am open about the fact that my approach is idiosyncratic, incomplete, flawed, derivative, and fallible. I don't think this any different from most work done inside the great wall, but somehow the very fact that I am willing to cry institutional "uncle" seems to help people move past the institutional-credential barrier. Paradoxically, it helps people move on to evaluate the approach on its own merits. And when you evaluate story work on its merits, it performs.

Go back from whence you came

The second large class of responses I want to consider is the one based on fear and denial. It occurs when people understand, correctly, that story work has the potential to reveal unpleasant truths. This is not the whole truth; story work also empowers, enables and energizes. But some people in some contexts latch on to the danger of story work and rush away. I will call the varieties of rushing away Pandora's box, show me the money, and stories going beyond their station.

Pandora, put that box away.

This reaction happens when people recognize, rightly, that once a story project is set in motion it could lead to them being asked to change or give up some power. This is the essential nature of participatory action research, in which action is as much of a goal as research. People in positions of power are most likely to react in this way. One thing I've noticed is that all of the fear/denial reactions tend to be muted. When people feel the approach is silly or fringe, they communicate this quickly and strongly. When people feel threatened by the possibilities offered, they just get very quiet and very busy. This is not to say they are wrong in doing this; it's just how I've seen people react.

When I sense a Pandora's box reaction, my response is to bring down the level of emotion. I tell my tamest stories, ones about helping people sort out problems with their email clients. I emphasize that story projects can be done at many levels of intensity. Like a pediatrician with a needle, I mention small pilot projects as especially useful to gently probe sensitive wounds. At the same time I highlight the positive power of story work to address intractable problems. I talk about pent-up energy released, people grateful to be heard, feelings of inclusion and hope, openings, transformations. These are not lies. They are just not aspects of story people do not always want to hear about, especially those prone to the not-serious reaction mentioned above.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: Telling tame stories helps the fearful feel more at ease, but I've noticed that doesn't work by itself. Something has to compensate for the danger, and that something is the power to make good things happen. People out of power often think those in power want nothing but more power. But that's wrong. Often they are frustrated at the fact that their power doesn't translate more efficiently to positive change. Showing them how stories can improve this translation is sometimes compelling.
  2. To the dissenting: Sometimes I give the releasing-pent-up-energy argument and it falls flat. Usually that means people have become cynical or fatalistic and believe only in a Machiavellian world of control. In their view there is no energy to be released, and all transformations are affronts to their identity. This sort of reaction is a slamming door, and I usually just walk away from it rubbing my squashed nose.
  3. To those with a valid point: Absolutely. At some times and in some places the challenge of change is far too dangerous to consider. I cannot possibly understand the context and challenges of trying to keep an organization or community running in balance. If I sense this reaction I fall back to the "planting a seed" stance where I ask them to keep the ideas in mind for a future time when another context might make story work more appropriate. It's only respectful to do that.

Show me the money.

This is the return on investment (ROI) reaction. I usually see it in people who feel they are deprived of options or resources. That may be nice for the rich folks, they say, but we are dealing with reality here and can't afford this kind of high-risk work. We need to carefully mete out each penny we spend, so we will be going with a safe choice, like a standard survey, thank you very much.

How do I respond to this reaction? First, by talking about how story work can scale down to almost no cost at all. Go ahead and do your standard survey, I say, but why not add two narrative questions to it and see what you find out? Just a spoonful of narrative can help a survey produce more delightful results. You don't have to find tens of thousands of dollars to get useful results in story work. I have some stories about teensy story projects that still produced useful outcomes. I don't pull those out in front of the not-serious folks, but for the constrained they are encouraging.

Another tack I take in this case is to ask which resources are limited and which are not. Sometimes when people don't have money they do have time or knowledge or connections. Story work is possible on a shoestring if people are willing and able to build their own skills and can ask others for help. There are free tools, free books and free advice. And there are exchanges of things other than money. I often exchange work for other things I need, like network connections, examples of work I can show prospective clients, and good word of mouth. So do a lot of other people. Resourceful people know that money is only one resource of many.

A third means of dealing with this reaction is to ask how people are spending their money now. If they are already paying through the nose for a solution that doesn't produce the outcome they need, they might want to consider redistributing their funds. We might be able to find a way to make it work.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: Usually when I let resource-constrained people in on the secret that story work doesn't have to be expensive, they get very excited. People making the most of scant resources are highly motivated to work toward their goals. A little encouragement to these folks often goes a long way.
  2. To the dissenting: Disagreement in this reaction usually goes along the lines of people saying I can't fathom the severity of their constraints. You rich consultants can't possibly understand our world, so any "solutions" you offer are just sales pitches intended to manipulate us into adding our pittances to your overflowing coffers. To this I respond: HA! I can describe the sorry state of my financial affairs in sufficient detail to cut any of these delusions off at the pass. However, I hate games of doing-without, so I only enter into them when the situation is dire. The better thing is to simply and respectfully ask: What are your constraints and how can I help you work within them?
  3. To those with a valid point: This is another one of those "planting a seed" situations. If they truly do not have the means to do any story work right now, they might someday. In this case I offer only general educational help. When people understand what story work can do for them, they can return to it someday when their prospects are looking up. In the meantime, they can continue to learn about it a little at a time and thereby improve their outcome when the right time does come.

Don't give stories ideas beyond their station.

The third reaction in the fear/denial category has to do with identity and class. To put it simply, sometimes I encounter people who believe that stories, or more precisely those people's stories, are beneath them. If I'm pitching story work to a CEO, for example, and the CEO begins to understand that they might actually be asked to listen to the experiences of people far below them, they (rightly) perceive dangers to well-established class boundaries. It's a mixing thing. The mixing of stories brings mixing of perspectives and power. People having this reaction get telltale signs of alarm and disgust on their faces, as though I had just used a double negative or dragged my filthy handkerchief across my sweaty brow. They look at the floor, they discover a prior appointment, they shuffle their symbols of authority around. If confronted with evidence of this reaction, those having it will deny it with hysterical force. They may not know they are doing it themselves. But you can see it happen, and if you talk about this work long enough you will see it happen.

I remember once pitching a story project at a government agency. At the start of the meeting, the room filled up with middle-aged male managers and their younger female subordinates. As my colleagues and I described how a story project could help their organization draw on the positive energy of the collective hopes people have for the organization's future, I watched the young women get more and more excited and the older men shut down. You could see it happening: one group was thinking "we could actually have an impact on how this place works" and the other group was thinking "they could actually have an impact on how this place works." The meeting ended when the managers wanted to constrain the project such that, essentially, there would be no way for stories to empower those at the bottom. I've now seen this sort of thing happen several times in projects that had strong support until those in charge realized that those beneath might speak to those above, at which time they were abruptly and without explanation canceled.

How do I respond to this reaction? First, I control my own emotions. The respect I have grown for stories - for every single story told by every single human being, no matter how humble - is part of my identity. After I emerge victorious from my struggle to not slap some sense into the person, I attempt to enter into name-dropping mode. People who know me will know I hate name-dropping and do it poorly, which is why I said "attempt" because I don't always succeed. Sometimes I can't get past the reaction and walk away under my own cloud of disgust. But when I can sense some degree of humanity under the disdain, I respond to the reaction by bringing out some of the names of the heavy-hitters who have funded and approved of story work I've done. To be honest I fail in this more often than I succeed. You might do better. I have sat at lunch with lots of important people, but I can never remember their names afterward. Status is just not something I pay attention to, which is bad for business. I work best when I can partner with someone who flourishes in the world of status. Still, if I have a fresh cup of coffee I can tell a few stories about authorities like government agencies and giant corporations that have supported and appreciated story work in the past.

I cannot tell people honestly that there will be no mixing of classes in story work. But I can describe how other people in high places suffered no permanent damage from it and in fact received positive benefits. I also recount projects in which stories were collected in anonymous ways and in which maximal distances were retained between classes. I dangle the "prince and the pauper" image of being able to listen in on the storytellings of subordinates without being themselves heard. Essentially I explain that the mixing is both worthwhile and controllable, to some extent, especially when the project is designed with that constraint in mind. You might think this is pandering to the worst corruptions of power, but I don't see it that way. If I can get those in charge to listen to the perspectives and experiences of those not in charge, both groups can be helped by it. In fact I have seen that happen more than once. It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: People with this initial reaction are often relieved when I explain that they don't have to expose themselves to the rabble to conduct a story project. They often come back with issues they would like to address and want to hear about potential solutions.   
  2. To the dissenting: Sometimes I fail in convincing people that story work is sufficiently safe, worthwhile or prestigious. As I said, I know I have poor skills in this area, so I forgive myself and move on.
  3. To those with a valid point: No story project can offer perfect safety to those in power. If speaking truth to power is empowering, telling stories to power is even more so. So yes, I do admit that the element of risk to power structures can never be completely eliminated. Story work requires courage on the part of of those in charge. Only the most confident can pull it off. That's an Emperor-has-no-clothes ploy, but sometimes it works.

Yeah, yeah, I've heard of this

When I started giving my spiel about working with stories, this third category of reactions did not exist. As the years go by I find it grows and grows. It is the category of reactions that mistake what I mean by "working with stories" for doing other things with stories, things the listener doesn't consider appropriate or useful. I separate that into three perceptions: branding, propaganda, and New Age.

By the way, I find this category of reactions much harder to deal with than the other two, and that for two reasons. First, I keep forgetting to think about it and am often surprised by it. Because it has been growing so imperceptibly I have not updated my spiel to prominently include a list of things I am not talking about. I need to work on that. Second, I find it's easier to fill a void than to displace an object. If people have no idea what I'm talking about I can educate them. But if they think they already know, if they have already popped me into a pigeonhole, it's a lot harder to squirm out of that box than it is to build a new one. So watch out for that.

I've heard of this, it's for selling things.

This is the reaction where people think I am talking about advertising, branding, marketing, tv commercials, and so on. Just recently I talked for five minutes to a person about how you could learn so many things by listening to the stories people tell, only to have them respond with, "So you tell stories, right?" Sigh. My guess is that the world of advertising has latched onto storytelling so strongly, and so many people have noticed it, that it has become the superficial understanding of what stories do and are for. That's sad. But at the same time I have no wish to denigrate those who use storytelling to promote ideas and products. That would be the pot calling the kettle black, since I use storytelling to promote my own services. Still, I wish people were more aware of the entire spectrum, no, world of what story is to humanity ... a point about which I may have written from time to time.

So how do I respond to the it's-for-sales reaction? The first thing I do is draw attention to the fact that people tell stories every day, dozens of them. I find this necessary since so many people seem to have forgotten it. I point out that even somebody telling their spouse about picking their child up from school is still a story, even if it doesn't boast a Hollywood plot. With that understanding in place I tell a few stories about projects in which these "little-s" stories (as Shawn Callahan so usefully calls them), when collected together, have revealed astounding insights that have transformed not only understandings of issues but options available.

If things are going really well I bring in narrative sensemaking and explain how people can work together to negotiate meaning by starting with told stories. However, I hold that in reserve and only use it if we are over the first milestone (that stories form patterns). If people are not with me there, the sensemaking part only confuses them.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: When people have this reaction out of lack of information, they often become very excited about what is possible on the listening side of story work. There is little emotion involved in this perception, so the new information opens up options they want to explore.  
  2. To the dissenting: Disagreements to these explanations have mainly to do with a poor opinion of little-s stories. I find this opinion often in people who write or tell stories professionally. They are so used to evaluating stories on form that they cannot admit inconsequential anecdotes told by untrained laymen to the status of being real stories. And if little-s stories are not real stories, heaping them up won't mean anything either. When I find this reaction I call forth a few of the real little-s stories I remember from projects I've done. Some of those little stories, sitting there in the midst of hundreds, have jumped out, made me laugh or cry, and stuck with me. I remember one story on a project last year about medical conditions. It was about rheumatoid arthritis. I had been reading stories about several different conditions, and all were painful and full of sorrow. But this story was about how this man's greatest hope was that someday soon his wife could stretch out of the fetal position and just lay normally on the bed. He remembered days in years past in which he and his wife had taken walks in their garden. Who of us thinks of walking fifty feet as a dream lost and lying still as a hope deferred? Can anyone call that an inconsequential story? I can't.
  3. To those with a valid point: This is the only "those with a point" entry that I can't come up with something to say about. To my mind there isn't any valid point to be made about stories being "only" for sales. It's just so obviously ill-informed or wrong-headed. I have tried to think on both sides of the issues here, but on this one I find myself stumped. One glance at history should disabuse anyone of the notion that stories can only be used to sell things.

I've heard of this, it's propaganda.

This is the reaction that stories are the same as propaganda, and that all stories and all storytelling are suspect as a result. Even when I say I advocate listening to stories, people with this reaction believe I mean listening in a lying sort of way, perhaps by asking leading questions, or listening to half the story, or distorting what is heard, or selecting what will be retold. They say that even though I say I only listen to stories, I am really telling stories using the stories I hear (probably distorted) as input. In this view stories are lies, so they contaminate anything I could possibly do with them. Telling is lying, and listening is telling, so it's all lies from one end to the other.

How do I respond to this reaction? This is where I bring out my lists of rules and safeguards. I describe how I have learned through practice to invite people to share their experiences in safety; to guarantee anonymity; to ask people for their own interpretations instead of deciding what stories mean to an "expert" observer; to let those interpretations form patterns without applying preconceived hypotheses; to separate my outside interpretations from observations of patterns anyone can see; and to construct multiple interpretations so that project supports collective sense making rather than making declarations of fact. I don't deliver this as a lecture, but rather by recounting the stages of an actual project in which people discovered transforming insights. I talk about the role of a story worker like myself as a shepherd who helps stories get to where they need to be while tending them with care and respect.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: Sometimes people respond to my explanation with curiosity about these rules and safeguards. Where did they come from? What impact do they have? I am happy to fill them in. Next they want to know how they can learn how to use these rules and how they can design a project that includes them. I explore that with them as well.
  2. To the dissenting: Some people are sceptical that these rules and safeguards work. They say these are rules with which to build elaborate self-delusions, not rules to create transparency and respectful care of stories. They believe I do advocate participating in propaganda and distortion but, like the scientist cringing in the corner while crying "they said they would use it for good," have told myself a story to excuse my own unethical behavior. If I believed that I would quit this work, not try to help others do it. All of my safeguards have been hard-won. Each has a story of development, and I can provide clear before-and-after comparisons that illustrate why I think the safeguard is needed and why I think it works. Some will never be convinced.
  3. To those with a valid point: I'm sure I do delude myself to some extent. I'm sure I do fail in my quest to be a careful story shepherd. But I have seen such strong positive outcomes from story work that I think it is worth doing it, and worth continuing to improve my practice, anyway. When people raise this point I humbly accept their criticism and say that I've thought long and hard about the issue myself. And then I tell a story about the positive power of story work, flaws and all.

I've heard of this, it's New Age crap.

The final sub-reaction in the "I know about this already" group is that anything connected with stories is about New Age spiritualism. In this view, because I have used the word "story" I am talking about asking people to connect their chakras, don a hemp robe and chant Wicca hymns to Mother Earth. From this perspective anything related to story is both weird, meaning not-of-us, and based on delusions and misunderstandings, thus useless. This is related to the no-credentials and not-serious views, but it adds the "already know it" element of classing story work with snippets previously remembered from popular misconceptions about professional storytellers and professional storytelling meetings. I went to a professional storytelling meeting once, and there was altogether too much soul-bearing and hugging for my comfort. The approach I advocate is not based on crystals or astrological alignment. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It's just not what I'm talking about, and I've found I need to watch for people putting the approach into that box.

How do I respond to the New Age reaction? As with the not-serious reaction, I tell war stories. I tell stories about real projects that had real impacts in tough situations. I talk about relieving pain, detecting abuse, soothing conflicts, opening eyes to damaging assumptions. I shift the focus from the ethereal cosmos to the nitty-gritty street life of everyday stories. If things are going well I talk about positive outcomes that can be achieved in story work, like raising hopes and giving voice to the voiceless. But I'm careful about that, because to some very hard-headed people any hint of softness will be taken as touchy-feely mushiness. For those folks I keep things on the up-and-up with mainstream cognitive terms like leadership and efficiency and discovery, and avoid fringe emotional terms like empowerment and enablement and giving voice to the voiceless. (Audience and purpose, my college writing teacher said.)

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: Getting people to the point of understanding that I don't mean New Age spiritualism, unlike many of the other perceptions, doesn't get me all the way home. I find that standing right behind the New Age reaction I often find the not-serious and not-credentialed reactions. They tend to bolster each other. So educating people on this particular point often requires a highly tuned performance, perhaps several, and a deal of patience. If I do get through to people on this point it's usually slowly and over time.
  2. To the dissenting: Sometimes self-identification with the mainstream and only the mainstream is so strong that no amount of protestation on my point will move them from their opinion that I am talking about strange doings. It's like I'm saying "blah blah story blah blah" and they can only hear that one word. So I use another word they like better: statistics. Nothing impresses the mainstream like statistical mumbo-jumbo. Here's a suggestion. Find a stats textbook. Learn the basics. Internalize the names of a few statistical tests and other arcane paraphenalia of the priesthood. But keep these things in reserve and use them only in emergencies. And before use, check to make sure there is no one in the audience who actually knows what you are talking about and will detect that you are remembering fragments from a textbook or a stats course you took twenty years ago. But seriously, folks, I don't try all that hard to pursue people who hysterically cling to mainstream conformity. If their mind isn't open just a teensy bit, they probably won't get much out of story work anyway.
  3. To those with a valid point: All right. I admit it. Stories are touchy feely! They are about emotions. Of course they are not objective measurements of fact! But here is my counter-point: where have numbers and facts got us? Is it not worth exploring what can be done, in a complementary fashion, to reinsert some humanity into the world of finding things out and making decisions? Can this be done without rendering all cognitive function floppy and spineless? Certainly. And I have some great stories about how it has been done.

The sound of understanding

You might be wondering why I am only talking about negative reactions. Doesn't anybody ever understand what I am talking about and see the potential of the approach? Sure, lots of times. When I see a light in their eyes and hear a click as the idea fits into a narrative-sized hole in their problem scope, I know we are ready to move to the next stage. I ask them to tell me about a problem or issue they would like to tackle, perhaps one they have not been able to address to their satisfaction with other methods. Usually people can come up with these easily, and I listen and ask questions. Then I do two things: I tell stories about projects around similar goals and problems I've worked on or know about from the past, and I throw out a fistful of ideas around projects they could do in the future. I try to match the size of the fistful and the ambition of the ideas to the level of risk-taking evident in the person I'm talking to. If I hear another click, we can start talking about more specific ideas. If I don't, maybe I didn't understand their problem well enough and need to ask more questions about it.

I did think at the start of writing this post about sub-divisions of the "I get it, I can use this" reaction, but in the end I think it's like Tolstoy said. Happy conversations about story work are all alike; every unhappy conversation is unhappy in its own way. When you can see that things are working as they should, off you go. If you have seen how well this stuff works you don't need my advice to talk with enthusiasm about story work. It's only when you hit walls, as we all sometimes do, that we need to compare notes and help each other get the message out.

Means of evaluation, forms of evidence

Now, as I was writing up these nine reactions to the working-with-stories spiel I noticed (and you noticed) how some are similar to others. So I of course organized them, and this is what I got.

What is this? Could it be Harrison White's (and Robert Bales') three means of evaluating human communications? Yes. (What a surprise, says the why-must-you-keep-harping-on-this reader.) The reactions I have seen to my story spiel fall naturally into three ways in which people evaluate what I have said. Story work is safe or dangerous; it has or lacks prestige; and it has or lacks utility. The third box here shows reactions that combine evaluations of prestige and utility - which is an understandable evaluation for someone in an organizational capacity, since those forces are constant to their work.

At the bottom of each box I show the general character of my response to each reaction. If the reaction shows an evaluation of safety, I ought to respond with reassurance. If the reaction shows an evaluation of prestige, I ought to respond with signals of authority. If the reaction shows an evaluation of utility, I ought to respond with proof that the approach works.

Of course now I want to go back over each of the "what I say" portions of this blog post and check to see if I am actually doing what I ought to do to help people make the evaluation they are inclined to make. (I only noticed this pattern after I wrote all those sections.) How about I leave that as an exercise for the reader, and go get a sandwich instead.

I end with a question. If you give a spiel about stories that bears any resemblance to mine, what reactions have you noted? Do they fit within this framework, or have I missed any? And how do you respond? What works for you?


rosaz said...

Cynthia, awesome post! While the work I do is somewhat different, it is also not-yet-accepted, and tends to trigger those three types of concerns among people. Really inspiring to read this!

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Rosaz, thanks so much for the comment. It is very interesting that you have experienced the same three categories of response (insufficient, dangerous, familiar) in another context. Looking back on this post from three years later, it reminds me of the common saying that new ideas go through three stages: erroneous, dangerous, and obvious. I didn't realize when I wrote this that my experiences might fit into that saying. Thanks for pointing that out!