Pattern #80

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Story Card

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Story Symbol

Pattern Heart

Stories are a primary mode of sense-making, sense-sharing and sense-shifting. Sharing personal stories and weaving group stories promotes empathy, connection, awareness, and transformation. So encourage people to delve into stories of experiences, meanings, and visions to engage them in deepening mutual discovery, creativity, action and change.

Some related patterns:   2 Appreciative Thinking   5 Bringing Understanding to Life   28 Equity   62 Possibility Thiking   63 Power of Listening  76 Safety First, Then Challenge  95 Working the Field

  • How are our lives shaped by the stories we tell ourselves, individually and collectively?
  • What stories can we invite people to share that will help them connect with each other across their differences?
  • What shared story or stories can we come up with together that excite us about living into them as we create our future together?
  • What events have we each experienced which reflect aspects of the larger hidden story of our community, the sharing of which could reveal that important story more clearly to all of us?
  • What is the biggest story we can think of which holds all of us and everything we do and makes sense of it all? Are there several such big stories? Are they facets of something even larger?

Story – going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

I once had the great realization that even logic – with its very simple fundamental basis of “if/then” or “if this, then that” (which is the foundational principle of logic) – is a story. “If this, then that” is a mini-story.

There is line in a poem by Muriel Rukeyser, where she says “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms”.  Everything that is has a story. Every situation has a story. The future has a story.  The past has a story.

Things have to fit in some kind of narrative for them to make sense to us. And we invite each other into our universes by telling our stories: “This is what happened to me”… “This is what makes sense to me” … “This is what the causes and effects are that I see.“  Arguments are kinds of stories.

We make sense and share sense largely through narratives. If I am talking to you about my narrative – my story, the way things make sense to me – and you are telling me about your sense, your narrative, there’s a sense in which we are weaving some kind of fabric of understanding. We may be weaving narratives that are more like our original ones – in which I am excluding you, but now I know that I am excluding you because I have woven a story that has you outside of my sense making, and vice versa – or we can weave some kind of story that weaves us together. We can say either, we have woven a new story that is different than the one we started with, or we are weaving a story that includes both of our stories, and transcends the stories that we had at the beginning.

Or we can weave a story that goes, “Oh here’s a larger picture, within which I’m looking at it this way, and you’re looking at it that way, and there are probably other people that are looking at it in other ways.” There you have a multiple viewpoint story that allows the different stories to exist side-by-side, that doesn’t have to integrate all the stories into one thing by acting like the differences do not exist.

Also there can be one narrative where the differences are made very present. It is like, “What are the gifts and limitations of the liberal viewpoint?” and “What are the gifts and limitations of the conservative viewpoint?” These two can be woven together in interesting ways.  Same with science and spirituality, male and female, and so on.

There are all sorts of interesting ways to weave things together.

It is so obvious that that happens all the time when we share personal stories. Group stories tend to focus on the different types of people, like “What is the experience of white men and black women?“

If you really get what somebody’s story is, there’s an empathic feeling that goes along with the resulting empathic understanding. And social capital, in terms of the extent we connect with each other, whether it’s within our group (“bonding capital”) or between our groups (bridging capital), the more we can hear each other and share our stories – the more we can be open about our stories – the more connection and relationship there is to use for other things. That is the idea of Social Capital, which is another one of the patterns in this system.

Awareness is a big part of this. Very often I’ll be in a argument with somebody else – I’ll be upset with the other person – and I’ll suddenly get a sense of something odd going on and I’ll say, “Wait a minute, I think you’re thinking that I was thinking X and you are telling yourself that story, and that’s not what’s going on for me.” And they tell me what they were thinking and I suddenly realize “Oh I thought you meant Y but actually you meant Z”. There is an expanded awareness of what’s going in the situation.

This feeds into collective intelligence: the more we hear each other’s narratives the more we can see through each other’s eyes, and the more we can together create something that actually works for all of us.

In some systems, people go through a deliberative process, discussing an issue together on behalf of their larger community.  They’re often a small group, say a few dozen people, or a hundred people. They get together for a few days or a few weeks and explore an issue and come up with some statement about it or some dream they share. They have some shared aspiration and they do all that on behalf of their larger community and then they come out and share the story of what happened with them. Although they came to the conversation from different places, as they talk they discover things, realize things that weave together more and more. They come up with something special and rather than just saying “Here’s our report,” they share the journey they went through together and invite other people to see what that was, and how they came to their final conclusions.

That includes helping people who haven’t been part of that process shift their outlook like those who were directly involved shifted their outlooks. If the listeners hear the story well – if they see that people like them, who were involved, shifted in certain ways and made certain discoveries or decided to work together on things – then the listeners think “Oh, maybe I can do that, too!” Or the shift happens intrinsically and the listeners think, “Oh, I didn’t realize that. And now I realize it. Now I’m a different person having heard this story of what happened to these people who are like me, dealing with other people who are not like me, just like I have to deal with them in my life. But the people in this deliberation did so much better in dealing with people who I deal with in my life, and I can now do that, I can now feel and act better when I’m with those people.” So the idea of sharing stories – from personal stories all the way up to the stories of whole communities and societies – is a very powerful piece of the wise democracy vision and journey.

Video Introduction (10 min)

Examples and Resources

There’s a process called Participatory Narrative Inquiry which is gathering stories from a community and finding patterns in them.

The Maclean’s magazine initiative in 1991 is an exemplar of powerful storytelling. And the Civic Councils approach used Vorarlberg, Austria, has a potent innovation combining their report out with a Community Café and then following up with an implementation council containing stakeholders and officials involved with the issue. That is another very intense way of sharing stories.

Then there’s the multiple viewpoint drama work of Anna Deavere Smith. She did video performances about two different riots. One was the Rodney King riot in Los Angeles where the cops who beat up this black man, Rodney King, were found not guilty by an all-white jury and L.A. just blew up, riots, burning, people being killed, it was a total mess. Smith went there and interviewed people who played different roles in the riots and then she created a one-woman performance where she speaks for 3, 4, 5, or 6 minutes as each person. She becomes that person, she is a light-colored black woman, who can seem to be all sorts of different races depending on how she’s made up, dresses and talks. She’s all these different people, and you get a multidimensional view of the riot which doesn’t give you any answers but sure changes your awareness.

And then there’s playback theater which takes somebody’s story and acts it out, often in ways that help them resolve whatever situation they’re in. We had playback theater do some mirroring at a National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation conference, where they acted out dynamics they saw going in the conference. Being a mirror is part of story sharing.