Monday 12 April 2010

Understanding Narrative: the Power of Story

Much has been written about stories Leaders use (eg Denning, Squirrel Inc etc), but far less about how leaders can - and indeed need to - work with others’ stories.

My interest in this was brought into focus by a client who pointed out that the way I work has a lot in common with Narrative Therapy.

As I hadn’t heard of Narrative Therapy I was intrigued, rushed off and read a lot, and had to agree with her.

So over a few posts, I will tell some stories about how working with others’ narratives - and particularly recognising that people often have several narratives available to them at any moment in time - can be powerful and helpful.

I will tag these posts Multistory Development.

As an example of what I mean, here is the Story of the Unwashed Coffee Cup.

The row over the unwashed coffee cup blew up suddenly and escalated dramatically. One of the protagonists, Annie, got herself signed off work for stress, and the other, Clare, complained to the Deputy Chief Executive. The whole department seemed to be in meltdown and the team leader unable to cope. It was as though civil war had broken out with an intensity of hostilities and recriminations that was hard to believe.

Of course, it became clear that the coffee cup was only the last straw in a long-running feud between the Clare and Annie, who had managed to get most of the department to side with one or other of them. Regular councils of war were held by each party in the staff restaurant, where the latest news of the hostility of the other was told and re-told.

The question was, how was it possible to sort this mess out? The hostilities actually went back almost two years and were deeply embedded. Annie and Clare could each tell a terrible story of the other: of provocation, rudeness, unreasonableness, and so on. And in that word story lay the start of a solution.

When Clare started work at her first job, she was young, and inexperienced in the world of work. However, she was outgoing and apparently confident. When embarrassed, she had the habit of laughing as a nervous release. Annie had worked in the department for years. She had a heart of gold, but a slightly dour manner which often concealed that. She understood how important precision was in the department’s work, as their output was often used in court cases, and could be torn apart by hostile lawyers unless it was perfect.

Clare did not report to Annie, but Annie noticed a couple of errors in Clare’s work and pointed them out (with her dour countenance...). Clare was upset by this, and gave her nervous laugh. And from that small interaction, each built a huge edifice of meaning. Clare saw Annie as bullying and interfering; Annie saw Clare as insubordinate, unconcerned about her work and cheeky.

From that moment, without realising it, each had started to construct a story about the other, and collected evidence to prove that her story was real. From then, all interactions which confirmed, or seemed to confirm, the dominant narrative were noticed, collected and believed. Any interactions which seemed to contradict the story were either discounted as atypical, or not noticed at all. Neutral interactions were interpreted according to the story; and all of this outside the conscious awareness of either party.

From there it was a short step to recruiting allies and briefing them; and in that process, stories were re-told, often with extra colour, and their truth became unassailable; they were really dominant. And from there it was only a matter of time till the whole department went to war with itself.

But what was interesting to discover, and proved the salvation of this team, was that these dominant narratives were not the only stories that each protagonist told herself. Buried quite deep under the surface were others. When asked (and after being allowed sufficient time to tell her dominant narrative) Clare was able to tell of another Annie; an Annie who had been demonstrably kind to her on a number of occasions. “That’s what’s so maddening!” she said, “Sometimes she can be really nice - I just don’t know where I am with her.”

Annie and Clare were helped to rebuild their relationship by rebuilding their stories about each other and their relationship. This was not done through some quick trick like ‘re-framing,’ but by a rigorous exploration of their perceptions and interpretations.

The first step was to build sufficient trust with each of them individually to be able to help them. A key part of that was, in a confidential one-to-one setting, to listen to their stories in their entirety - and to respect them. That involved resisting the urge to challenge or correct either of them when she made a leap of logic which was clearly fallacious. At the conclusion, each heard a sympathetic summary of her story, designed to demonstrate that she had been truly heard, and that she was not being challenged on the story. That is an important step, as the stories were dear to them and any attack might cause them to cling more tightly to them: but my agenda was to get them to loosen their grip just a little bit.

The next step in the process was to talk a little about stories, how we construct them and collect evidence and so on. I did this by talking about my mother-in-law and my wife: a classic tale of love and misunderstanding....; something each was able to relate to and recognise - and laugh at. Somehow when we look at others’ stories, it is much easier for us to see that stories have an existence of their own, separate from the protagonists. This distancing, or externalising, of the story is the prelude to starting to question it.

That created the atmosphere for a gentle probing of the comprehensiveness of their stories: was there anything which had happened over the last two years which did not fit the story so well? In the conversation with Clare, that was when the tears finally broke through and she made the “That’s what’s so maddening!” comment. In fact, when asked, she provided numerous examples of Annie’s kindness.

Now that her grip on the story was a little loosened and her curiosity about it as a story was engaged, I posed a different type of question: ‘If you had to give this story a name, like a fairy tale, what would you call it?’ After the barest moment’s reflection she replied: “The Princess and the Ogre!”

That created all sorts of possibilities. Some we pursued were asking whether Annie really got out of bed each day with an ogre-ish desire to make the princess’s life hell; and what Annie’s story might be called. We debated various options for that, in a fairly light-hearted way. This whole segment of the conversation was designed to continue the loosening of Clare’s grip on her story, by creating some distance between her and it (by the explicit naming of it as a story ‘out there’ as it were), by recognising the hyperbole implicit in the designation of Annie as an ‘ogre,’ and by starting to imagine how it might look from Annie’s perspective (by considering her name for it).

That led us to the moment where it seemed appropriate to re-consider Clare’s story. What I proposed was that there might alternative narratives to The Princess and the Ogre; stories which accounted for more of the evidence (including Annie’s acts of kindness) and that were less implausible than casting her as an ogre. I asked Clare if she would be interested to hear Annie’s story, if Annie were willing to listen to hers, and to explore whether between them they could construct better stories of the past and for the future. She needed some convincing that Annie would enter into the spirit of enquiry I was suggesting, but agreed that if Annie was prepared to, she would be.

Having had a parallel conversation with Annie, and also with all the other members of the team, we finally got to a stage where the whole team came together to look for a way forward. The one thing on which the whole team strongly agreed was that things could not go on the way they had been. Whilst neither protagonist was fully open to the idea that she might have misread the other, each was each pretty clear that that other had misread her!

So we had a day of story telling: each of the protagonists telling her story, (with clear ground rules preventing interruption or correction), and other members of the team invited to comment in turn. We then set about seeking a story which all could agree covered more of the evidence we had started to assemble, and that was when we got to the story of the dour, experienced, committed professional, and the new, slightly nervous, extravert team member.

We then started to ‘thicken the plot’: that is we went back over the two years to see what evidence there was that the emerging story was a better fit than their previous personal stories: and we found lots of it.

Somewhere along the way, there was a wonderful dawning revelation: not only is it possible for us to have a future together that works, but our past isn’t half as awful as we thought it was. Annie and Clare experienced, among other things, huge relief, at no longer feeling so dreadfully misunderstood and also no longer feeling so hated by the other.

The final stage was to look at what evidence everybody would need to see from now onwards, to starve the old stories of evidence, and provide plenty of evidence for the new story. That became the action plan for the team.

The power of this lay in part in the fact that everyone was convinced that the new story was a better account of what had been going on than the previous stories. It was not a result of positive (wishful) thinking or ‘re-framing’ but of seriously engaging with the evidence each had collected - and the evidence each had overlooked. So the better future was grounded in a more positive - and also a more credible - understanding of the past. We were not trying to make up stories or simply put a positive frame around the past, but really interrogate our understanding of it, to find a richer picture that we could all believe in - and typically where no party is so evil and malicious as their antagonist had imagined.

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