It was back in 2015 when a group of us, as experts in the area of narrative work, decided to share our wisdom on how we work with stories in organizations and also to join our forces to support the creation of a global storytelling community. We decided the vehicle for this would be the publication of a book and an annual conference, where participants could also share their own work with stories. The book would cover the impact of stories in a range of almost all attributes of an organization’s life and growth like change, leadership, learning, culture, community building, etc. Both the book and the conference have been given the name “Beyond Storytelling”.
Since then, a lot happened in our lives and to our planet. The rising of dichotomies, more uncertainty, bigger personal and systemic struggles and much more. At the same time, the idea of telling your authentic story was taking more space, especially in the organizational parlance as an antidote to deal with the above-mentioned challenges. This led to the overuse and sometimes to the abuse of the term “storytelling”, especially in specific corporate functions like sales and marketing.
However, still, a core question remains valid: How stories could become an elixir that ignites individual and systemic transformation? How could we leverage the magic power that stories carry so that lingering effects could emerge towards a greater good?
There are many examples where working with stories beyond storytelling becomes the magic wand that illuminates the individual/organizational/societal field of change and initiates a re-authoring process for a desired future. Here are just a few of them:
1.) Stories as polarity resolutions. If we imagine a terribly crazy world with a lot of negative disruption as one pole, then the opposite pole may be a human configuration of conscious visionaries that are rising and collectively work for a better world. When one pole seems to dominate our present and future, building on the other pole may bring a required balance. This is what Otto Scharmer and the Presencing Institute are currently doing with the HuffPost collaboration project, on "Transforming Capitalism".
Or approaching a hot polarity by using a personal story it may open a space for a middle ground discussion to emerge, which may make meaning for both poles’ supporters. This is what Brené Brown tries to do when she shares her childhood story as a vehicle to talk about responsible gun ownership in the US. This is also what the Social Project “Stories for Europe” offers by inviting all the voices and individual stories to be listened, ranging from favoring the European idea to the realm of Euroscepticism.
When someone tries to eliminate or devaluate the stories that identify the one pole, a substantial resistance is created and stretches the polarity to its edges. It is like trying to separate the two different sides of a coin. Of course, this doesn't work because a story is attached to each actor’s identity. Working with stories can guide us to land safely in the middle ground of a highly polarized field.
2.) Visionary story-work. I use this approach in my coaching practice. A person starts with their own story, and then they combine it with a bigger vision/mission/message, which reflects their call for this world. In a social level, the “Stories for Europe” project is capturing this. Sharing our own authentic stories which are related to moments that we felt connected to a “European idea” may help us re-author and co-create a better future for Europe. The inquiry process becomes appreciative when you explore questions in a way like "What was a moment in which Europe appeared beautiful in my eyes? What if Europe´s political aim was to be beautiful?"
Working with a visionary story can also happen the other way around: I start by imagining a mission or a future and then I dress it up with my own story projected in that future. I actually include myself and my current environment in it. An example could be to take any Foresight Scenario on a big subject (e.g. climate change, food and energy supply, etc.), which resonates best with me and imagine myself and my life in it. The narrative of the data-based scenario changes totally and integrates an emotional loading when I deploy it starting with the word “I”.
In both cases, this approach may help us to create a strong future brand story of ourselves/company/work, etc.
3.) Story as an intervention. This taps into the idea of how I would like and what it takes for people to meet in their humanity in the hearing of my story. Sharing our authentic story, how we share it and to whom, are important aspects in our effort to illuminate and create an impact. Self-confidence, power, powerlessness, drama, joyfulness, etc, are all expressions of our behavior and are related to how we tell our story. However, the most important aspect is from which inner state we share our story. Because this dramatically changes its impact. The inner state has to do with our level of presence at the moment as we are telling our story and the transformation process that evokes both within ourselves and in our audiences in the “here and now”. Bringing awareness about the importance of the inner state that a story is told is an essential part of working with stories.
A Story holds such a power and as Michael Margolis nicely said: “…this stuff is dynamite, it can also do damage...” For example, the inner state and intention are what differentiates storytellers from populists. Thinking of stories that shape the identity and enhance the pride of a nation in its diversity, could we imagine how different would have been the impact of the story behind the phrase “Make America great again”?
This brings into my mind a beautiful poem of the fabulous Nayyirah Waheed…
when they hear
this is how