Chené Swart

A Conversation about Re-Authoring Futures with Chené Swart

In the young history of BEYOND STORYTELLING, Chené Swart continues to be a source of inspiration for me. Connecting to her and getting to know her work has been one of the great gifts that I received in this time. In this conversation, we got together to explore the background to her re-authoring practice, her book and our thoughts around re-authoring futures.

Chené is one of our key noters and will host a workshop on a project where Re-Authoring practices have been applied to the future of tourism and travel.

Enjoy the read:

Jacques Chlopczyk: Chené, how did you get to Re-Authoring? Why did the word capture you?

Chené Swart: For me the word, Re-Authoring, of all the language in the narrative field still surprises people, make them think and strikes a chord with people’s imagination. Sometimes words have lost their meaning or words have been captured.

Re-Authoring was one of the words, that – in the big narrative landscape – still had some Oooomph in it. Just as a word alone. It felt untainted. And it felt that there is still some possibility to inhabit it with one´s own meaning.

JC: So what does Re-Authoring mean to you?

CS: Firstly, re-authoring means for me that something is amiss. It makes clear that the world is not what it can be in terms of the future. We all live in a context that has something in mind for us, that shapes how we are in the world. Re-Authoring means that the context needs to be named and that we need to understand the influence of the context. And that our writing in this world sometimes happens as a protest towards this context. Sometimes it needs to transform systems, it needs to ask questions about why certain words are used.

Secondly, re-authoring means that there is an agency and authorship that can happen. It assumes that humans and communities are able to impact the stories that are told by and about them – the stories that shape their way of being.

Thirdly, re-authoring lens and practices has the potential to enable us to see the world in a new way, and therefore also our place in the world. We could start actively participating in the world by writing in the world. But it is not a writing that is an individual affair. Re-Authoring is always in community. It presupposes that there is a whole community who is willing to write this world with you and is willing to come alongside you in supporting you in this writing.

JC: What came to my mind when you spoke is that the world is also never finished. Re-Authoring also alludes to continuous transformation. There is no end state, and the world is never at an end. That life is never at an end.

CS: And that in a certain time and space we also dip into this world to re-author. We are not re-authoring everything always. If we have the passion for something, something that matters to us and that is the place we do it in community. My dream is that if everyone does their part, collectively we will have something on the move for a different future. But a future that is always on the move again. It is not static. You said something about taking back the pen…

JC: With the circle I have the image of the spiral. That is an image – we are always somehow moving in circles. When we have one challenge, gift, burden done, there is the next one. To use psychological language, if we managed one developmental task that is handed down to us by our communities or organisations there will be another one. It is about this continuous life circle.

What I also found interesting: the tension between re-authoring and future. The power of the title of the conference is the tension field. Because it assumes that the future is already written. So, if you re-author something that means there is something already.

Even when you talk to a person or work in organization and they say to you: I don´t have an idea about the future – they always do. Re-Authoring entails mining or bringing to light the unspoken – hopes & dreams – about the future. I like the title also because of this tension field. That you already assume that everything and everyone has an image of the future, even if they cannot explain it.

This also concerns the relationship between past, present and future. When we say re-author the future we need to do it in the here and now. And you can only do it, if you understand on which shoulders you are standing and what has been handed down to you. You need to understand how did you get where you are. What is the trauma or burden I carry but also – what are the gifts that I am carrying.

Re-Authoring is also about the resources and gifts that are in my past and that I can take into or leverage from into the future. Re-Authoring is very resource oriented: It acknowledges that we all have weaknesses but invites us not to spend time with focusing on that too much.

CS: It is about the moments that take us forward. The moments that we want more of. In a recent workshop somebody stood up and said when he thought of the moment, the memory of the moment was even stronger than the moment itself. Re-Authoring taps into the richness of the moment and beyond. As if the moment transcends time. And the moment now is even stronger than the memory of the moment. That was really powerful for me.

In re-authoring futures, moments are the ground for these futures. These moments also expose our intense humanity. In that moment when the past shines bright and even a little spark of the future ignites it is as if we see humanity in its intense beauty.

JC: It also ties back to the idea of wholing and healing in working with stories. There always are critical voices and we invite them in and say that this is also part of the system and context we move in. Thus, Re-Authoring is breaking taboos and is also inviting the difficult voices to be heard. Because it cannot happen without doing it, because the voices will keep being stronger or they will keep nagging if they are not invited.

Interesting point in our discussion. When we talk about moments, we have the moment in which we ask a group or a person about the moments: a moment that you would like more of, or that took you forward … We have an overlay of the present moment of which you ask the question and the space you are doing it and the moment you are doing it in and at the same time the moments transform when you invite the past to crawl up on you. This makes the moment special: when we become so aware of the past. And the past speaks louder now than it did in the moment we experienced it, because it happens in a certain context. This makes the moment of transformation.

How do you create these moments that matter? How do you create a moment in which a memory of a past moment that you want more of becomes even stronger and transforms and shifts something?

CS: In conversations with Tom Carlson we spoke about presence (according to Gumbrecht). When you are in presence, you can call out of the shadows of time all the moments and you really unshackle moments out of the shadows of time. And I think even to the point that they can then be brought forward into the future because they are no longer bound to time. They are here, now we can imagine what it means for the future. We can see the future in a certain sense. Leonhard Cohen has a line in a song in which he sings that there is a crack in everything where the light can shine through. For me those presence moments are the moments in which the pen is all of a sudden back in our hands.

JC: What contributes to these moments from your practice and your experience?

CS: All the presence elements: nature, beauty, art, community. They are all portals of presence. Senses, all the senses. Sometimes oddly enough, when people are put into relationship with the context, that also becomes a portal into presence. When all of a sudden people discover “this is not my idea alone”. There is a whole world crafted in patriarchy – this becomes a portal of presence. Because all of these ideas are then unshackled from their factness and truthness. People say, no – those are ideas that are 2000 years old. I don´t agree and I don´t like it. This is the moment when the pen comes back into your hands, like the magic wand.

JC: Presence in this sense is about being in contact with oneself and the context. Both sides at the same moment. You are one and fluid at the same time. It is a thing between knowing who I am and also being able to step out of this role. I am suffering from this discourse, this is the point where I can say I change or I relate myself differently to the world.

CS: I think of a tent that loses the pens that grounds it. Where I unearth the tent – It is not scary or factual or important. It also becomes fluid. Re-Authoring is really about our relationship to all things. It is giving us back the pen in the relationship to all things.

JC: So, why does this concept capture you so much?

CS: What we are talking about right now. It is inviting the portals of presence into my practice and facilitating the movement between meaning and presence. We live in a meaning culture, where everything has to mean something. Where you are punished, when you are not learning from events that happen to you. Did you learn something from this disaster or health crises?

We are constantly bombarded with making meaning. Our whole research industry is based on meaning making – interpretation. For me Portals of Presence is what I am focusing now. I am seeing how that is redefining time, identity, community because people are connected in ways that they never thought was possible.

It has everything to do with the future that they can now imagine. In one of the groups I worked with somebody stood up at the end of the day and said: I feel that I am connected to a community now. So, the future of community has been created in the sharing of moments. And this is the first thing, right in the beginning, when I went to USA and had conversations with Peter Block.

He wanted to use narrative ideas in his flawless consulting III workshop and we piloted a narrative half day experience. In the final reflections people said where these ideas took them was that it opened up new possibilities. Passion, inspiration and new possibilities come to people through re-authoring ideas and practices. And that means that when those moments are re-membered it is as if we can remember our future. We put membership to the possibility of our future together.

JC: Remembering transforms past, present and future at the same time. It dissolves the time arrow that says time is a straight line. I just remembered Hundertwasser saying the straight line is a godless line. I think this is a departure from a meaning culture and an invitation for presence.

As far as I understand Gumbrecht, the meaning culture is the one that controls all, is detached. This is the spirit that guided the last 600 years and made time a straight line. And this invites unhealthy developments: you don’t think in loops but you think in arrows. As if your actions do not have consequences in the long run.

Image courtesy of Adrien Ledoux via Unsplash

Mapping the Field – Interview with Chené Swart

Chené Swart has been working with Re-Authoring Practices for years. Her book, "Re-Authoring the World" introduces re-authoring practices into the work with organizations and communities. In this video, she talks about what this means for her and why it is important right now. At BEYOND STORYTELLING 2018 she will host a workshop together with Griet Bouwen and Marianne Schapmans. She will also hold a key note.



From Moments to Stories – Chené Swart's Moments Portal

A constant in my work as consultant and change facilitator in the past months is a concern about „moments“. It was brought into my focus by Chené Swart talking about her work in the Masterclass at BEYOND STORYTELLING 2017 and in the many conversations that followed afterwards.

I believe that as facilitators, we want to create „moments that matter“, in which we can support the people we work with in their search for new meaning, sensemaking or transformation. In creating these moments I used an approach from Chené Swart to invite the remembrance of significant moments to create relevance.

Generating new meaning and making sense of a situation is a key ingredient for transformation. Often it is about discarding old assumptions and creating new meaning. Not only in cognitive terms but also emotionally. Working with stories is a powerful way to connect the emotional and cognitive aspects of transformation.

Sensemaking is one of the key uses of working with stories. Stories speak to our head, hearts and minds. The question is how we get to the stories that map the field in a way that is useful and relevant for the people we are working with.

Entering the moments portal – Relevance

In any setting that has the stated goal of stimulating transformation of some kind, one of the key questions is how a topic becomes relevant to the people we work with. I don´t mean relevant only in the sense that people say „Yes, this topic is relevant or important for me.“ Relevance, for me, in the settings I work in, is an emotional stance towards the topic. A concern with the topic and an engagement and commitment to find out what the topic at hand really means for the people and the community involved. In some cases we do have a sense of urgency in the room but this isn´t always the case. So how do we invite engagement and honour people´s presence and time?

If you are used to working in participatory settings a lot of different methods might spring to your mind that enable you to set in motion ways for people to engage with a topic and with each other. But even with some years of experience with different approaches to the design and facilitation of such settings, Chenés work with moment is a constant eye opener – both for it´s simplicity and the impact it creates. The key to this approach is asking people to tell about moments in which a topic or theme was / is / became relevant and important to them. And this works magic.

Working with the moments Portal on Trust During the Berlin Change Days 2017. Pictures by @miriaminchange

Abstraction and experience

As human beings we are bound to our bodies. In each given situation we perceive with all our senses. Going up the ladder of abstraction, we create meaning out of the different impulses we get from our senses. With each step up the ladder, our experience is enriched, filtered and transformed by our mental models and interpretation routines. We move from experience to abstraction.

By doing this, we don´t perceive the particulars of the situation but the commonalities it has with our pre-established modes of thinking and seeing the world. Both as a means to make sense of what is happening and in an effort to reduce cognitive load. This enables us to react swiftly and orient ourselves. Albeit this „fast thinking“ works in a lot of situations, it also carries the risk of missing important pieces of information and makes us prone to oversimplifying things.

In a situation in which we want to invite people to really re-think a certain topic, fast thinking often leads to a situation in which we either see a new topic through our well established frames of reference (meaning: there is nothing new) or that we engage but without linking it an emotional element that is necessary for true transformation. Our attitudes and belief systems are shaped by the experiences we make and systems of symbols (culture) we use to make sense of them. All this adds layers of abstraction and generalizations. The magic of asking for moments is that people are recalling specific situations or moments in which a topic has or had relevance to them. With this simple question, we invite people to strip away their interpretations and simply recall. Indeed, if we ask people to take us to the moments that mattered for them, it becomes even more than recalling, it becomes reexperiencing. 

The power of this way of working lies for me in the fact that there is also no abstraction needed to talk about moments. The cognitive effort is not focused on making interpretations or finding deeper meanings or patterns. The cognitive effort is low in that it entails „simple recalling“. Letting people talk about moments is – in a sense – making people listening to themselves anew. This also invites the emotions and feelings that made up the experience of this moment. Working with moments, the invitation is to step down the ladder of abstraction and get close to the „raw data“ of our experiences.

Emotional and cognitive effects of working with moments

On an emotional level, this work invites being a true witness and builds relationships and community. As listeners to the moments of others we move from interpretation to perception, as we see a situation metaphorically through the eyes of the other. This often creates a sense of belonging and intimacy. Not only towards others, but also towards ourselves. We are not only witnessing others but we are also listening to ourselves. We experiencing the moments anew through our recalling and retelling.

On a cognitive level, I believe that this work – revealing the „raw data“ – cracks open our interpretations of situations, moments and the experiences we made. By stripping away our interpretations and mental models, we are able to re-interprete these moments anew. This creates the possibility for new ways of looking at things and the opportunity to tell a story in a new and different way.

From moments to stories

I experimented a while with asking the participants to my workshops to tell a story in which the topic at hand was relevant. From my experiences with the moments portal, I believe that this creates a hurdle that is not necessary. On the one hand people ask themselves what constitutes a story worth telling in the specific setting we are in. It concerns people with what to tell and how to tell it. Instead of focusing on relating themselves to the topic and the other, they are concerned with style and form. That is not necessary. If you ask people about moments, they will tell a story anyway.

Reconstructing the story of an R&D Team through the moments portal. What story emerged? What do we learn about us as a team looking at these moments?

Reconstructing the story of an R&D Team through the moments portal. What story emerged? What do we learn about us as a team looking at these moments?

From a narrative standpoint, this also enables to re-write the stories that shape the actions, decisions and interactions within an organization. Stories are made up by moments connected by a plot outlining the landscape of action and the landscape of consciousness. These stories, once established, are easily triggered for the interpretation of a given situation.

„While some community narratives are quite direct, many well-known narratives are coded as visual images, as symbols, as stereotypes, and as performances of behavior so ritualized that we may be unaware of the narratives we implicitly accept and enact, [...].Underlying much of what we know, and can recall, are encoded stories indexed by certain cognitive handles. […]. They are cues to the underlying story.“ (Rappaport, 2000, S.5)*

By going back to the moments in which the themes and narratives emerged, these moments become free of these assumptions and pre-established storylines. They become building blocks that can be re-interpreted and re-storied in a different way. A story that is more in line with what is now required from the organization or community.

Constructing a story out of these moments is again a step up the ladder of abstraction. But this abstraction is not as abstract as a model or theory. It is still a story with all the elements that go along with that. More importantly, every step that follows in this meaning making process is fueled with the experiences and emotions of the people involved.

Because they became relevant through the personal engagement and through community in passing through the moments portal.

*Rappaport, J. (2000) Community Narratives: Tales of Terror and Joy. In American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 1.

More on Chené's work:



Lesestoff #1 – Chené Swart, Petra Sammer, Wolfgang Tonninger, Michael Müller

Heute möchten wir eine Reihe von Büchern vorstellen, die unser Denken über die Arbeit mit Geschichten in Organisationen geprägt haben. Gleichzeitig möchten wir auf anstehende Veröffentlichungen unserer Referenten hinweisen:

Chené Swart – Re-Authoring the World

Re-authoring the World: The Narrative Lens and Practices for Organisations, Communities and Individuals, invites readers to a transformational way of being in the world. It translates the Narrative Therapy approach and practices for people outside the therapeutic context that are interested in shifting the stories of their own lives as well as the communities and organisations that they work in.

Wir empfehlen unsere Masterclass für Alle, die sich intensiver mit dem Ansatz von Chené Swart auseinandersetzen möchten.

Petra Sammer – Visual Storytelling

Wir erleben einen »visuellen Tsunami«, Bildelemente prägen immer stärker das ausufernde Medienangebot. PR und Marketing sind deshalb gefordert, Interesse durch packende Geschichten und passende Bilder zu wecken. Storytelling - derzeit die erfolgreichste Technik moderner Unternehmenskommunikation - wird dann noch wirksamer, wenn sie konsequent visuelle Aspekte berücksichtig und zum Visual Storytelling wird.

Petra Sammer ist eine unserer Key Note Speaker und Impulsgeber für BEYOND STORYTELLING.

Wolfgang Tonninger & Udo Bräu – Wegmarken im Möglichkeitenland

„Wegmarken im Möglichkeitenland“ ist ein Erkundungsbuch für Menschen in Veränderungsprozessen; und für Change-Begleiter, die den Menschen in den Prozessen nicht aus den Augen verloren haben. Ein Versuch, den narrativen Ansatz aus der Familientherapie – mit den Gallionsfiguren Michael White, David Epston und Karl Tomm – im Unternehmenskontext weiterzudenken. Dabei geht es – anders als beim klassischen Storytelling – nicht darum, Geschichten als Transportmittel zu instrumentalisieren, sondern darum, die Dynamik der Identitätskonstruktion zu nutzen, um Fenster ins Möglichkeitenland aufzustoßen und daraus neue Handlungsoptionen abzuleiten. StoryWork im Unternehmenskontext ist immer Kulturentwicklung; ein Zugang zu den weichen Faktoren, die die harten Fakten schaffen; ein Zugang, der kulturelle Einengungen hinterfragt und einen Spielraum zurückerobert, in dem Diversität nicht nur möglich, sondern als Innovationsmotor wünschenswert ist.

Wolfgang Tonninger Blog: Einige Beiträge auch auf unserem Blog.


Michael Müller – Einführung in narrative Methoden der Organisationsberatung

Die Arbeit mit Geschichten – Mehr als Storytelling...

Die Identität eines Unternehmens oder einer Organisation wird zu einem Gutteil durch die Geschichten hergestellt, die Mitarbeiter und Führungskräfte, Kunden und Öffentlichkeit darüber erzählen. Wenn Erzählprozesse Identitäten schaffen, am Leben halten und kommunizieren, bedeutet Organisationsentwicklung immer auch Arbeit an der Narration.

Das bewusste Arbeiten mit diesen Geschichten in Unternehmen ist heute unter dem Schlagwort „Storytelling“ weit verbreitet. Dieses Buch zeigt, dass narrative Methoden weit über das reine Erzählen hinausgehen: Welche Geschichten konstruiert eine Person, ein Team oder ein Unternehmen über sich selbst? Wie lassen sich diese Geschichten und damit das eigene Selbstverständnis und das Handeln verändern?

Vor dem Hintergrund solcher Fragen vermittelt Michael Müller, Professor für Medienanalyse und Medienkonzeption, narrative Ansätze, Methoden und Veränderungsdesigns. Ihre Anwendung im Einzelcoaching sowie für die Organisationsentwicklung und das Change-Management erläutert er aus der Perspektive des systemischen Beraters.

Michael Müller hält die Eröffnungskeynote und einen Workshop auf BEYOND STORYTELLING. Gemeinsam mit Christine Erlach und anderen hat er die Ausbildung Narratives Management ins Leben gerufen.