Re-Authoring Practices

Wholing and Healing in Re-Authoring Futures

In a famous proverb, it is said that the winner writes history. And throughout history, the battles over the right and official interpretation of the history of countries, communities and organizations can be observed. It is a battle about the right and wrong interpretation of what actually happened. And the same can be said about the future.

Working with organizations and communities in transformation, this questioning and exploration of our interpretations of past and future is essential. Working with stories in this context is a powerful means to dismantle our own assumptions of past and future and mine our experiences, the moments we lived through, for alternative interpretations – as these interpretations might not be our own, or exclude important elements. It is about creating a story that we can own.

Used and Disowned pasts & futures

...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. Julien Rappaport

Thinking about this transformation, two concepts inspired me lately: In his work, futurist Sohail Inayatullah makes a useful distinction between „used“ and „disowned“ futures.

„Used“ futures are those ideas about the future that we have taken from somewhere else an made our own. These images and ideas might take the form of taken-for-granted beliefs, informing what we think is possible or impossible in the future. But more importantly, they are not our own. They derive from powerful discourses, from significant others or grand narratives that are taken as truth. Examples can be found in society, organizations and individuals.

Are we making our career decisions on our own terms or are we living into the dreams of our parents? Do developing countries merely adapt a vision from western modernity and take them as their desired future? Are organizations bound to the path laid out in the past by a powerful founder, or are they ready to adapt and change their path?

„Disowned“ futures are the flip-side of our envisioning of the future. Every image and vision sheds light on something and casts shadow on something else. When we form an image of the future we commit to it; we own it. At the same time, we „disown“ alternative views, alternative possibilities. To put it more emphatically: disowned futures are the alternative futures that we do not want to see. The alternatives, that we are consciously or unconsciously suppressing.

Yet, these disowned futures often contain the keys to further development and the seeds for a better and more wholesome transformation.

Negating them makes them stronger, as the negation always carries the negated with it. There is no use in running away from disowned futures – and pasts.

There is no future without past – against the tabula rasa

The distinction made by Sohail Inayatullah is not only valid for the future, but also for the past. And indeed: thinking about transforming our images of the future, often entails a conscious and active engagement with our past. Contrary to the view that dominated western modernity, we cannot simple create a tabula rasa and start completely new.

The future is not, in a fundamental sense, a clear break with the past, but a transformation of the patterns of the past. We cannot wipe the slate clean.

Re-Authoring Futures therefore also contains a paradox: in order to re-write the future, we need to engage with the past. Not only because that if we disown elements of our past they will come back to haunt us, but because our experiences of the past are the very material that we can use to create our futures. The moments we remember form the backdrop on which every new vision of the future is emerging.

Through looking at the things we just use from others or that we do not own, we develop the freedom to re-interprete, re-assemble and re-construct new futures.

Wholing and Healing

This is one of the central tenets of the dynamics described in different words in the practices developed to support organizations, communities and individuals in transformation.

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Healing and wholing in working with stories

An excerpt from the 2017
key note by Mary Alice Arthur

From a narrative point of view, it refers to one of the „uses“ of story described by Mary Alice Arthur in her key note at BEYOND STORYTELLING 2017. Besides „Sensemaking“ and „Influencing“ she emphasizes the power of stories to support our „Wholing and Healing“.

For me, the term wholing was a new one. In the context of disowned pasts and future, it refers to the acknowledgement and integration of disowned stories. What are the stories that we haven´t acknowledged; that we haven´t accepted as our own?

Being with these suppressed stories, inviting them into our conversation is a key to transformation. This is not an easy thing to do, often painful and not without conflict. Yet, if we don´t do it, we might finding ourselves living into the same stories over and over again.


Dive Deeper:

Re-Authoring Futures – What's in a title?

A title for a conference should entail tension – it should carry questions and paradoxes that stimulate our conversations, imagination and creativity. A title should create a field that is worth exploring. 

The future is the stories we tell

Coming from narrative practices and ideas, the title „Re-Authoring Futures“ has at its core the understanding that our futures are created by the stories we tell about it. From this point of view, the future is not fixed as something with a finite goal. The future in this understanding is an open field in which we are the authors and co-authors that write and co-write this story.

We are all authoring the stories we live into constantly, knowingly or unknowingly. Some of these stories are based in our context – our community, the markets and society. Some are hidden and not known to us but shape our lives in very profound ways – by impacting what we believe is possible or impossible.

Indeed, these beliefs and ideas are spoken about as facts – both physical, social and historical – that are shaping our lives and organizations. Within the hidden nature of these beliefs and ideas we give meaning and daily experience their impact on our lives and our organizations as we unknowingly author and co-author organisational futures.

Choice and agency – Taking back the pen

The plural of „futures" in “re-authoring futures”, indicate the possibilities and choices that are inherent in this view. We also chose this title, now, because, in recent years, we are witnessing the justification of decisions through the small but powerful word „alternativlos“ (without any alternatives). This German word implies that there are no choices.

That the path of action taken only follows given facts, a given logic and rational. And these „alternativlose“ stories can also be found – very often – in organizations. Because of a chosen path in the past or some constraints in the environment, things seem to be impossible to change.

Assuming that the choice we take is „alternativlos.“ it is the affirmation that we do not really have a choice. For the organization that is affected by this „choice,“ all power is taken away. The very notion of futures implicates multiple options, alternatives and yes, choice and agency. The notion of authorship implies that an organization, a community or an individual can take agency to impact the stories told and the stories lived and created.

The prefix "Re-„ is important to us in many ways: It stands for consciousness and engagement. It acknowledges that everyone, every organization and community is part of a context with a set of taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas that supports and invests in the stories that are told by and about them and others.

These taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas make people, teams or organisations the problem as it situates problems inside people or organisations. These internalised problem stories become thin descriptions about the  potential and the possibilities that an organization or communities can live into and choose from. „Re-„ is about making these taken-for-granted beliefs visible and through living and telling alternative preferred stories change and re-write the context along the way.

The roots of Re-Authoring Practices

The title also has a history and roots in a specific field of practice. The word “re-authoring” grew out of the work of the two originators of narrative therapy, Michael White and David Epston. Re-authoring conversations enable people to separate their lives and relationships from knowledges/stories that are impoverished descriptions of who they are and encourage people to re-author their lives according to alternative knowledges/stories and practices that have preferred outcomes. Our colleague Chené Swart, who trained as a Narrative therapist in South Africa, translated these re-authoring ideas into her work as a coach and consultant in the organisational and communal fields with her book, Re-authoring the World: The Narrative lens and practices for organisations, communities and individuals.

Today re-authoring ideas and practices are seen as “ways of being and working with individuals, organizations and communities that seek to ignite the beauty, dignity and honour of their lives” (Carlson 2017) . In this re-igniting of dignity, beauty and honour, we are invited to again become the primary authors of our lives and re-author (take back the pen in) our relationship to the preferred moments, narratives and communities that have shaped our lives in ways that move us forward. The work focuses on moments that matter, the context that informs it and practices that dignify people’s lives. Taken into the organizational world, it is about creating possible futures that are viable in an economic sense while taking into account the way an organization is connected to its constituents and communities of concern.

Re-Authoring Futures – BEYOND STORYTELLING 2018

The transformational nature of the re-authoring lens and work invites individuals, communities and organisations to individually and collectively take up the pen as authors and co-authors to shape the futures they want to live into.

The heart and soul of re-authoring practices is to co-create moments that transform our past, present and future. At BEYOND STORYTELLING 2018 we want to do that for our field of practice and explore how re-authoring practices are realized in different fields. What do we see and do differently in adopting this particular view? How can we imagine and build futures that are worth living into – for our organizations, communities and brands? What does Re-Authoring Futures mean for you?

** Thanks to Chené Swart for co-authoring this piece with me **


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.

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