Saturday, January 10, 2009

5.2 Making Meaningful Connections

A research paper by Peggy Gill, of the Department of Secondary Education and Educational Leadership at the Stephen F. Austin State University of Texas, reinforced the glimmer of understanding sparked by my reading of Sweeney’s piece. “Narrative Inquiry: Designing the Processes, Pathways and Patterns of Change” (Gill, 2001) is her account of using narrative inquiry to understand the meaning of change within a school. She brings our attention to several systems interacting with each other. There is the social system of the organization, the network of human relationships that compose the school, and there is the system of meaning, the stories this social entity believes and projects about itself (such as where it came from, what it does, how successful it is, etc.).

Gill asserts that change has implications for both the whole of the organization and each of the parts. She recommends paying attention to the personal stories of individuals who participate in the school. What conclusions have they reached about the organization? What are the assumptions that fostered those meanings and that continue to shape the person’s expectations and behavior? These conversations create opportunities to craft new frames of reference for making sense of the organization, its burgeoning changes, and a member’s role within it.

Narrative inquiry is a process that Gill proposes for taking on these kinds of changes within a social body. This involves collecting stories from the members of a given social system to identify current assessments of “what’s really going on” and what it all “really means.” From there, change leaders chart a course that draws on the many versions of meaning and interpretations of the organization. As the organization works through its changes, it draws on the many stories to compose a new whole with the integrity of a more comprehensive and complex understanding of itself, its patterns, and the future it wants to be.* In this way, the meaning of change includes the parts and the whole, the change leaders and the dissenters.

John Winslade and Alison Cotter apply a narrative approach to their work in conflict mediation, as mediators at Waikato Mediation Services in Hamilton, New Zealand. Their work impressed me with its ambitious application of story to foster change by bringing opposing parties together to compose a new story for their relationship. (Winslade & Cotter, 1997) This potential for “mutual restorying” is what I am interested in when thinking about women’s story in the evangelical church. Although we are not starting with an explicit and formal conflict resolution process in the church, I think that aspects of the narrative mediation process are relevant and insightful for even an informal approach. The formal narrative mediation process offers suggestions for composing a complex and nuanced understanding of a system by drawing on different points of view, new interpretations, and intentionally choosing the meanings with which to shape the future.

The narrative approach to mediation begins with intentionally destabilizing the conflict story held by each party. Mediators ask questions to help each party perceive other points of view. If we look at this as a system, the connections between the parts are being shaken loose so that new connections can be established and new meanings emerge. The process supports the participants’ reflection on the assumptions that contributed to their conclusions. Later, the parties are brought together to listen to each other’s story. They are prepared to understand meanings different than their own because they have already practiced perceiving other points of view. Then they begin constructing a new story together.** The task here is to choose the way they want to relate to each other and the influence they want the relationship to have in their lives.

I was also impressed by Winslade and Cotter’s approach to difference. They work with participants to develop new understandings of the differences they perceived. The authors explicitly recognize the influence of participants’ contexts in producing a sense of difference between them. They note that, “relations of power are often laid down according to whose experience is privileged and whose excluded in the dominant way of talking.” This sounded to me like it a description of the relationship between masculine and feminine in the evangelical Christian church. They continue,
People differ not only in the real conditions and opportunities of their lives but also in the stories they draw on to make sense of these differences. Thus conflict can be understood as the inevitable result of the articulation of difference. (Winslade and Cotter, 1997, p. 254)

Through the narrative process, conflict is mediated by fostering new understanding of the same facts employing a new, co-created, story as the tool for assigning meaning to differences.

* To recall the discussion of systems thinking from the introduction of this paper, Gill’s narrative inquiry process is a means to connecting the system to more of itself. The stories influence the school’s next process of embodying its intention or the system’s next phase of change and response toward the achievement of its purpose.
** This functions like feedforward, described in the Introduction. The parties put their hope and expectations into a story they compose of their intentions and hopes for the future. Their faith in realizing that story creates the conditions for its success.

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