Saturday, January 10, 2009

6.1 Principles for Application

This project involved a small, very particular group that may have been more likely to support a story project. For example, this kind of group aspires to more feminine models of leadership, emulating circular structures of shared responsibility rather than linear hierarchies. Yet, even if only as an introductory exercise in story work, I think the experience with this group provides useful suggestions for work with the very different evangelical Christian church. Based on the change project I’ve identified six principles for the effective use of story to bridge the meanings in a group:
  1. Listen
  2. No one person can capture all the meaning of the group
  3. Time
  4. Religious faith shapes members expectations of a religious community
  5. Members’ stories have powerful effect on group leaders
  6. Change defies common sense.
I’ll describe each one briefly in the following paragraphs.

Good listening skills, that can hear even the things that aren’t said, are necessary for successful work with story. Listening provides an entrance into the existing story while establishing the personal relationships that will support exploration and change. Then asking questions can begin to explore what makes up the story of a given social system and why. What do members of this system regard as precious and what is feared? Before indicating that alternatives exist, listen to understand these elements.

While listening to multiple stories it’s important to remember that no one person defines “what’s really going on” or what it’s “really all about,” not even the leader, not even the change initiator. Resist being polarized by either the authorized story or the dissenting account. Instead, seek out the different stories and their sources. Allow other stories to defy your own expectations, the story you bring to the work. While collecting interviews, I was surprised to hear that a couple of people were content with the leadership as it already functioned. They did not perceive a need for change.

Time is another basic element required for a narrative process. This is important for developing the trusting relationships that can support the challenges of difference and new stories. Individual’s need time as well to reflect on their own stories, to process the emotions and questions generated by new stories, and to begin to make sense of difference in new way. Often, with the advantage of detachment from the stories, the story facilitator may be the first to identify the patterns of a new story emerging in a social system. Again, give the members time to see things for themselves. Practice patience.

Specific to stories about faith communities, members’ interpretations of religious tenets influence their expectations of the community. Through the view of a given believer new suggestions may develop for how the community should be and behave. For example, natural cycles and respecting the role of change in living things are among the core values of people in earth honoring communities. Based on that, one of the members that I interviewed suggested that static roles and leadership positions were inappropriate for the group. She recommended that the tasks should move from person to person as each felt called. This unique point of view developed out of the community’s shared beliefs and was then fed back into the group by incorporation into the new story.

Witnessing the founder’s response to the new story impressed upon me the startling power of bringing member stories to the attention of leaders. Leaders often don’t know how their vision, intentions, or methods of implementation are experienced and interpreted by other members of the organization. In a sense, this reversed the roles such that the members articulated a vision, methods, and meaning to the leader. I had no hint of what it would mean, in terms of disorientation and renewal, for the leader. I wonder if this is especially true in spiritual communities, where the life of the whole community is intimately tied to the leader’s own spiritual life and sense of heeding a spiritual call to lead.

Reversing the relationship between a group’s leader and its members offers another hint about approaching change, more generally. Sometimes the most effective means to respond to a difficult challenge is to choose an action that defies common sense. In this project, rather than instituting new leaders to resolve a leadership vacuum and low participation, we turned to the members to lead from where they were. Story can facilitate this approach too, by providing an imaginative space in which to try on a change by creating different stories about how it could happen, what may result, and what it would all mean.

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