What’s in a story? Nick Wilding, November 2005 Introduction I have written this (draft) short essay to communicate some of the reasons why I believe Story Dialogue to be a helpful approach to helping people learn from experience. There are many, many ‘dialogue’ and ‘action research’ processes designed to do similar things, and there is the right time and place for all of them. For now, though, I hope you find this unpacking of what story might offer to learning stimulating and helpful … let me know! firstname.lastname@example.org Simple and informal … yet deep and rigourous I was first introduced to story-dialogue by Aine Kennedy and Ron Labonte, one of its Canadian authors, in 1998. The technique had been devised in response to health promotion practitioners’ complaints about the gulf between practice and theory/research. I could immediately see the connections between story dialogue and the Freirian inspired popular education approaches that have been a part of my community development practice for many years (I also work with an approach called Training for Transformation). What I particularly liked about story dialogue was the simplicity of the approach that promised to democratically share a powerful sense-making tool amongst people who could really use it – community development practitioners, local people, and even managers trying to make organisations more responsive and accountable to the people they are supposed to be serving. Participatory values at its heart … and easy to Facts bring us to learn knowledge but I saw that this was a ‘community learning and development’ stories lead us to approach was capable of both capturing the essence of community development practice and was consistent with its wisdom values of empowerment, inclusion and social justice. It was doing - Anthony de Mello research with people, not on subjects. It was a realistic and proven way for folk to generate knowledge collaboratively, not just by the expert researcher who collects data from passive subjects and analyses it in ivory-towered isolation. From another perspective, by emphasising the power of story, this method is tapping into something much deeper – into indigenous human traditions of story-telling around camp- fires and in councils of elders seeking wisdom. We’ve come a long way from these times, but there’s much to learn from being true to the roots of how we make sense of the world. It’s a relief when an approach feels easy – in tune with the way we are meant to work! Valuing our stories and our voices around a ‘hot topic’ Too many approaches these days don’t take the time to create safe and inspiring spaces where it is possible to tell our stories of success and failure. Too often, people working for social justice feel pressured by time and don’t have the opportunity to really reflect on the Finding Voice through Story Dialogue Action Research wealth of experience they can access to improve the way things are done. Too much of the time, it’s other peoples stories and ‘best practice’ that sets the standards to aspire to – we’re not so great at valuing what we can bring as well. Story dialogue turns all that around. It starts by paying attention to participants as whole people, trusting that given the right conditions, we have the capacity to learn from ourselves and our colleagues far more than we do in the rush of everyday life. It gives us permission to include our feelings as well as the facts of what we communicate. It also insists that we communicate more consciously than we tend to do in ordinary conversation or workshops. There are several ways in which story dialogue helps us to do this. One is the discipline of crafting stories around a common theme that is of genuine interest to all the participants. This is called a ‘generative theme’ – a ‘hot topic’ that inspires strong feelings from frustration to excitement. Exploring what the ‘generative themes’ are amongst a local community or community of practitioners is an important part of the process that continues beyond the first day’s training. What is, and what is not, dialogue? The Greek noun, dialogos (‘conversation’), gave us today’s dialogue. meaning conversation. Dia means through, by means of or between, as in an exchange between people. Logos can be translated as speech, discourse, story, or thought. A logos is either the spoken word that expresses thought or the thought itself. Combining the two parts, one can see how dia-logos means "the exchange of speech or thought”. It may seem obvious, but the ‘exchange’ part of that definition is often ignored in conversation, creating not dialogue but monologue. Monologues have much going for them. There is potential for great clarity of focus, attention to detail, communication of character. Shakespeare’s monologues remain some of the most powerful pieces of expression in the English language. Similarly, reductionist science is founded on the honing of monologue – the singular study of particular disciplines to greater and greater levels of specialisation. There’s great power in monologues, and also the potential for great arrogance. The power is that of tenacious focus. The arrogance comes when that focus blinds to other ways of seeing, knowing … or worse, deny that other ways of seeing exist. Dialogue is therefore about opening out. Implicit is a suggestion that listening is important, and an open-ness to challenge as well as friendship. Done well, the world becomes bigger through dialogue – the resonances between people become amplified, transformations become possible, tensions can be surfaced and explored. For this reason, people have been interested in exploring different ways of doing ‘dialogue’ for a long time. Councils of elders in traditional cultures have always gathered together around fires or sacred trees to make informed decisions. Shamans traditionally mediated between the human and natural communities, living on the edge of villages, with an ear in both directions and conversing with both the human and the more-than-human worlds. Some ‘big names’ in Western philosophy have made their impact through their attention to dialogue - Greek philosopher Plato presents Socrates’ dialogues as powerful tools of rational discourse. Some philosophers even wrote books about what dialogue might mean as the power of language itself to shape meaning and reality came under scrutiny from Heidigger to the Finding Voice through Story Dialogue Action Research deconstructivists and post-structuralists. Physicist David Bohm experimented with a form of dialogue intended to enable many people to ‘tune into’ each others’ thoughts based on insights from subatomic physics on the ultimate nature of reality. Why Story? What are your stories? I have some that are public and rehearsed, and some others that I’ll only tell closer friends. A little harder to see are the stories that I tell myself – about who I am, what I want, what’s happening in my life – that help to make sense of the world. The roots of my stories, and how I tell them, are deep in the culture I grew up in. This was a culture that wasn’t connected to its traditional roots, or to the earth, but instead looked toward advertising and television soaps to create stories of what makes people happy or well. If there are roots, they were to do with family stories – about famous ancestors (Sir Roland Hill! Invented the postage stamp!) or from my parents about the pains of growing up as a middle child in a house without much spare cash. These are powerful, identity-shaping stories. Some are repeated so often they feel a bit stuck. It gets even more interesting. Sometimes I tell adult stories with an adult voice. Sometimes I’m feeling more childish and playful, and those stories come out in a different voice. Sometimes the stories contradict each other. This plays out at work as well. There are some stories I can tell with a sensible voice, rational, not emotional, of successes and targets hit. These can sound quite convincing, and it seems as if the world of targets, funding, managers and careers is always asking for more and more of these stories so it makes sense for me to create them. But if I can prise open that sure, monological voice, I surprise myself to find others inside. Others with niggles, with feelings of doubt or insecurity, or reckless dreams and hopes of a better world. It feels scary to open up a bit of space for these voices – perhaps I haven’t even let out some of them for my partner. But as I do so, and learn where it’s safe to do so, something resolves, connects. Those voices want to be heard. Society’s a bit like that as well. There are lots of very loud, sure, dominant, monological voices – in the media, politicians, people with agendas in general. But behind and underneath them is a tremendous hush. Voices that aren’t heard, don’t feel it’s OK to speak, are scared to do so, feel like it won’t make any difference. Often voices of unrecognised beauty and creativity, hidden away for fear that our raw souls can’t survive if surfaced in an unforgiving world. Sometimes whole groups of people are labelled ‘marginalised’ – young, old, black, poor, disabled, and much community development work is prioritised to bring these perspectives more fully into democratic process. There are many ways that people are trying out to listen better – an evolving family of ‘dialogue’ and ‘participatory’ approaches designed to open up spaces for marginalised voices, as well as those of future generations whose perspective might help to guide us into a healthier, more just future. Story Dialogue is one of these approaches. I particularly like story dialogue because it has the capacity to nurture the marginalised voices in ourselves, as well as in other people. I think those marginalised voices – inside and outside – are worth paying attention to. If they’re not, their wisdom and perspective can’t help us to make whole lives. These are some of the voices that hold the keys to regenerating our Finding Voice through Story Dialogue Action Research communities through reconnecting us with deeper truths about ourselves, with our friends and colleagues, and then more widely with the voices of nature that underpin and sustain are fragile animal existence on earth. We’re wired for story-telling: leading edge science says so! At risk of pointing out the obvious, humans are hard-wired to remember, tell and make sense of the world through story. Neuroscience is discovering that the brain organises, retains and accesses information … through story. When a person is listening to a story, both sides of the brain are working. The left side of the brain processes the words whilst the right side actively fills out the detail; it’s a tremendously creative (or ‘co-created’) activity. Our intelligence is not just about our brains though - it’s about our whole bodies. Latest cognitive science research affirms this – that our minds are actually our mind-bodies. Our ‘gut-instinct’ is now understood to be an integral part of our intelligence; our sense of movement is important to our ‘kinaesthetic’ sense; some are re-assessing extra-sensory perception in the light of the emerging evidence that human’s aren’t individual brains at all, more part of a ‘field’ of information. Stories are ways of ‘tuning in’ to this ‘field’ of information. This adds another perspective to what we already know about good story-tellers being the ones whose rich and vivid sensory descriptions stimulate our many senses, from sight to sound, smell, touch and taste. We now know that the stories we remembers are those that the right brain is stimulated by, those which we relate to be enriching with meaning. Good stories can also point us to deeper meaning, beyond the surface details, literally at the level of dreams and dreaming. Following from consciousness research, we know that we all experience at least two distince states of consciousness every day – waking and sleeping. Stories can work at both levels. In our waking, conscious state (where there is a predominance of alpha and beta brainwaves if you care to look) we often engage with stories in a conventionally understood way, judging, categorising, perhaps encountering an ‘ah-hah!’ moment. But we also process stories in our dreaming state – and similar states of consciousness that CJ Jung and many other pioneers of consciousness hold a fascination with because of their power to help us make deeper, sometimes ‘archetypal’ connections. Have you ever woken up in the morning with an ‘ah- hah’ sense of new understanding? Humans are hard-wired to work with stories all day, every day. It makes sense to build on this heritage. Conclusion Story-dialogue is a technique for becoming more conscious of what we can learn from telling stories to each other. The depth of insight that can be achieved through this process, and others, is a complex function of the experience, trust, and ability to listen shared by the story-telling group. Descriptions of the process can describe the mechanics of what’s involved, but there’s no substitute for experience. However it’s done, opening space for authentic and honest communication in the face of the rush of busy lives is often intensely rewarding. Give it a go!