Christine Welch’s Paper Proposal

Storytelling and listening: co-creating understandings


Co-author(s): Peter Bednar

Human beings live in hope that we can be understood when we try to communicate with each other but we also know that we might be wrong. We strive for better understandings, engaging in an on-going ‘dance’ of collective sense-making. Our concepts of ‘understanding’ and ‘better understanding’ are not clearly defined; this too is constantly re-negotiated and re-valued over and over. This is not just as a dance, but one in which no one leads or follows in a conventional fashion. Leading is transient and changing – first one and then another shows a way. Rules for the steps and movements are constantly changing – revised through intended and unintended engagement of involved actors. While temporarily it may appear that someone leads and others follow – this is also in flux and changing. Conversations in an organizational setting frequently take place in a context of decision-making. Often, participants are seeking for some kind of consensus upon a course of action. We suggest that this has a negative impact upon the quality of those conversations and leads to premature consensus and decision-taking that is less effective than it might be. A focus upon efficiency and rapid action can lead to sub-optimality and loss of effectiveness, as participants focus upon outcome rather than listening. Lessons might be learned from bygone times when storytelling was regarded a major vehicle for group interaction, social cohesion and creation of plans for action. Participants who have time and space to engage with one another’s narratives, and who listen actively to one another’s points of view, gain an opportunity to share in interpreting experiences. We can see this in modern life when we make efforts to share our tacit knowledge with others through mentoring. Effectively, mentor and mentoree attempt to create a common narrative of experience by questioning and listening each to the other in a particular context. We suggest that an open systems approach which enables individuals to explore and share their contextually dependent understandings will be helpful in this. We propose a framework that supports and guides participants to give attention to co-creation of understandings of problem spaces through exchange of narratives. There is then an opportunity to engage in exploring similarities and differences in narratives, rather than seeking for optimization. Rather than a decision-taking system, participants create a richer pool of ‘knowledge’ as a basis for informed decisions.

Storytelling and listening: co-creating understandings

Introduction
Most of us have indulged our senses from time to time listening to a lovely piece of music, or been moved by an impassioned speech from a skilled orator. Most of us talk with family and friends, listening to their news and concerns. Sometimes we attend meetings where decision-making is intended, giving our views and listening to those of others as we seek to reach a consensus. At least, that is the ‘official’ description of this process. However, when participants wish to influence a decision in a certain direction, it is not uncommon to find that a person is not genuinely ‘listening’ to her colleague’s views, but waiting politely for that colleague to stop speaking in order that she can put across her own. The extent to which she listens may be only to pick out points from the opposing view in order to refute them and strengthen her own argument. She is not genuinely engaged with an open-minded interpretation of the message she hears and is not willing to be convinced. Even those participants who genuinely seek to understand the views of others may be defeated in their purpose.
We human beings are sentient and it has been suggested that we make sense of our world through language (e.g. Wittgenstein, 1963). Thus, we live in hope that we can be understood when we try to communicate with each other but we also know that we might be wrong. Habermas (1985) describes difficulty among human beings in achieving communication; there is a need for strategies, such as ‘languaging’ to enable people to explore one another’s sense-making processes (see Wittgenstein, 1963). When elaborating upon ‘meaningfulness’ some authorities (e.g. Schutz, 1967) question how it is possible for any mutual understanding or communication between people to take place, and how a person can act purposively in order to achieve actions that are meaningful. However, we do not wish to pursue such philosophical questions here, preferring to content ourselves with highlighting some of the issues and problems experienced in individuals’ efforts to make sense of the world and to communicate one with another – what Heidegger (1962) might have termed ‘Befindlichkeit’.
We strive for better understandings, engaging in an on-going ‘dance’ of collective sense-making (De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007). Our concepts of ‘understanding’ and ‘better understanding’ are not clearly defined; this too is constantly re-negotiated and re-valued over and over. In this dance, no one leads or follows in a conventional fashion. Leading is transient and changing – first one and then another shows a way. Rules for the steps and movements are constantly changing – revised through intended and unintended engagement of involved actors (Bateson, 1972). While temporarily it may appear that someone leads and others follow – this is also in flux and changing.

Boyce (1996) suggests that storytelling is a vehicle for expressing organizational culture, often used to promote a prevailing hegemony through manipulation of meaning. Conversations in an organizational setting frequently take place in a context where participants are seeking for some kind of consensus upon a course of action. We suggest that a rush towards premature consensus, motivated by a desire to get things done and move on, leads to decision-taking that is less effective than it might be (Bednar and Welch, 2006). A focus upon efficiency and rapid action leads to sub-optimality and loss of effectiveness, as participants focus upon outcome rather than creation of a genuine dialogue through listening. Lessons might be learned from bygone times when storytelling was regarded a major vehicle for group interaction, social cohesion and creation of plans for action. Parkinson (2001) comments on the reasons why storytelling has persisted in its popularity and importance throughout history:

‘Stories show life as it might be, should be, shouldn’t be, never could be. Basic social values, skills, wisdoms and all show up in stories but so do all sorts of other things on many different levels. It’s no accident that the founders of religions have been storytellers’ (Parkinson, 2001, n.p.)

Listening
Participants who have time and space to engage with one another’s narratives, and who listen actively to one another’s points of view, gain an opportunity to share in interpreting experiences. However, we suggest that it may be a focus on listening, rather than on narrating, which holds the key to these opportunities. We can see an example from the field of anthropology. Cruickshank (1992) cites the case of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, in which three anthropologists appeared as expert witnesses to ‘provide the court with a minimal context for understanding how indigenous oral traditions demonstrate Aboriginal land ownership in northwestern British Columbia’ (Cruickshank, 1992, p.25). After three weeks of intensive cross-examination, supported by many pages of written testimony, the judge dismissed the evidence as, among other things, exceedingly difficult to understand. He then went on to substitute what the author terms ‘an anthropology of his own’, adopting a normative and evolutionary model to evaluate what could be regarded as an organized society, based in assumptions of (19th century) positivism. It would seem that whatever narrative those experts had presented would have been to no effect, since the judge simply was not listening.
In organizational settings, we often find similar examples. Argyris (1990) describes what he terms ‘defensive routines’ leading to ‘skilled incompetence’. He suggests that organizational relations reach a negotiated equilibrium in which actors feel comfortable. In order not to cause uncomfortable disturbances (i.e. not rock the boat) people will avoid dealing with problematic issues. At times, by protecting norms and values of a prevailing organizational culture (Schein, 2004) organizational actors’ capability to bring about beneficial change becomes paralysed. Theories that people espouse to describe their actions and motivations are not what other people can observe to be their theories in use. Practical examples of this phenomenon abound. For instances, Williams (2007) cites a survey by the IT Governance Institute of 1600 projects in UK businesses. More than half of these projects appeared to deliver little benefit, and a third were shown actually to destroy organizational value. Interestingly, Williams also adduces evidence to suggest that in some cases managers continued to support these projects beyond the point where they already knew that this would happen. Messages were received that they preferred not to heed.
Consider the following apocryphal anecdote as illustration of a desire not to listen. Managers in a toothpaste manufacturing company were worried by a drop in sales revenue. A meeting was convened to brainstorm ideas on how to sell more toothpaste in the context of market saturation. Many ideas were put forward and none appeared to be ideal, until the meeting was interrupted by a cleaner, wishing to service the room. Overhearing some of their discussion, she made a flippant suggestion – why not make the hole in the tube bigger? Senior executives were reluctant to be ‘interrupted’ by a relatively lowly member of staff. Yet, when they did listen, they found the elusive solution to their perceived problem. Opening up to diversity of viewpoint can be seen to be helpful in this case. Furthermore, it is often the creative and ‘off-the-wall’ idea, and not existing best practice, which deserves to be listened to. Weick and Sutcliffe (2002) suggest a need for organizations to promote a collective state of ‘mindfulness’. This would be characterised by a desire to learn from mistakes, acceptance that ignorance is ‘normal’ and ‘knowledge’ imperfect, respect for uncertainty and a focus on disconfirming, rather than confirming behaviour. This, we suggest, is synonymous with creation of a ‘listening’ culture.
An Open Systems Approach
We suggest that an open systems approach which enables individuals to explore and share their contextually dependent understandings will be helpful in supporting a listening culture. Human systems create problem spaces that are ambiguous, uncertain and constantly changing. This requires approaches to inquiry that can be used to explore inconsistent and ill-defined phenomena. We propose a framework that supports and guides participants to give attention to co-creation of understandings of problem spaces through exchange of narratives. The Strategic Systemic Thinking framework (Bednar, 2000) provides a vehicle for individuals and groups to explore contextual dependencies and engage in co-creation of a knowledge-base for decisions. It is not a decision-making tool, but provides a tool-kit for exploration that can lead to more informed decision-making, avoiding a rush to premature consensus. There is then an opportunity to keep the disparate narratives of engaged actors in view far into a process of inquiry, rather than screening out those considered ‘marginal’ and looking for convergence too soon. There is also scope to explore similarities and differences in narratives, gradually forming a picture of the diversity of opinion within a group of actors. Rather than a decision-taking system, participants create a richer pool of ‘knowledge’ as a basis for informed decisions.

The SST framework includes three, interrelated aspects (intra-analysis; inter-analysis and value analysis) designed to create productive learning spirals. In the intra-analysis aspect individual actors are supported to reflect and think about a problem space, using a range of tools to articulate their worldviews, e.g. rich pictures, learning exercises, observation, group roleplays – supporting visualization, communication of mental models. Using these approaches, individuals can explore and surface their contextually dependent understandings of the situation (this could be expressed as an opportunity to ‘listen’ to their own views). The focus of inter-analysis is support for collective creation of a learning spiral through communication of actors’ individually-created narratives, and sense-making of one another’s’ contributions. In value analysis, actors are supported to create a learning spiral focused on reflecting and thinking about scales for comparison and evaluation of narratives. The aim of value analysis is to bring about a constructive dialogue between the actors and those who will be affected by any potential change about beliefs and values.
Creating Narratives of a Complex Problem Space
As an example of a complex problem space, we might consider the following. The owner of a sheep farm recognizes that his profit margins are falling and that the farm no longer generates sufficient income to sustain its long-term survival. He begins a consultation with his farm manager, the shepherds and other workers employed in the farm, also bringing in outside participants for a broader range of views: his accountant, a neighbour whose land has been turned into a golf course, and a friend who owns two other sheep farms in the same region which are in a healthier financial position. Each participant in the inquiry is initially invited to express an individual view of current state of affairs, what changes they would like to see in order to bring about improvement, and what measures would be needed to carry them out (intra-analysis). When each has produced his own ‘narrative’ answering these questions, a meeting is held at which all the narratives presented. They are discussed, each considered on an equal footing, in order to gauge the range of options available. As each narrative is read out, the group is invited to make comparisons between them to identify similarities and differences. Using a white board, the farmer draws up a schematic view showing which narratives the group perceives to be related to each other and labelling them with a theme. Some narratives considered how a flock of a certain size could be looked after more cost efficiently so that animals would be healthy and marketable at a minimum cost. Some considered whether an alternative breed could be introduced into the flock which would yield more or better quality meat/wool and yield greater revenue for the same cost. Some narratives considered finding new markets for meat or wool, developing and selling bi-products such as sheepskin artefacts or lanolin, or selling through new channels such as local farmers markets. Another cluster considered broadening out the farming activities to include other animals such as goats, or some arable crops. Further narratives considered investigating merger with other local farms or collaborating with other farms in the region in developing markets and reducing costs. Some participants believed that there was no practical solution to the problem other than sale of the farm.
This inter-analysis enables the group to listen to the range of alternative resolutions put forward by individual members. There is no need to dwell upon unnecessary details of each narrative, risking information overload, nor is it necessary to rush to a premature consensus and rule out potentially creative options. It is possible to move on to investigate each cluster in more depth to produce a knowledge base around the context of the problem. There is then potential for informed decisions to be reached. Of course, further discussion would be needed to surface and clarify the beliefs and wishes of the farmer about the parameters of his impending decision before options could be evaluated. He may, for instance, dislike the idea of a partnership or he may feel he is too old to learn new skills required to diversify.
Conclusion
All human experience is contextual, and any decision situation will benefit by taking into account individual interpretations of contextual dependencies. Too often in business, communication is one-way. Managers explain to staff what has been decided and invite questions, or at best undertake ‘consultation’ within some fixed boundaries they have already defined. Their capacity to learn from sharing in the contextual experiences of those who know the organization best (its staff) is then similarly restricted. Vehicles need to be found to promote genuine conversation in which listening and learning are promoted. We suggest that an open systems approach which enables individuals to explore and share their contextually dependent understandings will be helpful in this.

References
Bednar, P. (2000). A Contextual Integration of Individual and Organizational Learning Perspectives as part of IS Analysis. Informing Science Journal, 3(3), 145-156.
Bednar, P.M. and Welch, C. (2006). ‘Structuring uncertainty: sponsoring innovation and creativity’, in Creativity and Innovation in Decision Making and Decision Support, Vol.2. F. Adam et al, (editors). Decision Support Press
Boyce, M.E. (1996). Organizational Story and Storytelling, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 9(5)

Cronan, W. (1992). A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative, The Journal of American History, 78(4), 1347-1376

De Jaegher, H. and Di Paolo, E. (2007). Participatory Sense-Making: An enactive approach to social
cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6 (4), 485-507.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. Blackwell.

Habermas, J. (1985). Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason (3rd ed.), Vol 2 of The Theory of Communicative Action (T. McCarthy, Translator.). Beacon Press

Cruikshank, J. (1992). ‘Invention of Anthropology in British Columbia’s Supreme Court: Oral Tradition as Evidence in Delgamuukw v. BC’,BC Studies. 95, 25-‐42

Parkinson, R. (2001). History of Storytelling. Context Magazine, http://www.uncommon-knowledge.co.uk/psychology_articles/History_of_Storytelling.pdf, accessed 11 June 2011

Schein, E. (2004). Organizational Culture and Leadership. Wiley

Schutz, A. (1967). Phenomenology of the social world. Northwestern University Press.

Weick, K. and Sutcliffe, K. (2002). Managing the Unexpected. Jossey-Bass
Williams (2007). ‘Make sure you get a positive return,’ Computer Weekly, 13 November 2007, pp 18 & 20
Wittgenstein, L. (1963). Philosophical investigations. Blackwell.

9 Responses to Christine Welch’s Paper Proposal

  1. Ranulph Glanville says:

    Thank you for developing an abstract into a paper draft.

    I think you raise a very important aspect of listening, which is having an open mind. When a conversation is directed towards one fixed purpose, we do not listen completely openly, in the sense that we do not remove ourselves and our impositions so that the speaker can say what they want with a minimum of interpretation as they go on. I suppose we all have those moments when we presume to know what someone will say and so cut what they are saying off. Doing this may save time, but at the great risk of distorting or destroying what the other is trying to say: we are not listening generously, with an open mind.

    Let me give an example. As I started reading, I had to consciously put away Pask and other people from cybernetics. Now that I have read, I can re-instate them, at least to some extent. Pask’s mechanism of conversation is tells us much about how the exchange can work, and about that which can be talked about. It does not tell us about mood, for instance, or that sense of communion that is such an important part of communication. However, by giving us a (very abstract) structure, it gives us freedom in other respects (for instance, to create our own meanings). This is, of course, the value of Ashby’s definition: cybernetics is the study of all possible abstract machines.

    I really like what you say about listening, though I am slightly concerned at the use of the notion of problem that you introduce. I also particularly like your references. I recognise only 3 of them. This reflects the extraordinary lack of communication between cybernetics and systems theory that is so ridiculous as to be almost unimaginable. But it’s there, and your references (compared to mine) give us a measure of this, and open a possibility to do something about this.

    • Peter Bednar says:

      Thank you for this comment. Perhaps I should not have been surprised as I have entered this subject maybe with a different grounding and purpose. Coming from the Scandinavian area of ‘systemeering’ which has much to thank Borje Langefors as his work in 1967 in many ways created a foundation of the discipline of ‘Information System’ in Sweden and elsewhere. Having originally worked as engineer in manufacturing industry focusing on “the factory” as a whole (interaction between machines / machines; machines / people; people / people. My work is also influenced through the practical experiences of combining Engineering methods with the application of methodologies such as ETHICS (Enid Mumford) and Soft Systems Methodology (Peter Checkland) among others. Perhaps this background could explain the use of the concept ‘problem’. Although what is intended is not something defined as negative – but as a ‘space’ chosen for problematization and reflective inquiry and exploration. I did not discover Gregory Bateson until after I became an academic (at Lund University in Sweden in the late ninties) but since then I have felt that his work retrospectivealy (for me) made a lot of sense when I was reflecting on my own personal experiences as an engineer in industry.

  2. Ranulph Glanville says:

    Please see comment under christine Walsh (co-author).

  3. Johann van der Merwe says:

    Ranulph’s comment on Ashby’s definition (… all possible abstract machines) reminds me of Taylor’s (1997)interpretation of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: “Abstract machines make the territorial assemblage open onto something else. That is, they constitute becomings. All human beings as thinking entities are abstract machines.”

    Perhaps, abstract in the sense of “outside” the particulars of everyday concerns with all its (distracting)detail – the idea instead of the ideal?

    I like the comment about managers “explaining” to staff what they should think … this from Saint-Onge, H. & Armstrong, C. 2004. The Conductive Organization. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
    (p.7) “The conductive organization makes a distinction between strategy and strategy making. A strategy is an objective, something you arrive at, a conclusion. Strategy making is an action, a process that you follow, a capability”, and this from (p.12) “High-quality relationships. Relationships are the conduits for conversations that support knowledge flow. They’re the vehicles by which trust is established and maintained. They connect the organization [university], its customers [students], and employees [teachers]. They form the foundation for collaboration as a way of generating new capabilities and collectively finding new innovative solutions.”

    This appraoch boiled down to calibrating the company’s strategy making (“listening”?) to its users … when we listen to each other at this conference, we will be “calibrating” our knowing selves to what the other can contribute.

    Taylor / http://webpages.ursinus.edu/rrichter/deleauzeandg.html

    • Peter Bednar says:

      Thanks. Reminds me of what we might call ‘trust’ in some one elses judgement and allow for what we might not have expected…

      • Johann van der Merwe says:

        Peter
        One of the main research questions that my colleague (who is the one designing the open-source learning platform with the help of the students) has to answer is “how do you establish trust mechanisms in an online learning environment?”
        How and why would students put their trust in this new “voice” and be open to the unexpected they will find there? This same question is a life and learning question, but with the demands of digital literacy in mind (i.e., Lankshear & Knobel), what needs to change, since this new space will require the capability of storytelling (and story listening!).

  4. Bob Helland says:

    Christine:

    I very much follow your train of thought regarding the open-space, open-mindedness of storytelling… Let me say, I appreciate a good story! One with a moral or history (or property definitions?) is always an added sweetness, as well.

    Your discussion of the court case I thought was well-conceived and I expect one day I may find myself using the anecdote of the toothpaste in my own discussions of “cybernetically-enhanced” economics.

    By the time you reached the sheep problem, I felt very much occupying a similar space that I felt you hoped I was in: I was interested in SST (though I make no pretensions that I am well-versed in the method or other cybernetic systems/ideas, but that is why I am here to listen), and I was open-minded to the complexity and expansiveness of the problem space… in fact, so open-minded that I felt I was opening a Pandora’s Box of possible alternatives. The examples you gave all bore a common characteristic of having a concrete component (profiting off the “practical” usage of the sheep and farm i.e. selling, diversification, consuming, using byproducts, mating, divesting, or reducing inputs), as if there were an intuitive system governing what solutions could enter the problem space. That said, I would like to offer a few of my own solutions that may stretch this space a little bit and pose new alternatives. And while, I could pop off some terribly asinine “solutions”, I mention these only because they have a history of being used as part of human behavior:

    1) The farmer could leave the farm trade altogether, dissect the sheep, examine its organs, and make predictions about the stock mart and future events for profit, or even serve as a fortune teller for those willing to pay based again on organ inspection. A random string of accurate predictions may produce windfall profits.
    2) The farmer could create the illusion of one of the sheep as a spiritual leader reborn by using numerology of birthdates, or recognition of a birthmark, or other mathematical “proofs” so contrived they’d be too difficult to disprove. The farmer could then charge admission (a small tithe) for people to consult with reincarnated “Great Holy Sacred Ram” (with very minimum overhead).
    3) Or, depending on how busy the farm road intersection is, the farmer may decide to shave “Nike” symbols into the sheep’s’ wool and receive and advertising commission for his efforts from a sportswear retailer.

    You and I may write these off generally as nonsense and impractical, but we are making a parameter judgment on the size of the solution space and closing it in. The abstract perceptions/conceptions of the sheep or the farm far outnumber the possibilities for practical usage of all the material that compose the sheep and the farm.

    I just wanted to run that you to see what you’re thoughts are regarding the abstract potentialities that may enter the problem space, I suppose this may be similar to what other’s have commented on regarding the “abstract machines”. To what extent can the decision-(observing?) system be opened before it is closed by another system acting on it or making valuations of it?

    ~BH

    • Peter Bednar says:

      Thank you Bob. Yes you give good examples that are possibilities which may very well be in line with what may be put forward in a community. Also this paper is short but there is a good use for paraconsistent logic in this engagement as we can allow for differences (and similarities) which are not just assumed to be on a scale of bi-valued logic but includes also ambiquity and uncertainty (not limited to paradox).

    • Christine Welch says:

      Bob’s comment reminds me that, as human beings, we can also dream and therefore the possibilities of our storytelling and storylistening are boundless. This influences our destiny in profound ways. How many countless people dreamed of travelling to the moon before mankind even new what its physical properties were, still less land there.

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