Storytelling and listening: co-creating understandings
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
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.)
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.
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.
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