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Oh What a Story Your Story Can Tell


In my last blog post, I said that the best way to solve a problem is not to focus on the problem. Instead, find an example of a successful solution to that problem, or a similar problem. Describe the solution in the form of a story or anecdote, review the story for clues to the solution, apply the clues to your problem as an action experiment, and see what happens. Finally, use what you learn to change your solution until you have solved the problem.

It’s Not Just A Story
Why does this work? We tend to think of stories as “just” stories or anecdotes, not as valid data containing causal information about how things work. But in fact, stories are personal narratives about action within a particular context or situation. Personal narratives are a form of qualitative (words, images, meanings, behavior vs. numbers) data. These narratives reveal perceptions (beliefs, attitudes, opinions, feelings) about what’s going on in the situation being described. Narratives or stories also reveal the causal relationships, or logic-in-use between beliefs, actions, and the consequences of those beliefs and actions.

Stories Reveal Patterns of Practice
When understood as a form of qualitative data about causal relationships between beliefs, actions, and their consequences, stories can be systematically gathered and analyzed to understand the practices people use to do their work. The kinds of practices you can learn about include typical practices, whether they are “best” practices, “average” practices, or “worst” practices. Stories about rare events—whether rare failures or breakthrough successes—are another valuable source of information about practices.

Stories Show the Logic-in-Use of Action
Why are stories worth treating as data? We know from much research that a lot of what people “know” is tacit or implicit. People “know” a lot more than they can put into words explicitly. Stories are a way to draw someone’s tacit knowledge out, and make it visible. Not what they think they did, but what they actually did, as revealed by the logic-in-use of the story. So the next time you want to understand what someone knows, ask them to tell you a story about it. Ask “Can you think of a time when…” or “Can you think of an example of that?” In my next blog post, I will share more about ways to gather and analyze stories as data.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010/05/17 2:34 pm

    I love this strategy, Clarissa, of making – unearthing- valuable meaning from stories. A favorite recent book of mine is “Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story” by Christina Baldwin. To quote her – as she says it so well- “Story is the heart of language… emotionally moves us to love and hate and can motivate us to change the whole course of our lives…an innate skill we can remember and practice”. And as you say in your post, a great value is using stories to communicate with others, learning from experiences. Within that realm of learning is what we find out about ourselves when we uncover our ‘stories’- which comprise, beyond events, the meaning we make of our lives (work, relationships, etc.), based on ‘stories’ we have been telling ourselves for years about who we believe ourselves to be, derived from our life experiences. Many levels of discovery and learning here!

  2. 2010/05/17 7:44 pm

    Lenore, thank you for the comment and the book recommendation. Yes, stories, especially ones that help us make sense of our lives, gift us with insight and ideas for action. The opportunity to tell one’s story, have it attended to, and then experience the response it has on the listener, is profound.

  3. 2010/05/18 7:39 am

    Clarissa, your “…tell one’s story, have it attended to, and then experience the response it has on the listener,…” is the core of “The Meaning of the Message is the Response It Elicits”. Depending on the listener and the intent of the orator, this can become “The Meaning of the Message is the Response It Illicits”.
    Also, the core being discussed here is quite ancient. Cultural anthropologists know from studies of two shamanic practices, StoryKeeping and StoryTelling, how powerful oral traditions are for keeping groups together and wisdom whole.

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