Key Ideas Underlying Story Work
“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Kurt Lewin
In last week’s post, I suggested that one of the most powerful ways to understand yourself as a leader and as a human being, and to align your energy to create the results you want in life, is to understand your systemic story. I defined systemic story as the story you have told yourself about your experience in systems–your internal narrative about your experience of the human condition.
Today, I will outline a few of the key ideas that underlie this approach to stories. These ideas fall into two groups
- Ideas about how we create our social reality: Social Constructionism, Symbolic Interactionism, and the Ladder of Inference
- Ideas about how we experience time, the past, and the present: Reframing our Model of Time
Social Constructionism, Symbolic Interactionism, and the Ladder of Inference
Story work is based on Social Constructionism, which suggests that we largely, some would even say wholly, construct our individual and social reality through the internal narratives (stories) we tell ourselves about our experiences. What is our individual and social reality? Is it something objective and “out there”, or is it something we create? Is it what actually happens to us or is it our interpretation of what happens to us? And what is our past—what occurred, or our memory, our stories, our internal narrative about what occurred? Social consructionism suggests that, in terms of our experienced past, and in terms of what most influences our behavior, the stories we have told ourselves about our past, and the ones we tell ourselves about what happens today, are more real than what “actually happened.”
To put it another way, we are not simply stimulus-response creatures. We are stimulus-interpretation-response creatures. This idea is sometimes referred to as symbolic interactionism. We are meaning making creatures. Our experience of reality and our response to it has as much or more to do with our interpretation of events (stimuli), and the meaning we give to them, as it does with the events themselves.
The Ladder of Inference
As Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference suggests, we are bombarded by stimuli, by things happening all around us. Instantaneously, we screen out some of the stimuli and take in some of it, because we can’t effectively process everything. Next, we add meaning to, make interpretations of, make attributions about what we have taken in. Then, we reach a conclusion and decide what to do. Most often our conclusions and actions are several steps removed from the actual data—they are based more on the meaning we have added to the data than on the events, data, and stimuli themselves.
Putting the Ideas Together
Where do our screening frameworks, interpretations, ascribed meanings, and attributions come from? Social Constructionism suggests that they come from our internal narrative–from our stories. Put another way, our interpretations of events, and the meaning we give to them, are as much information about ourselves and about our stories as they are information about what actually occurred. So, if you want to learn something about your inner self, pay attention to how you interpret difficult situations.
In the last post, I suggested that you begin learning your story by noticing how you handle situations, particularly tough and challenging ones. Now, go another level and pay attention to what you are telling yourself about those situations and what you are telling yourself they mean. Ask yourself, “What is the story I am telling myself about this situation?” What you are telling yourself, particularly in very challenging, high stakes situations is a window into your systemic story.
Reframing how we think about time
Secondly, story work reflects a different model of time. How we think about and experience time is really shaped by our mental model of time, or our theory of time, not just by the “objective reality” we call time. As Charlie Kiefer would say, the way we experience time is “between our ears”, that is, our experience of time is a function of the way we think about time.
We usually talk and think about time using a linear model—the past, and our past experiences, were a long time ago, we are very distant from them now, and we will get more and more distant from them as “time passes.” We think about a linear sequence of events that makes up our lives to this point. We talk about timelines—straight lines depicting the passage time from one point to another.
A different and more systemic way to think about time and our past is that they are like rings in a tree. We start with a core and grow around it; we build on what we experience rather than moving away from it.* Key experiences, and the stories we have created about them, are always with us—they are very much a part of our present. They are, in a very real sense, as much a part of the present as an event that is happening right now, because we are experiencing and interpreting today’s event through lenses we have created—through the lenses of our stories. Like Jesus said about the poor, “our stories we always have with us.” They are part of what makes us who we are. Perhaps people who say, “we deal with the present, not the past” or, “We don’t talk about the past” are drawing a false dichotomy. Our life experiences are part of one organic, systemic whole rather than being “what was in the past // what is in the present.”
*I learned this model of time in a conversation with Paul Bennett, author of the powerful book Loving Grief.
So, in the journey of learning to see your own systemic story, pay attention to how you handle challenging situations—what you think about them, how you feel about them, and what you do about them. Then, ask yourself “What is the story I am telling myself about this situation?” As you practice observing and reflecting, you will find that your thoughts, feelings and behaviors do indeed fit into a storyline that reflects how you have learned to survive and succeed in systems.
In our next post, we will talk about the premises, or working hypotheses, that shape story work; they will help you see how you created your story, how it plays out in your work and life, and how you can make desired changes.
To be continued….
If you would like to learn more about story work and/or consider story coaching, feel free to call or email me at:
Steven P. Ober EdD
President: Chrysalis Executive Coaching & Consulting
Partner: Systems Perspectives, LLC
Office: PO Box 278, Oakham, MA 01068
Home: 278 Crocker Nye Rd., Oakham, MA 01068
O: 508.882.1025 M: 978.590.4219
Steve is a senior executive coach and consultant. He has developed and successfully uses a powerful approach to leadership coaching, Creating your Leadership Story, which enables leaders to make deep, lasting improvements in their leadership effectives in short periods of time.