“There is nothing so practical as a good theory”
This post is my fourth in a series on what I call Leadership Story Work, which is a way leaders and others can dramatically increase their effectiveness and authenticity through working with their deep personal stories.
In this post I will summarize core ideas reflected in story work. Understanding these ideas can enrich our experience oF stories.
How we Co-create our Reality
The fundamental notion underlying story work is that we co create our social reality through the stories we tell ourselves about our interactions with one another and the world. This idea flows primarily from two places
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle posits that we cannot measure all of the properties of light at the same time. When we look at the wave properties, we cannot see the particle properties, because one kind of measurement screens out the other. What we observe is a function of the instrumentation we use. So, if we use instrumentation to measure waves, what do we see? Waves. There is a very real sense in which what we have chosen to observe is what we see. In other words, we co-create our experience of the world by how we interact with it and what we tell ourselves those interactions mean.
Similarly, The Observer Effect in physics refers to changes our observations make on the phenomena we observe. We cannot observe something in a totally removed, objective manner. When we observe something, the act of observation modifies what we are looking at. As soon as we enter a field of observation, we become part of it and help shape it. Thereby, we co-create our experience of what we are seeing.
Examples from the Social Sciences
During the 20th Century, every major discipline, from Philosophy to Physics to Biology developed its own applications of this participatory view. Three examples from the social sciences are:
Social Constructionism suggests that we largely construct our social reality and its meaning through the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences.
In like manner, Symbolic Interactionism suggests that we are not simple, linear stimulus response creatures. We are stimulus-interpretation-response creatures. Our experience of reality has as much to do with our interpretation of events as it does with the events themselves.
Chris Argyris Ladder of Inference is a model of how we think that demonstrates how the instrument of our mind selects from around us the data that we actually see, then decides what the data means, reaches a conclusion, and decides what to do. Our conclusions and actions are based as much on how we have sorted the data and the meaning we have given it as they are on the data themselves.
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. If you want to learn something about your story and your deep inner self, pay attention to how you interpret situations and react to them, especially situations that you experience in some way as threatening or high stakes. Therein, your story is at play. What you are telling yourself, what you are doing, and what you are feeling, particularly in very challenging situations, are windows into your deep personal story.
Time after Time, Good after Bad
Two other key ideas reflected in Story Work are important to mention:
How we think about and experience time:
The Traditional Linear View of Time: We usually talk about time using a linear model. We think about sequences of events that comprise our lives to this point. We talk about “timelines” and seem to believe that our major life experiences fall neatly onto these lines in a linear sequence. Our previous experiences were a long time ago, and we are very distant from them now. What happened in the past is over.
Some traditional approaches to coaching reflect this linear view of time, and some go so far as to suggest that, if we talk about the past rather than just the present, what we are doing is not coaching. Coaching is not about the past. We don’t deal with it; we only deal with the present.
A Systemic View of Time: Story work reflects a very different way of thinking about and experiencing time. Story work’s view of time is more akin to Faulkner’s, who said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In discussing his book, Loving Grief, Paul Bennett suggests a different, more systemic way to think about time. Rather than being linear, our experience of time, and some would say time itself, are more like the rings in a tree. We start with a core and grow around it; we build on our experiences rather than moving away from them.
Rather than saying, “If we talk about the past, it’s not coaching,” story work’s view of time would say, “Because they are so intricately intertwined, we can’t talk about the present without talking about the past”—because we experience, interpret, and respond to today’s events through lenses we have created, through the lenses of our stories.
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 and what is in the present.” Like Jesus said about the poor, “Our stories we always have with us.” They are part of what makes us who we are.
How we frame “negative” experiences. There seems to be a belief in some coaching and consulting circles that the best way to deal with our negative, less pleasant experiences is not to deal with them. If we focus on them, we tend to reinforce them, get stuck in them, and give them more power. Appreciative inquiry means looking at and talking about only the positive.
This way of thinking about being appreciative is reminiscent of the old saying “Denial is more than a River in Egypt.” It attempts to screen out many of our experiences and thereby runs the risk of blocking opportunities for some of our deepest learning and growth.
An alternative view is that, paradoxically, denying “negative” experiences actually strengthens their grip upon us, keeps us from reframing them, and closes the door to our learning to appreciate them more deeply. However, being honest about them can be a source of release and wisdom.
When we learn to see and speak the truth about all of our experiences, we come to deeply appreciate and reframe them. When that which had been un-discussable becomes discussable in a productive way, we are set free.
In my experience, the most powerful leaders, teams, and organizations are not those who report only the positive and who never experience stuck places, dark nights of the soul, “negative” things. Those experiences are part of the human condition. The most powerful leaders are those who embrace their negative experiences, go through them, learn from them, and come out much stronger on the other side.
A key aspect of story work is learning to see, acknowledge, and reframe all of our experiences—both negative and positive.
Summary: When we fully embrace our stories, reality is not objective, cause and effect are not linear, the past is not past, and the negative is not negative. They are all sources of grace that help us come to terms with the human condition so that we do not deny it but, rather, appreciate it anew. They become, paradoxically, routes to transformation.
The three previous posts that lead up to this one were:
The Presence and Power of Stories
Leadership for our Era
Examining your Own Story
These three posts are summaries from the preface and Chapter One of my upcoming E Book, Unleashing the Power of your Story. Today’s and my next several posts will each be a summary from the remaining chapters of the book. Today’s post is a summary of Chapter 2: Context: Larger Ideas and Meaning
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 effectiveness in short periods of time. He and a group of partners created a breakthrough educational program, Coaching from a Systems Perspective, in which you can significantly enhance your abilities as a systemic leadership coach. See http://SystemsPerspectivesLLC.com
If you would like to learn more about systemic approaches to leadership or story work, feel free to call or email Steve at:
Steven P. Ober EdD
President: Chrysalis Executive Coaching & Consulting
Affiliate: 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
Leadership Blog: https://managementhelp.org/blogs/leadership
 Bennett, Paul. Loving Grief, Larsen Publications, Burdett, New York, 2007.