If we (want to) work with stories of individuals (and groups) at risk, we should be aware of different contexts within the human condition in general, communities and societies and the role story, identity, image etc. play in those.
In society there are ‘story’ phenomena – think of ‘we-they’ stories – that can lead to exclusions of various kinds. These exclusions, including limiting beliefs and self-perception and dominating cultural and social discourses, and the narrative approaches (including storytelling) to undothese limitations and exclusion, are the main topics of our course curriculum.
These guidelines support the course curriculum’s units with a theoretical basis, and they also include references to resources, including the most current literature by mainly practitioners. They are intended to inspire you to further reading and deepening of your knowledge and practices.
As a future trainer/educator you will be aware that you have to offer a proper learning environment and significant facilitation and guidance for your students/participants. Therefore we will provide you with some fundamentals to consider:
Length of session: in this course curriculum sessions will be 6-8 hours, including a lunch break.
Seating arrangements: before you start, decide which seating arrangements are best for the group you work with (e.g. classroom, banquet, open circles, buzzing clusters…)
Present objectivesof the session and collect expectations of the participants… DON’T rush, lecture, criticize, interrupt, dominate, sabotage, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
Show respect, establish rapport, abandon preconceptions, hand over the stick, watch, listen, learn; learn from mistakes, be self-critical and self-aware, be flexible, support and share, and be honest.
Be aware of power and power relationships, also in your role as a facilitator: facilitating others means to talk less, to control less, and facilitate others’ stories and analyses by disempowering yourself, handing over the stick, leading by withdrawing.
Also, be aware that there are people who tend to dominate people who show shyness. But, whether one is a ‘natural’ self-confident talker or ‘naturally’ modest, no one should feel threatened or rejected.
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It all starts with how we experience the environment around us – nature and its phenomena, the animal world, our relationship with others – and how we interpret and understand it. All of it is data, and the sheer number of data (and their impact) can be confusing. So we have a need to structure it to master it.
Stories originate from different needs and experiences, but foremost from our need for meaning and sense. Meaning-making is how we construct, understand and make sense of events, relationships and the self.
Functions and intentions of stories
Looking at the constructivefunctions of stories, we can name inspiration, imagination, memory retention, knowledge- and information transfer, connecting people, consolation, healing, entertainment, engagement, taking perception (empathy), values, planning, strategy, and more.
Many of these functions could also be interpreted as intentions. Stories are never ‘innocent’. There is always an intentionbehind a story. Consider this when you tell a story or listen to a story.
Universal Story Structures and Metaphors
In this course we present three ‘universals’: the Folk Story structure, which we mainly see in fairy tales, legends and mythological stories; the Hero’s Journey, which we see in epics (e.g. Odyssey, Gilgamesh), and the Actant Structure, which invites us to tell from different actors’ perspectives.
We often use metaphors without being conscious of them. Metaphors help us to explain abstract topics (which we call the target domain) in terms of known topics (which we call the source domain). Metaphors can be a powerful tool to stir and inspire imagination.
Facilitate exchange; examine and analyse together; find out meaning and sense; ask (critical) questions to stories; understand relationship of past-present- and futures stories; find onset for alternative / better / future stories together; empower each other; become resilient (to dominant discourses); become able to cope with change; become able to make plans and act upon them.
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As individuals we are a part of a group, a team, or an organization.
We should be aware of what we define as ‘groups’ (e.g. family, sports club, village, nation), ‘teams’ (e.g. sport, work), and ‘organizations’ (e.g. volunteers, commercial, NGO), and the influence all these have on our identity, feelings and behaviour. In our daily (private and professional) life we often have to switch from one to the other, from our family to our co-workers, our club, our co-students or course participants.
What are the stories we tell and the stories we hear or have to adapt to in all these compositions? What are they doing to us? Who’s and which story can we trust, and who’s and which stories are making us feel insecure, ashamed, suppressed? How and who can we trust and how can we establish trust?
Shame, comparison, disengagement and vulnerability
Theseare components that we have to be aware of when we work with individuals, groups and teams.We have to realize that they are always applying some kind of pressure with their norms and dominant discourses. And they obviously vary from culture to culture.
In establishing trust we should also be aware of ‘vulnerability’, the fact that someone can be,actor is perceivedas vulnerable. Vulnerability is often associated with fear, shame, sadness, disappointment or weakness. However, some scientists disagree and have promoted vulnerability as an act of courage. When we look at it that way, accepting the vulnerability of others means understanding that they need support. Nobody can ‘go it alone’. Let them know they have a right – the right to ask for support.
Trust is a slow-building, layered process that happens over time. We generally trust the ones who keep our secrets; the ones who share their secrets; the ones who remember our name / last conversation; the ones who make us sure we’re included in ‘fun’ things; who when we’re sad ask us why; the ones who’ve got our back; the ones who devote time and effort to a relationship, and more.
When we speak of trust, we must also be aware of it’s enemy, betrayal: disengagement, not caring, letting the connection go, not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship. Establishing trust comes with responsibilities…
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To be able to distinguish between what we mean by ‘narrative’ and ‘storytelling’, we offer two definitions:
Narrativecan be seen as how we are talking about everyday accounts we have of our life (some of which can be events / stories), trying to make meaning out of what has happened, and in doing so drawing upon different discourses.
Storytellingmeans the conscious and more planned acts of storytelling, where stories are told for certain purposes or with a certain intention – e.g. to inspire change, to convince, to entertain, to share knowledge, to console etc.
The neurological impact of stories
We have talked about the evolutionary benefits of stories and the meaning- and sense giving qualities. As to the first, we should realize what happens our brains when we listen to data as opposed to (data implemented in) a story.
What else happens when we tell and hear a story – the dialogue
We should be aware that‘storytelling’ alone does not really cover the subject because on its own it does not reveal the distinction between the teller, the story and the listener. Therefore we should also be aware of the (active) role of the listener and the importance of the (non-verbal) dialogue between teller and listener.
After a story is told, teller and listeners can also engage in a conversation about the story, asking questions to the story about it’s meaning and sense.
Our narrative identity
The theory of narrative identity explains that we form an identity by integrating our life experiences (past, present) into an internalized, evolving narrative of the self that provides us with a sense of unity and purpose (present, future) in life. It includes episodes (events/stories), characters, settings, plots, and themes. It is ever evolving, narrative sophistication increases with age.
We should also be aware that our identity stories can be influenced by and make part of a bigger (group identity) story (e.g. family, club, nation) or narrative.
When it comes to ‘we-they’ storieswe can even take part in dominant (cultural or social) narratives and discourses. These discourses (and supporting ‘stories’) can go different (and sometimes normative and even suppressive) directions. Examples can be statements such as: ‘it is important to be healthy, eat vegetables and exercise regularly’; ‘unconditional love and loyalty in a family is important’ to ‘all Muslims are terrorists’ or ‘all bankers are criminals’… This can lead to unwelcome causes and effects.
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How can it be safe for the teller to speak and how does the listener win listening rights? We would have to adopt the approach of a learner rather than an expert approach, communicate intent, and as a listener, feel and communicate empathy.
There are two ways of questioning:
1. Questioning yourself if you are really listening
2. Questioning the teller to make him/her feel listened to
Ad 1. Ask yourself in this order:
“Am I actually listening? Would I be able to answer a question if someone asked me one right now?”
“Am I just waiting for them to stop talking so I can say my important bit?
“Am I listening for what is similar to what I already know, or am I focused on whether or not they agree with what I’ve just said?”
“Am I listening for proof that what they are saying is right? Am I looking foe evidence to back up their story?”
“Am I listening from a place that has no other motive but to connect with their perspective? Do I understand what it feels like to have that perspective?”
“Am using my empathy and insight into their context and motivation to help achieve the best outcome?
As you probably realize these are questions that will lead you to empathic listening and providing a safe path to facilitating solutions with and for the teller.
Ad 2. Ask questions to elicit stories
Eliciting stories from others and story collecting starts with asking questions. We should realize that questions are intentional; they serve a purpose, just like the answer and/or stories that you will receive as a response to your question. Questions not only have the power to elicit stories but also the power to direct and manipulate stories or even disempower people’s stories. It is precisely these questions we have to be aware of.
Questions can control because there is a strong social pressure for the other person to answer the question. It can degenerate into power play, and on the other hand others can evade questions.
With the right question you can discover all kinds of useful information that can help you and the teller to achieve later goals.
Active listening(see above) helps. It can reveal personal details about the other person and will give you the opportunity to empathize, for example by showing that you had similar experiences.
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Working with Stories essentially focuses on people’s identities. From a postmodern social-constructionist point of view, identities can be considered as situated performances: people tell and enact as many different kinds of stories in social life as there are social situations within which to tell and enact them. Personal narratives reveal multiple and sometimes conflicting self-expressions.
When we see identity as a narrative, we see six principles. In short:
- The Self is storied
The Self encompasses a subjective storytelling. It is both the storyteller and the stories that are told.
- Stories integrate lives
Stories unite ideas, characters, happenings, and other elements of life that were previously set apart. In other words, stories integrate narrative identity.
- Stories are told in social relationships
People tell stories to other people. People narrate personal events in different ways for different listeners, and they may switch back and forth between different models of telling.
- Stories change over time
As people’s motivations, goals, personal concerns, priorities and social positions change, their memories of important events in their life and the meanings they attribute to those events may also change.
- Stories are cultural texts
Life stories mirror the culture wherein the story is created and told.
- Some stories are better than others
Human characters are intentional agents whose actions can always be interpreted from the standpoint of what is “good” and what is “bad” in a given society. Stories can be evaluated, and possibly reflect the values and norms of the society in which a story is evaluated.
In the field of helping professions, we can find a number of approaches trying to apply these six principles.
Practices inspiring working with story curricula
Practices like Narrative Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, and Participatory Narrative Inquiry consider identity as a narrative process. Here we list eleven commonalities that are fundamental aspects in this curriculum. In short they are:
1. TRANSDISCIPLINARY INSPIRATION: Much of the theoretical grounding of these therapies is inspired by ideas that come from disciplines outside psychology. Such transdisciplinary stance is also an important aspect of our curriculum.
2. SOCIAL OR INTERPERSONAL VIEW OF KNOWLEDGE AND IDENTITY: Our curriculum is strongly based on the idea that life stories are crafted by a cooperative sharing of meanings among people.
3. ATTENTION TO CONTEXT: The above approaches can be considered as systemic in the broadest sense of the word: thinking about people in context, be it the context of their culture, their interactions with other persons in their close relationships, or the conversational systems in which they participate.
4. LANGUAGE AS A CENTRAL CONCEPT IN THERAPY: The approaches propose that the way people think and talk about their issues may contribute to not being able to contemplate new possibilities. This course tries to help people change and/or improve their vocabulary. Language affects the way we think.
5. A HELPING RELATIONSHIP AS A PARTNERSHIP: Helping relationships are not considered as something that is done to somebody, but something done withsomebody. The course curriculum aims to help you developing a position of curiosity and respect in addressing the elements of your clients’ stories, and co-constructing with them new narratives.
6. VALUING MULTIPLICITY OF PERSPECTIVES OR VOICES: People may have different opinions not just about politics or religious beliefs but also about basic issues such as personal identity. By focusing on people’s stories, our curriculum provides value to the way each person constructs his/her own reality and gives meaning to his/her life experiences.
7. VALUING LOCAL KNOWLDEGE: The work of the collaborative, narrative, or solution-focused therapist is centred on the client’s own ideas and the new ideas that are generated throughout the conversations. Our curriculum in fact is focused on local knowledge, meaning that it relies more on working with clients’ lives from the clients’ point of view.
8. CLIENTS AS STARS: Your clients are the stars of Working with Stories curriculum. They are considered as the experts of their own life, they define their life situation and the goals they want to achieve. This means that you should approach your clients with curiosity and willingness to be informed.
9. BEING PUBLIC OR TRANSPARENT: By applying our curriculum, you will learn that all people, including you, understand things from a certain perspective. Because it is impossible not to have personal values, opinions, or preferences, we ask you to be open about these when relevant. In Narrative Therapy, this is called transparency.
10. INTEREST IN WHAT WORKS WELL: Many writers in psychology point out that therapy is frequently seen as a technology to fix defective persons. For this reason, our curriculum emphasizes what is working well in people’s lives and what clients consider important and valuable.
11. PERSONAL AGENCY: Personal agency refers to people being able to make decisions and take action in their life. Our aim in this curriculum is to help you helping people at risk “being in the driver’s seat of their lives”.
In the course curriculum you will experience narrative approach-related activities that can be employed in this phase, connected to life stories and experiences through time, by individuals as well as groups.
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Working on future stories
When it comes to future stories obviously all functions / purposes of a story play a part, but we would like to emphasize some a bit more.
Trying to think ahead in certain situations, among other things to be prepared for unexpected changes, either in the behaviour of others, changes in the environment or – for example – defects in devices or tools.
In anticipation of that we have to make plans: what is our objective? When do we want to arrive? What will be our milestones on the way, what could be obstacles and/or adversaries on our way? Who could be our helpers?
When we have a plan, we should start mapping the necessary actions to achieve our milestones, hurdle obstacles and defeat adversaries. How will we recruit helpers? Do we have at least one alternative strategy?
Visualising your story
Visualising not only helps to develop richer descriptions, it also helps to mark the essential waypoints in a story, remember: setting, actors, crisis, action, change, transformation, and resolution.
It also helps in the case of low literate or illiterate individuals, nothing has to be written. Everybody can draw, we are not demanding ‘pieces of art’.
FUTURE STORY STRUCTURING AND BUILDING AIDS
We offer you a few reliable options that have been applied over and over by professionals in the story telling and -working field. In the curriculum we introduce you to The Story Spine, The Story Skeleton, The Bottom Up Story, and more.
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In the ‘fundamentals’ we already pointed out ‘power’ and ‘power relationships’ and their influences on he behaviour and well-being of individuals. We also explained what a facilitator / story worker can do (and/or should not do) in different contexts.
Before we shine a different light on power relationships, we would like to share two definitions of cultural sensitivity and contextual sensitivity.
Cultural sensitivity is being aware that cultural differences and similarities between people exist without assigning them a value – positive or negative, better or worse, right or wrong. Cultural sensitivity implies that groups understand and respect each other’s characteristics. This can be a challenge for members of dominant cultures.
Contextual sensitivity implies that people are sensitive to stereotypes and try to unconditionally accept others at face value.We can add qualitieslike perspective taking; a tolerance for ambiguity, where people show the ability to accept multiple interpretations of the same situation. And finally, alertness to premature ultimatums: being able and willing to accept ideas or concepts, which inspire further conversations / dialogues.
Respect means stepping back enough to place yourself as an equal towards the other / your audience.
Respecting the other means being humble. Humility is our defense against fear, prejudice and hasty decisions. Humility enables us to listen openly and thoroughly to others, becoming aware of our limits.
Comparing the own perspective with that of the other – determining what could be of help for the other – is the foundation of higher developed empathy.
When working with stories you need be aware that due to the characteristics of your group there is a chance a power relationship exists, in which you (as a facilitator / educator / initiator) have a certain level of power. In the curriculum you will learn about and how to deal with low and high narrative distance, low and high value perception, and low and high power differential.
WHEN YOU MEET
Selecting the right tools – especially when people belong to different cultural groups or different educational backgrounds – is important. Based upon that, the tools selected for collecting stories can be different, e.g. drawing, or using photo stories. Additionally, the use of music or pantomime can be helpful alternatives to overcome communication problems related to language.
Questions and opinions
It is of utmost importance to find the proper way of asking questions, i.e. asking them in such a way that they do not exercise power over someone’s story.
There are different types of questions relevant in your interaction with your beneficiaries. We will introduce you to the characteristics and relevant situations where you can ask closed or open questions, directed or undirected questions, and “What happened” questions.
When working with your beneficiaries, you might get opinions rather than stories. It is the stories on how they reached this opinion that are of interest. Thus, when someone expresses an opinion, questioning will allow you to gain interesting insights to reflect upon. For instance, think of asking “Yes, that’s your opinion, bit what would be an example?” And a story will come…
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