The Stories We Tell: Transformation Through Narrative

In HSD we understand that an individual—or group—narrative shapes the patterns of choices, actions, and decisions of the holder of that narrative. For example, the HSD vision is a statement of the narrative that guides our work today and as we move into an uncertain future. When we make decisions about our work, we use that vision to inform our thinking.

“Be transparent. Let's build a community that allows hard questions and honest conversations so we can stir up transformation in one another.”

― Germany Kent

In one of the Inquiry IS the Answer sessions this week, someone brought a question about a brewing conflict in her community. This question is played out in many ways in the world. It was about what should or should not be available for viewing/reading in a public library. This particular issue invited us to explore possible narratives that could fuel this conflict:

  • Was it a difference in faith-based narratives? Did the conflict emerge around competing religious tenets?
  • Was it a difference in social narratives? Was the conflict fired by competing narratives about what information should or should not be available for open access to all?
  • Was it a difference in political narratives? Was the conflict about how public resources might be used?

These kinds of questions give us a sense of the power of approaching a conflict through possible narratives.

In HSD we understand that individual—or group—narrative shapes patterns of choices and decisions. For example, the HSD vision is a statement of the narrative that guides our work today and into an uncertain future. When we make decisions about our work, we use that vision to inform our thinking:

People everywhere thrive because
we see patterns clearly,
we seek to understand, and
we act with courage to
transform turbulence and uncertainty
into possibility for all.

We also understand that the patterns we live are shaped by contextual conditions in our environment. Glenda Eoyang, PhD, named those conditions in her seminal dissertation. We refer to it as the CDE model: 

Containers hold a pattern as it begins to form. The Container brings together the agents in the system as they interact to create the pattern. Containers can be physical (like a room or building), social (like a political party or club), or psychological (like a strong personality or shared belief). In systems that are most healthy, emergent patterns serve the greater whole of the Container. The healthy patterns in the Container also align to support the greater environment’s ability to thrive.

What about narratives that are Containers? Narrative can be considered a Container because it frames considerations that shape decisions. In today’s example, each group holds a shared narrative about faith-based practices, shared social expectations or traditions, or shared political perspectives and ideologies.

So what does that mean to you? These narratives can be powerful Containers that focus one’s perspective, making it difficult to consider, or even see, other perspectives. Sometimes this focus leads to the exclusion or negation of any other narrative. The negated narrative breaks away to form its own Container. The difficulty is that you cannot easily negotiate between two separate Containers.

Now what can you do? Containers may overlap, or they may be disconnected from other Containers. Sometimes, to be able to negotiate across those containers, you have to zoom out to a larger container that holds the two conflicted groups. In the example above, you may have to consider the shared narrative of the greater community, rather than the various narratives of factions. You have to find something that is common across all the disconnected Containers that helps you begin a generative conversation about their shared concerns.

Differences name ways actors in a Container differ from each other. Because difference generates energy in a system, it can fuel the drive for change and movement. Differences can manifest in two different ways. You may see “differences in kind”—different roles, perspectives, or experiences, etc. On the other hand, you may see differences in “degree”—more or less experience in a given role, more or less intransigence in perspectives, or more or less experience in a particular area. Differences inside a healthy Container support alignment with its greater environment.

What about narratives that serve as Differences?  In Container that forms from a shared narrative you may have sub-groups or individuals who see the narrative slightly differently. Actors who live, work, or plan in a shared Container may operate with very different narratives, based on faith-based practices, social expectations, or shared political ideologies.

So what does that mean to you? You may have actors in a Container who have a completely different narrative from others in the same Container. The original conflict outlined in this blog post is an example of different narratives in a Container. In that city/neighborhood (Container), the Differences are the possible narratives that triggered the conflict. The challenge is to find a peaceful, generative way to accommodate multiple narratives to support the alignment of the Container in its larger environment.

Now what can you do? When you have significant Differences inside a shared container, you might pursue a variety of accommodations. You may find a way to accommodate both narratives. What would happen if you provided venues that can work in parallel to meet the separate needs of each group? What if you engage in an exploration of how each narrative can benefit the shared container? What if you create a democratic or representative way of coming to shared decisions?

Exchanges are methods and pathways for sharing information, time, and other resources in a system. They allow for the flow of those resources between and among the actors in the system. Narratives inform and shape the exchanges of particular groups.

What about narratives that serve as an Exchange?  Most of the time we think about Exchanges as being conversations, dialogue, or lectures. Other examples of Exchanges include rules that inform decisions, shared time among actors, or financial transactions. The flow of these resources also supports the health of the Container in the greater environment.

So what does that mean to you? Exchanges are shaped by the narratives inside the system. In the original example above, the conflict, itself, becomes an exchange that builds from the energy generated by the Differences. Bullying, pacifying, protest, and unilateral planning are all examples of Exchanges that can emerge in such a situation. It’s important to find a way for people to express their narratives and find a way to allow Exchanges between and among the various narratives. Otherwise, different narratives can become so strong that they are impenetrable, isolating the subgroups into Containers on their own.

Now what can you do? Narratives must be expressed. To suppress one narrative in favor of another is to deny the existence or realities of those who hold that narrative. It is important to go back to the shared Container. Consider how the different narratives contribute to or impede the flow of time, information, or other resources across that Container, as it seeks alignment in the greater world.  How can you allow different narratives to be heard and considered? Arrange for venues where actors agree to hear each other’s narratives. Look for the similarities and differences that shape different narratives. Amplify what works, and damp parts that limit the Container’s alignment.

Of course, this is not intended as an exhaustive set of actions and decisions you can use to address conflict when narratives collide. It does, however, offer a starting point for you to begin to consider powerful, informed action when you find yourself in the midst of such a collision. What Containers are strong enough to hold the narratives together? What Differences make the most difference in a particular question or issue? What Exchanges might be most viable in the context of the competing narratives?

Please explore using narrative to make sense of conflicts in your world and see if anything here can help you find a path forward. Be in touch and let us know what you find to be helpful.


As a follow up here are two links you may find helpful:

  1. If you are interested in joining the daily, no-cost Inquiry IS the Answer sessions, please follow this link to register, so you will receive the daily reminders.
  2. On Saturday, June 17 and 14, we are offering an Adaptive Action Lab about writing or using narrative. Find out more about the AA Lab and join us by registering here.
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