Stuck Stories: Working With Intractable Ideas, Part 1

This is the first of two posts on how we work with the persistent stories that often shape the contours of the projects we faciliate. In this article, we look at the stories themselves. In our Spring Innovation Newswire we will look at how we work with them.

One of the most consistent challenges we face in working with stakeholders are concepts and stories that come to be accepted as ‘givens’. These stories/concepts become the boundaries around which what is thought be possible must be constructed. 

California’s drought has surfaced multiple conflicting narratives–ag uses too much water, urban users waste water, or environmental interests are preventing solutions. When mixed together, these conflicting narratives can lead to only one place–gridlock. 

Many of these narratives are stereotypes–generalizations about the character of other stakeholders that shape the way we think and feel about them. They tend to be based on our ideas about others and not direct experience.

In one of the communities where we have worked extensively, there is a persistent story that divides people along geographic lines. The story goes, folks on one side of the line think one way, folks on the other think another. When you are in the community, you cannot really see this line. If you travel from one side of the community to the other there are few apparent differences. But if you listen, you will hear the story repeated over and over by people on both sides of the line. Because it is repeated so consistently it takes root and becomes reinforced by the behaviors of people in the community and over time the story becomes truth.

This kind of “socially constructed reality” is persistent in our society and appears in many forms. When sustainability was first emerging as a concept that might be useful in talking about our aspirations for food systems, some leaders suggested that we did not know what the term meant practically. Over time this sense that we could not make operational a definition of sustainability took root and the term increasingly meant less and less.

Almost all stories have some root in reality. Sustainability can be hard to define at the level of specific practices in specific situations. No doubt there are differences in the community that reinforce the story of division. And there is always truth in our individual experiences.

Stories tend reinforce a specific group’s needs and views. This is where things get sticky. While most people did not take the “birther” charges about President Obama’s eligibility to serve seriously, those who repeated the story were using it to serve their aims–attacking the legitimacy of the President, reinforcing their own anger, and justifying their behavior.

In this way stories can be profoundly dangerous. They can reinforce our deepest fears–xenophobia, homophobia, or fear of physical danger or want. Stories like this, repeated in the public information commons (the Internet, TV, radio) often travel quickly and gain tremendous power.

As facilitators we are keenly aware of the power of stories to both illuminate and hide the issues at hand. If we do not get them out on the table, they will continue to trip the group up and prevent progress. Our goal is to not support nor refute particular narratives, but to expose them to the light of shared experiences. And in this process we can begin to unravel the story from the data–opening up the possibility for new interpretations of experiences and a more robust shared understanding. This is the path towards new ideas and out of the gridlock that so many of our current stories lead us. In the next post we will explore some techniques to work around stuck stories.