How Stories Change us and Determine our Future

This blog comes from writer, storyteller, educator and “Education for the Soul” Conference 2018 keynote speaker, Geoff Mead.

Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories that individuals or nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.

John Okri

Anthropologist Dr Frances Harwood — a student of Margaret Mead’s — once asked a Sioux elder why people tell stories. He answered: “In order to become human beings.” She asked, ‘Aren’t we human beings already?” He smiled. “Not everyone makes it.”
The world is full of stories. But not everything is a story; we communicate in other ways as well: we analyse data, exchange information, proffer opinions, make arguments, and plead our case, to name but a few. So, what exactly is a story?
My favourite definition comes from organizational storyteller Annette Simmons who says that a story is: “an imagined (or reimagined) experience narrated with enough detail and feeling to cause your listener’s imagination to experience it as real!”
A story happens somewhere in the space between the teller’s imagination and the listener’s imagination. “Ah. But I don’t deal in imagination,” you might say. “I deal in facts. I only want to know what’s really happening.”
Actually, imagination is how we create reality. We rely on our capacity to make images in the mind to interpret immediate sensory information (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste): we smell baking and imagine the pie; we hear a bang and imagine a gunshot; the hairs on the back of our neck stand up and we imagine an intruder.
In this way, imagination is closely related to our basic survival instinct. But with our highly evolved monkey brains, we humans have learned to combine imagination with language to convey to others things that are not actually happening here and now in front of us.
We use our imaginations to “make things up” even when we are doing our best to recall an event accurately and tell it as truthfully as possible. We use our imaginations every time we listen to someone speak and try to make sense of what they are saying.
As humans, we are, so to speak, swimming in a sea of stories and as Buddhist scholar David Loy says: Like the proverbial fish that cannot see the water they swim in, we do not notice the medium we dwell within. Unaware that our stories are stories, we experience them as the world. But we can change the water. When our accounts of the world become different, the world becomes different.’
Therein lies the essence of why storytelling matters: to tell a story is not simply to give an account of something but to change our relationship with it; to listen to a story is to allow the possibility of being changed by it.

Stories and Leadership (of self and others)

Stories shape who we are, how we relate to others, and how we make sense of the world. They are so fundamental to how we think, feel, and act that it is not possible to reach our full potential as leaders (or indeed as human beings) without understanding how stories work and using them effectively.
That is a big claim to make. So let me be absolutely clear; I am asserting that stories are: 
1. The primary way we make sense of our experience, giving meaning and significance to our lives and creating (and recreating) our sense of self;
2. A vital means of building relationships, bringing groups and communities together (discounting others’ stories can cause conflict and divisions);
3. A powerful force in the world, acting on our imaginations to shape, extend, and constrain our sense of what is desirable and possible.
So you may be wondering, if you’re defined by stories, what kind of story are you in? Is it the story of an adventure, a journey, a voyage of discovery? Or is it something simpler like the story of a child playing by the sea.
The best way to consider this is to simply ask yourself “Who am I?”— or even better — get someone else to ask you, “Who are you?”
If you’re anything like me, this question will drive you crazy. It’s a variation of an old Zen koan that novice monks once spent hours, days, or even weeks contemplating. The point is that behind whatever responses we give lie the constitutive stories of the experiences that lead us to identify ourselves in particular ways.
Here for example are a few of my straightforward factual responses to the question, each followed by a reference to the kinds of story from which the “facts” arise:
I’m Geoff Mead. I’m a storyteller. I’m a father. I’m a divorcee. I’m a British citizen. 
Stories of ancestry and naming stories of learning about storytelling stories of my four (grown-up) children stories of love, sadness, and recovery stories of history and nationhood. It’s virtually impossible to reflect on that apparently simple question (who am I?) without touching the stories of what made us who we are.
Our identity and our sense of self comprises a more or less coherent collection of stories encoding who we think we are and what matters to us. Becoming aware of the storied nature of our being is the first step in developing a more responsible and authoritative relationship with our own histories.
We cannot choose our parents or the kind of childhood we experienced, we cannot change what we have done or left undone in our adult lives. But we can learn to recognize how the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences shape the way they influence us; we can give ourselves greater freedom and choice by unhooking ourselves from dysfunctional and limiting stories; we can tap into and draw upon those stories that nourish and sustain us, that enable us to realize more of our potential, to live bigger and more generative lives.
The stories we tell are fateful: our ability to change ourselves, our organizations, and our world. The challenge is differentiating between those stories that serve our human needs and those that do not; about knowing when to hold on to a story and when to let it go.

Changing our stories as leaders

Changing our stories is not easy and often the hardest thing is letting go of stories that have served us well enough in the past but have become outmoded and dysfunctional. Even high stakes may not be enough to make us release our grip on such stories – especially when we are unwilling to bear the short-term consequences of facing long-term issues.
In parts of India where people still catch monkeys to eat, they put a morsel of food inside a hollowed-out gourd which is staked to the ground. There is a small hole in the gourd, just large enough for the monkey to reach through and grab the bait inside. The monkey clenches its first round the food and, overcome by greed, cannot remove its hand. If it refuses to release its prize, the monkey is caught, captured and eaten.’
Nevertheless, as leaders, we need to understand how and when to let go of old stories, as well as developing the skills to tell a good, new story because:
– Our sense of identity (who we are) only changes when we change the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves;
– Organisations, groups, and communities only change when the stories, and storytelling dynamics (i.e., the processes by which stories are told and made sense of) between people change
– Our view and experience of the world only change as we question the prevailing “big stories” and imagine new possibilities.
What stories do you tell yourself about the way the world works? Which stories do you question and which leave unquestioned? These are vital concerns for anyone in a leadership role, for anyone who wants to shape the future as well as make the most of the present?
As leaders, we need to take responsibility for consciously using story to make meaning with and for other people in all of these domains. Often it is about changing the stories that we tell and to which we listen.

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