The Role of Storytelling in Leading for Change

(image: public domain)

You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.

— Margaret Atwood

Storytelling is important. People have always told stories. The art of storytelling predates written language. It still very much plays a significant role in how we understand the world in which we live. Storytelling is therefore, a very important aspect of bringing about change in the world.

Stories shine light on realities we might otherwise miss. They can also motivate people to act. Sometimes we see ourselves in stories. If our experiences are like those of a character, we may learn the same lesson that they have learned. We can come to the realization that our values and our concerns are shared more widely than we may have believed. Stories can articulate a vision of what we can achieve individually and collectively. They can be both inspirational, and aspirational.

Stories, however, aren’t just about seeing ourselves. Vicariously walking in someone else’s shoes is one of the most appealing aspects of stories. Stories help us feel empathy toward others. They allow us to experience the joy, or the sorrow that others have felt. Stories provoke and educate. They can provide cautionary tales that remind us of what happens when we fail to act in a caring and humane manner.

A Few Tips and Resources

You rarely have enough time to show someone that perfect documentary film.  There isn’t time for metaphor-laden, complex narratives. Your opportunity to touch someone’s heart and mind with a story is more likely to occur in a period of under five minutes. Your story should feature relatable, authentic, characters with clear, demonstrated values.

This may sound obvious, but it is important for a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should start with a compelling statement, and establish the humanity of the subject. The middle develops a clearly defined conflict that explores values, and chooses actions. The ending resolves the conflict in a way that illustrates a position or teaches a lesson. The story should end with a memorable line.

There are lots of people out there who know much more about storytelling than I do. Below are some good resources to help you craft stories that will touch people, and move them to act on behalf of creating the change that you’re working toward. Now go out and tell your story.

You Are Not a Mind Reader

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

What types of assumptions cloud our judgement? When we are laser-focused on obtaining an outcome, what sort of thinking might cause us to make a strategic misstep?

There are dozens of varieties of cognitive biases that can distort our logic. One of the most common is to have a tendency to think we know what other people are thinking, or what their mental state is. These forms of bias can result from false reasoning, arrogance, ideology, or simply an inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

I work in education, where it is not uncommon to witness a bias known as the “curse of knowledge.” You may have had the experience of sitting in a college classroom where the professor falsely assumes that the students have the appropriate background knowledge to understand material that is clearly way over everyone’s head.

Everyone does not know what you know. Even if they have the same information, they may be interpreting it differently than you. Intellectual snobbishness isn’t a great strategy for learning; nor is it a great strategy to gain allies and supporters. Convey facts and evidence in ways that resonate with peoples’ experiences. New information doesn’t become knowledge until we can connect it to something we already know, so try to identify common experience to use as context.

No matter how much time we spend interacting with other people, we are always to a great degree focused on the center of our own personal universe. It isn’t necessarily egocentric. We just notice and think about the things that we ourselves see, without ever really knowing how much others notice and think about those same things. A phenomenon known as the “spotlight effect” suggests that someone may have a tendency to mistakenly think that they are as much at the center of someone else’s world as they are at the center of their own. A good rule for leaders is: get over yourself. Being a change agent is not about you. It is about the individual lives of everyone affected by a misguided current state of affairs.

When engaged in a struggle for social change, the ‘us versus them’ frameworks that we create for ourselves are rooted in the belief that our ideas are better than our opponents’ ideas. If we come to the dangerous conclusion that this is simply because we are smarter than our opponents, then we may also jump to the similarly dangerous conclusion that our knowledge of them is greater than their knowledge of us. What people know, and what they believe are two different things.

There is another problem that comes with believing that we know people better than we actually do. There is something that people who study these things refer to as, “extrinsic incentives bias.” This extends our lack of knowing others to the realm of knowing what motivates them.

Understanding people’s motivations is crucial for creating social change. Extrinsic incentives bias is assuming that people put more value on extrinsic incentives like money, than they do on intrinsic incentives like safety, or happiness. People’s motivations are not always easy to understand, or make assumptions about (See my post “Quality of Life Versus Standard of Living”).

Not surprisingly, the most accurate way to find out what people are thinking, is to ask them. Check your assumptions, regardless of how sure you believe that they are correct. Time spent listening to the people you want to support your cause is always time well spent.

Some Thoughts on Arguing

Kent Brockman: Mr. Simpson, how do you respond to the charge that petty vandalism such as graffiti is down 80%, while heavy sack beatings are up a shocking 900%?

Homer: Oh people can come up with statistics to prove anything Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.

– The Simpsons, “Homer the Vigilante”

We live in a world where civil discourse has become a rare commodity. There is little productive debate on topics of great importance, because people of influence and affluence have decided to force every issue into a framework consisting of lines drawn in the sand. This presents a tremendous challenge not only to democracy, but also to anyone advocating for social change.

I am not a scholar of the art of rhetoric. Nor do I claim to understand how argument and debate manifest themselves in cultures other than the one in which I live. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how you might, or might not want to approach arguing.

Arguing as Seed Planting

There are different definitions of “winning” an argument. An argument does not have to be a knock-down-drag-out fight. Sometimes the win simply consists of giving the other person something to think about.

Unless it is a unique situation involving instant replay enabling rules, when a coach or manager in any sport argues with a referee, they do not usually expect that a call will be immediately overturned. They are, however, planting seeds of concern or doubt in the mind of the official. If I tell you that number 12 is routinely breaking a rule, you will probably pay more attention to number 12 as the game moves forward.

Don’t Argue Values

The issues that we disagree on are laden with personal values. People have opposing views on issues because they have conflicting values. I dislike chocolate ice cream. I love vanilla ice cream. You will never convince me that chocolate ice cream is preferable to vanilla ice cream. When you argue that chocolate is better than vanilla, what is in dispute is a value. It is a preference, not a fact.

We should not fall into a trap of engaging those with whom we disagree in arguments about values. If you argue, it should be about facts. Facts still matter, and your facts should always be accompanied by evidence. In fact, next time you feel yourself being pulled into an argument, try the following approach. Don’t immediately set out trying to change the other person’s mind. Don’t tell them that they are wrong. Instead, articulate as clearly as succinctly as possible, the reasoning that supports your position. When you meet a skeptical person explain to them why you have taken your stand.

Don’t Argue – at Least Not with Everyone

There is a psychological concept known as cognitive dissonance. It suggests that people have a hard time dealing with the stress created by simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. It is believed that in order to reduce the discomfort created by the conflicting ideas, people will avoid the introduction of the conflicting ideas whenever possible. There are multiple research studies that suggest that people often see attacks on their belief as attacks on their identity, thus making them dig in their heels even more, thus increasing divisiveness.

If you refer back to my piece, “Change Happens at the Center,” you will see a strategy that may be useful when you’ve identified where a person sits on the continuum of opinion of the issue in question. The idea is to avoid the line in the sand people by focusing on moving passive opposition to a neutral state; neutral people to a passively supporting state; and passively supportive people to a fully committed state.  Read that full post here.

Agree with Your Opponent

Using a type of paradoxical thinking, you might use an approach that doesn’t directly argue with a person, but rather, tells them that they are right. Then, using their assumptions, you come up with absurd examples that prove their point.  Fair warning, this technique can backfire so be sure to practice it in some friendly, inconsequential settings first.

Go Ahead and Argue

Finally, if you absolutely have to throw down the gauntlet, try to go in with some sort of strategic framework. Here is an example of some tips which you might want to use to engage with your adversary. They come from, “10 Tips On Going For An Argument Win” by Siobhan Harmer (See the full article for details).

  1. Start off pleasantly
  2. Base your arguments on facts
  3. Respect the opinions of the other side
  4. It does not hurt to admit your mistakes
  5. Exercise self-control
  6. Try to have your adversary agree with you
  7. Ignore statements that have no merit
  8. Always keep an open mind during arguments
  9. Give your adversary the time to talk
  10. Play Up Your Arguments

That’s all I’m going to say on the subject for now, so don’t argue (or do . . . it’s up to you).

Getting Beyond Either/Or

(This post is adapted from a piece I recently published at

“The reality today is that we are all interdependent and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue.”
– The Dalai Lama

We too frequently fall into the trap of dividing the world into simplistic, either/or categories.  Things are either good or bad. Ideas are either liberal or conservative. Forget about purple; states are either red or blue, right?

Don’t imagine that the same person could be simultaneously progressive, liberal or conservative depending on the particular concern under consideration.  Don’t imagine that a deeper analysis of an issue might expose degrees of political belief, or of good and bad.   A world of absolutes is just so much easier – so much more convenient.

Letting everyone know that you have some sort of ideologically pure path to get to the mythical outcome, seems more important than understanding what that outcome might actually mean.  As Albert Einstein put it, “Perfection of means and confusion of ends seems to characterize our age.”

What makes people interesting, are their contradictions. We all know people who are both introverts and extroverts, or both humble and egotistical. There is a long list of personal traits that bear out the fact that we live along multiple continuums of belief and behavior. Why then can we not seem to recognize this reality when it comes to questions around ideology and values?

The roots of either/or perspectives might lie in zero-sum thinking, meaning  that you believe that one side wins only if the other side loses. It is a narrow framework that despises constructive dialogue, and compromise.

This distorted winner-take-all perspective leads to fear-driven decisions. It breeds fear, xenophobia, racism, and a boatload of other paranoia. Emotion and rumor trump logic and evidence. People build walls and draw lines in the sand.

We can get past the either/or trap by concentrating just a little effort on our communication skills. Consider the shift from adversarial, to dialogic communication outlined in the table below.

adversarial vs dialogic communicationBased on a table in:
Escobar, Oliver. The dialogic turn: dialogue for deliberation. In_Spire Journal of Law, Politics and Societies (Vol. 4, No. 2 – 2009)

If we hope to effectively address the multitude of problems facing our world, it is clear that we are going to need less “either/or” and more “both/and.”  As Wendell Berry said, “If you start a conversation with the assumption that you are right or that you must win, obviously it is difficult to talk.” It is, however, possible. Here are a few simple tips to get started:

  • Find a safe space for private, one-on-one conversations with people whose positions on issues differ from your own.
  • Do not enter these conversations as if they are contests.
  • Listen carefully and avoid constructing your own argument in your head while they are talking.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Don’t take disagreements personally.
  • Focus on sharing ideas and creating new ones informed by your common, as well as your competing values.
  • Be open to changing your mind.