Why stories?

This page contains an excerpt from Working with Stories (pages 4-6) that describes why listening to stories (as opposed to statements of facts or opinions) has a unique value for communities and organizations.

Some human-social aspects of listening to stories

Social function. People act differently and expect different things when they tell and listen to stories than when they talk normally. This gives the sharing of stories both a unique function in society and a unique advantage when one wants to understand feelings and beliefs. When a person tells a story in a group, that person is given both the floor and the attention (and silence) of the party. Asking people to tell you stories sends them the message that you have given them the floor and your attention. It sets up the situation "I am listening" rather than the situation "I am interrogating" and thus triggers a different social response.

Emotional safety. The separation between narrative events (storytellings) and narrated events (what takes place in stories) provides an emotional distance that creates the safety people need to disclose deeply held feelings and beliefs. As a result, people often reveal things about their feelings or opinions on a subject while they are telling a story that they wouldn't have been willing or able to reveal when talking about the topic directly. A story is a socially accepted package in which people have learned from a young age to wrap up their feelings, beliefs and opinions. People know that they can metaphorically place a story on a table and invite others to view and internalize it without exposing themselves to the same degree as they would if they stated those feelings, beliefs and opinions directly.

Providing a voice. Most people are very used to being asked for their opinions in standard surveys, and they get out their well-practiced poker faces for that game. Asking people to tell stories gives them a sign of respect by legitimizing their experiences as valuable communications. Respect is also communicated by giving people the freedom to choose what story they will tell and how the story will take form. The mere fact of saying "we really do want to know what has happened to you" is something many people have rarely experienced. Many respondents in narrative surveys have expressed gratitude for the chance to tell their story.

Some cognitive aspects of listening to stories

Engagement. A story has a natural situation-tension-resolution shape, and people usually find it difficult to "leave" the story before the resolution has occurred, whether they are telling it or listening to it. The story pulls them in and engages them until it has completed its course. In the context of inquiry, this reduces the frequency of respondents answering questions without giving them much thought. Even if people had meant to ignore the inquiry, they are sometimes captivated by the storytelling aspect and stay longer (and say more) than they would have otherwise.

Articulation. When people tell stories, they sometimes reveal feelings and beliefs of which they themselves are not aware. When the answer to a direct question is "I don't know," asking for a story may provide the contextual triggers that bring out the tacit knowledge and relevant experience required. After the story has been told, the storyteller may still not know the answer to the direct question. However, if you collect hundreds of narrative answers, a coherent response will usually take shape.

Interpretation. When you ask people to tell stories, and then ask them questions about their stories, you are asking them to interpret rather than opine. This displacement gives people both the freedom to say forbidden things -- it's about the story, it's not about myself -- and the safety to admit fault or place blame. Also, people tend to have stronger reactions to hearing stories, in terms of the emotions they show, than they have to hearing factual information. For example, listeners tend to fidget less and lean in more when a story is being told than when someone is giving opinions or relating information. This makes asking people to interpret their own stories a useful means of surfacing their feelings about important issues.

Authenticity. When the goal of the project is communicative, whether this means communicating a message to customers or communicating the needs of customers to producers, stories convey complex emotions with more ground truth than any other means of communication. Direct questioning may generate more precise measurements, but story elicitation ensures greater depths of insight and understanding into complex topics and complex people. The act of listening to a story told by another person creates a suspension of disbelief and displacement of perspective that helps people see through new eyes into a different world of truth.

Imagination. When a topic is complex and many-layered, the best course is to increase diversity, generate many ideas, think out of the box, and prepare for surprise. Asking a diverse range of people to tell you what they have done and seen enlists their imagination along with your own. This both broadens the net of exploration by opening the inquiry to the varieties of human experience and increases its flexibility by capturing multidimensional context which can be plumbed again and again as needs emerge. In contrast, direct questioning, though precise, is narrowly focused and produces unidimensional content that can provide only one answer.

Some information-gathering aspects of listening to stories

Contextual richness. When you ask direct questions, it is easy to guess wrongly about what sorts of answers people might have and even about what sorts of questions might lead to useful answers. This is often a problem when exploring complex topics. Asking people to talk about their experiences can sometimes lead to useful answers even if the wrong questions were asked, because the contextual richness of stories provides information in excess of what was directly sought. In fact, being surprised by the questions posed (and answered) by collected stories is a standard outcome of narrative inquiry.

Redirection of non-responses. A well-constructed story elicitation results in fewer non-response behaviors (answering without considering, manipulating the survey to promote an agenda, trying too hard to do what seems to be expected, and so on) than direct questioning. These behaviors don't go away when people tell stories, but they are both reduced and more obvious when they do occur. Because telling a story pulls in both teller and listener, the reluctant pay more attention, those with agendas reveal their true thoughts (even while promoting their agendas), and performers have a harder time guessing what they are supposed to say (and switch to telling the best story they can). Also, non-responses are easier to spot in narrative results, because the texts of the stories themselves provide clues to why people gave the answers they did.