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How Story Supports Groups Getting Results – The perfect practice partner (Part 1)

One of the best ways to stretch the boundaries of your thinking is to be asked to do something new. Last week I offered a workshop I’d never done before: “Storytelling for Facilitation and Group Work” and it caused me to think about how and why I apply story in the groups I’m supporting.

I began creating my workshop by thinking about what training, facilitating and hosting are trying to do and mapping how story can support this work. Then I took a closer look at how story can support the wave of how participants move through a group process together. And finally, I took a look at roles story can play in organizational and group settings.

What training is trying to do

I see training, facilitating and hosting as three distinct but overlapping parts of a continuum of group work. At its essence, training is trying to get something in. A trainer is working with a group to present information and integrate knowledge. 

Of course, these are not enough on their own. Unless a participant builds skills, she or he won’t be able to actually do anything. Training first leads to “I know what to do!”. Even skill isn’t enough, though, for a person to be able to take reliable action. They also need confidence“I believe I can do it!”. The final part is agency, the ability to do something in the moment when it’s called for: “I can do it now, when it’s needed!”.

In order for agency to be cultivated, a trainer needs to create a safe space for learning. There is no such thing as totally safe space for everyone, but there is safe enough space.         

It’s important to remember that discomfort does not equal unsafe.

Learning is uncomfortable, often physically, since what you are attempting to do is bushwhack a new neural pathway in the brain. Is it any wonder why resistance arises?

At the same time, the space needs to be challenging enough to make it stimulating. We learn best from situations where we are intrigued and focused. And there needs to be enough group cohesion so the group doesn’t get in the way of learning.

What facilitating and hosting are trying to do

The heart of facilitation is trying to get something out, whether that’s on a tangible level, like a strategic plan or a report, or an intangible level, like a stronger sense of team. The root of the word “facilitation” comes from the French facile – “to make go easy”. Facilitators are hired to support a group to conduct its work and achieve results in a smooth and supportive manner.

Hosting is more about holding space for emergence. We know we want to move in some direction, but we are unsure exactly how and what the results might be. Or we have conflict or challenge in the group or enough complexity in the topic that calls for ways of working in a participatory manner, supporting group members to stay together for long enough for something wise and useful to emerge.

Of course, the best practitioners move easily along this entire continuum, supporting participants to build their capacity and strengthen their connection around whatever they are focused on, work more easily together and stay together through challenge and change for innovation to arise.

Both facilitating and hosting are trying to:

  • Create a coherence in the group (we have common ground) – When a group of participants becomes a learning field together, more is possible. Coherence makes for common ground that can lead to higher ground. 
  • Create cohesion (we stay together) – The more a group can stay together over the course of its challenges, the more resilient and robust it will be.
  • Connect resources (we share what we have) — The more understanding and cohesion in a group, the more individual members can surface additional skills, knowledge and resources. When we feel connected and engaged we feel more free to reveal more of ourselves and contribute more to the group.
  • Create conditions for emergence (we are open to emergence) – The skillful facilitator supports a group to step beyond the boundaries of their known modes of operating and thinking. This is the place where new ideas and innovation can appear.
  •  Set the stage for co-creation (we know how to work together) – Successful group work can lead to an increase both in collective wisdom and results that are more robust and collectively owned.
  • Enliven what already exists (we can go further) – Group work can bring renewed life into vision, mission, values, principles, ways of working, structures and processes already embedded in organizational structures. Renewed life enables the next stage of development.

How story supports training, facilitating and hosting

As the key way that humans both make sense of the world and capture and hold their experience, story is the perfect process partner for group work. Here’s what it can do to enhance group results:

  • Be an ideal medium for teaching, learning, understanding and sharing – We learn most easily through stories. They can create deeper understanding, which leads to more sharing and enhanced learning. When we also add the capacity of harvesting our stories and using collective sense and meaning making, we enhance the collective wisdom in the group field. Connection is reinforced and inspiration rises. There is more coherence in the group. 
  • Build a relational field – Story can help to create and strengthen the field nature of a group. Storytelling, deep listening, and witnessing are all capacities that strengthen community. Storytelling and storylistening give a group a “root system”, which enables the sharing of knowledge and nutrients leading to deeper group process. It is an ecology builder. There is more cohesion in a group.

Storytelling is an ecology builder.

  • Surface the know-how and the unknown – Stories offer the perfect medium for bringing to light what is underneath the surface. Since we collect what we have experienced and know in story form, asking for stories is a way to surface group knowledge. Context leads to content, so asking a powerful question helps to bring stories to the surface ready to be combed through for wisdom. Storytelling can also reveal what we don’t know, enabling us to work in the gaps and let light shine in to find possibility, opportunity and insight. There is ground for emergence and innovation.

Context leads to content, so asking a powerful question helps to bring stories to the surface ready to be combed through for wisdom.

  • Deepen connections — Story can deepen trust and commitment, enabling a group to step into and through vulnerability to find renewed energy and courage together.  More can be uncovered and more revealed. There is more resourcefulness and more resources available to the group.
  • Engage the full person – Story has the ability to reach and connect the head, heart and hands. People work better together and bring more of themselves into the work when they feel engaged. For action to happen, first emotion needs to be there. There is a foundation for good co-creation.
  • Enliven what matters most – Sometimes vision, mission and values can feel hollow or fossilized. Stories can reawaken what we most care about by re-storying the past. Take a word from a vision statement, for example, and tell a story about it from your experience. Suddenly the whole statement is alive in a new way. Story has helped to bring it back to life. There is life both in the task and how we do it together.

Stories can reawaken what we most care about by re-storying the past and opening the door to a new future.

Making story your practice partner is a wise choice for helping the groups you work with to achieve more than they ever thought was possible.

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COMING UP: Part 2 – Story as a process support – Inviting story into the room

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