'Beware the stories we tell ourselves.' (Brené Brown)
In fields of psychology such as TA (transactional analysis) and Gestalt, there’s an idea that, as we look back over our lives, we only notice key events that stand out to us as in some way significant. We don’t notice everything else. The events that hold our attention from our past are often those that we consider pivotal moments or experiences for us and that still carry emotional resonance. We join the dots between the events and, for us, the narrative that emerges becomes our ‘life story’.
(If you want to try this out for yourself, pause for a moment, take a sheet of paper and draw a line that, in some way, represents your life. Some people use an image of, say, a river as the line. Now mark key relationships, moments, events or experiences in your life on the line. You may want to draw these as, say, high points or low points – or as graphic images. When you are finished, tell yourself or someone else the story that has emerged. Notice how the story sounds and feels.)
This ability to create patterns and to tell stories provides a sense of continuity and coherence and enables us to make sense of our lives. Instead of recalling multiple random events, we experience life as journey. It’s like how we hear music as melody or flow, not as disconnected, separate notes. We do the same in teams, groups, organisations and cultures. We notice some things, don’t notice other things and create narratives based on what we see, believe and experience as significant.
Yet a story is necessarily selective. What now appears as true and coherent to us is one possible narrative, one version of events, one way of making sense of things. Furthermore, the more self-evident the story appears and feels to us, the greater the risk is that we are trapped, like Alice, in our own Wonderland. The stories we tell ourselves influence and reinforce what we notice and not-notice now, what sense we make of it, how we feel and how we anticipate-respond to the future.
So how to use these insights when working with clients? 1. Notice how a client depicts their issue, relationship or situation. What story are they telling themselves? How are they feeling as they do it? 2. Explore what they are not-noticing, what they are assuming, who or what is not featuring in the story, how the same facts or perceptions could be configured differently. 3. Enable them to experiment creatively with alternative stories to raise fresh awareness, insight and possibilities into view.
Gone are the days when we could think of ourselves, our teams and our organisations in splendid isolation. We now discover, abruptly at times, that everything is interconnected, everything is interdependent. We see impacts of global markets on domestic markets and vice versa. We see impacts of national and international policy on local people. We see sudden, unexpected changes that come out of nowhere, traceable only in retrospect, that dramatically shape our lives and work.
In the third sector where I’ve spent most of my professional life, we used to think of, say, human rights, international development and environmental issues as completely separate. We now see them as integrally related. Make a change in one area and it impacts on people and communities in another area - or in another part of the world. We can’t always see the connections but we can certainly feel them. This makes the world more complex, less predictable, less certain.
A pervasive atmosphere of complexity and uncertainty can evoke personal, social, economic and political anxiety. Leaders and ideologies are emerging across the globe that offer simplistic solutions, often at the extremes, that create a comforting illusion. They may help us sleep more peacefully, live more purposefully. Yet they ignore, dismiss or suppress aspects of reality that don’t fit their simple narrative. To break free from this, we must learn to surface and live with uncomfortable truths.
A stark example: witness the rhetoric in the UK and other Western nations this year in the face of unplanned, large-scale migration into Europe. Social media is filled with heated debate. ‘They’re all helpless refugees – rescue them!’ vs ‘They’re all terrorist sympathisers – reject them!’ It poses an either-or, black-white choice. To say, ‘It’s complicated. It calls for a sophisticated response’ sounds like a cop out, a refusal to take sides, a stance devoid of passion, a betrayal of a cause.
So we find ourselves facing an existential crisis, created and fuelled in part by a perfect storm of influences. These include: spread of Islamic extremism, growth in right/left wing nationalism, intolerant illiberal liberalism, gross economic inequality, unprecedented global awareness via the internet, powerful social media, more failed states, huge displacement of people, alarming climate change. It can feel perplexing, confusing, debilitating. How to take a stance in the midst of all this?
Adrian Spurrell (Synapse Solutions), my professional mentor, has been a persistent voice of challenge and support this year. ‘We can be driven by fear or by hope. Choose hope.’ It reminds me of hope in the Christian gospel too – a faith I experience as real – when we affirm the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a mysterious faith that holds onto hope, is held onto by hope, often in the midst of hope-lessness. May we know peace and hope this Christmas time and the courage to stand in 2016.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.