Narrative Insight: How the Stories We Tell Shape the World We Experience

We are moving from the information age into the age of the narrative. Look around you and it is easy to see that how you tell your story matters. Whether it is your personal story or the story of your organizations, all of your relationships–and the depth of them–are determined by the stories you tell and how your stakeholders are able to locate themselves in your narrative.

One of the major challenges of any community of any size, from 2 to 2 billion is creating an expansive enough narrative that everyone feels totally included. In fact, it has never been done and perhaps never will. But nonetheless, we are driven by the hope of this possibility. And yet, the primary block to creating this narrative is that there are always those who we want to write out of our narratives or those who want to write us out of theirs. Is it possible to do it any other way? Is there room enough for a grander story?

In a 1964 speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s friend and fellow civil rights activist, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said:

“The tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt. Would that Pharaoh and the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert and together stood at the foot of Sinai!”

When I read that quote, it jump-started my imagination in myriad ways. I thought about whether or not it is possible to create space within ourselves and our organizations for more expansive narratives if we participated in what I am calling “constructive re-imagining”. What this would require is evaluating how our present narratives are working for or against us or our organization and then retooling it to help ponder a better outcome. But in order to begin this process, we would need to know the 3 narratives (stories) that shape our worldview, which are:

  1. The stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves.
  2. The stories we tell about others.
  3. The stories that others tell about us that we choose to listen to.

In addition to grasping these narratives, we would also need to under what the functions of these narrative are, which are to tell us:

  1. Where we came from?
  2. Where we’re going?
  3. How we’re going to get there?
  4. Who’s invited?

Once we can take hold of these awarenesses, we understand that the disagreements that lead to conflict among people in groups from as small as two to entire nations generally emerges at the points where these answers to these questions diverge. That’s because it’s at these points where we begin to experience difference as threat. As I like to point out to people, rarely does anyone fight over the questions we ask. We fight over the different answers we come up with to the questions we have in common.

Regardless of whether we express it this way or not, far too many of us hold an “agree with me or suffer the consequences” mentality. In this new age, this aversion to narrative complexity will be insufficient for long-term relational viability. To address this, we will need to build our capacity for cognitive dissonance and align ourselves with people who can manage the tension of seemingly divergent narratives until we can create processes and systems and even new vocabulary to articulate the vision of what is not yet possible but will be inevitable.


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