Let people interpret their own stories

April 19, 2009

A promotional video popped up in my email today, from someone working in the area of story. Now I won’t link to it as that would not be fair, but it did worry me. It exemplified an all too common approach in story work, in which the expert interprets raw narrative. Now I have no objection to this per se, but my clear preference is to allow people to self-interpret their own material. It seems to be part of a therapeutic approach, seeing stories as some vehicle for psychological change within organisations, where the role of the therapist is privileged. If I think of my own encounters here then two extremes come to mind.

At one end we have the academic researchers who feel that they have to index all material to ensure consistency (this includes some consultants). The problem here is pattern entrainment, power and volume (if a small team interpret the material, then the amount of material that can be handled is limited and also tends to the one off design). I had a debate on this area with David Boje once (and not a well tempered one). It seemed to me that in deconstructing raw narrative he was imposing his own ideology on the material, he felt he was removing unconscious management ideology which had permeated the narrative. All of these approaches suffer from an assumption that meaning is contained within the stories (or content); all of my experience says that when you allow people to self-interpret they add layers of meaning to the original content.

At the other end of the scale we have the consultant who believes that story is ideologically more authentic/valid/empathetic/moral or whatever than other forms of communication. They also pride themselves on their ability to get people to tell stories and at times it seems the more profound the stories elicited the more the ego of the consultant increases. This is the consultant as therapist, as expert as leader; ironic really as they claim the opposite. This is the group I generally castigate as new age fluffy bunnies. Why not let people speak for themselves?

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