Convening brings us together in body. Narrating brings us together in spirit.
Convening and narrating are the core dynamic that supports generative communities, or communities that have achieved a dynamic of self-sustaining growth and vibrancy in harmony with other communities and their environment. In the middle of July 2016, seven of us gathered for a virtual conversation focused on exploring the narrative half of that interplay. Our framing question was: How can narrative effectively nurture generative communities?
Together, Chuck Peters, Nathan Senge, Courtney Ball, Peter Pula, Michelle Strutzenberger, Joanne Ritter, and Benjamin Smith uncovered many rich veins of conversation that deepened our understanding of the role of narrating in generative community. In the spirit of this very dynamic of convening and narrating, we present here several of these core insights. The conversation was a joint exploration. Joanne Ritter then thoroughly distilled key topics. Finally, Nathan Senge and I polished that work into the following insights.
Narrative keeps the conversation going and it makes it visible.
Energy from a robust convening session too often dissipates after the session has concluded. Narrative helps sustain that energy over time until it is time for the next session. In other words, narrative has an anti-entropic function within community, keeping energies bundled and capable of action. Without narrative, the ideas, partnerships, visions, and motivation gathered in convening can be lost. In even simpler terms, it keeps us talking.
“If you think about convening as an expansion phase, in which ideas expand and we explore possibilities, then narratives offer a necessary focusing complement. It’s like a breathmark; convenings are exhalations and narratives inhalations. In this way they sustain one another over time.” (Nathan Senge)
“I have discovered that the people there [at St. George’s Primary School in London] are operating within a narrative that is so embedded that it is almost not visible to them. So our work has been to tease out and show that narrative to them so that it can be accessible to others who might like to join, whether it’s parents or new teachers.” (Chuck Peters)
The necessity of unknown endings.
Generativity allows for the possibility of unforseen courses of action. When a story is launched, it is partially up to that particular community where it will ultimately go. A story with a familiar beginning may have a very different ending in a different community context.
“In the last few weeks, we’ve been in the process of building a campaign, an Indiegogo campaign, and Michelle was interviewing me to get my part of the content for this and I found myself starting to tell the same damn story I’ve been telling for twenty years and I thought, my God, that is death – that’s just dead. In the midst of that I was struck by a thought about an author, Thomas King, a native aboriginal storyteller who gave a Massey lecture on ‘The Truth About Story,’ and the annoying thing about his book when I read it two years ago was that he’d start every chapter with a creation story, and it never ended the same. So, this is a myth that is intended to shape culture, and it never ended the same. It pissed me off. But the truth is: that’s a more life-giving story. If you can start it and not know where it’s going to end, then you’re probably in a generative space.” (Peter Pula)
“If the narrative starts and you know where it’s going, it’s most likely not a narrative at all but explication in disguise. That’s usually about the point when an audience starts feeling very manipulated, even angered that someone would deliberately try to evoke an exact response out of them rather than just up and tell them. That’s anathema to generativity.” (Nathan Senge)
“Narrative has its best chance of serving life when it’s hot on the heels of inquiry.”
Generativity often arises out of a powerful question. Questions have the ability to help us see situations with fresh eyes, to explore our foundational values, and to tap our deep motivations. When this happens in convening, we ride the expansion phase outward.
But to serve life, to serve generativity that expansion must find its apex and contract once again. A narrative that follows inquiry can bundle the potential uncovered in expansion into a clear picture of a path forward. It can take possibility one step further toward reality.
“There’s something out there that’s new and foreign because it is the thing that is being generated. It’s the new life [that the narrative brings]. There’s a habit in the Western world to tell a story about the past and I think those become the invisible stories. I think there’s a role for narrative to make visible what was previously invisible and it’s the inquiry that draws that out. Like Michelle said, the intention of your inquiry is going to shape the story that you tell. If your intention is around gifts, wholeness, and possibility, and what wants to be born, then the act of creating the story is what it is to live the narrative.” (Peter Pula)
4/ OPEN NARRATIVE
Cultivate an open narrative space.
It is important for narratives not simply to segue into rants or polemics. They should be generative in spirit, opening spaces and not closing them down into easy stereotypes. This does not mean they have to glow in excessive positivity, but they should be inviting of a conversational space that is wide enough to track in unknown directions. Indeed, criticism, when offered well, can be quite helpful, if it is done generously and in the spirit of encouraging the speaker to expand upon their position, rather than just ridicule them.
But there are many ways narrative can lead to the foreclosure of possibility. Criticism that focuses on fault-finding, creating competitive relationships instead of collaborative ones, he-said/she-said narratives that often lead to defensiveness, aggression, and argumentation are inimical to generativity. The converse of this is a move from the I versus the you into the we.
“We have a fellow here [at Axiom News] who’s really good at phrase poems. He listens through a convening session to hear a phrase or a word of wisdom from each person in the room and by the time the event’s over he’ll have crafted a poem using only the words expressed by each person. They’re powerful moments when he exhibits those because the thing I said suddenly becomes something we said. It moves the individual to the we. It’s very powerful.” (Peter Pula)
5/ SHIFTING FROM NOUN TO VERB
Process-oriented narratives encourage the ongoing community cycle.
Communities are always moving through the five conditions – connecting, grounding, informing, discussing, and engaging – by way of convening and narrating. One is never simply residing at a certain stage. Thus, we sometimes find it helpful to speak not only of ‘generative’ communities, but ‘generating,’ or ‘self-generating’ communities. This returns us to the earlier theme that narrative is used to link communities from one convening session to the next. This is curiously aligned with modern physics – energy is ever shifting between so-called ‘forms’ of matter, which truly are more temporary patterns of energy than forms.
In narrative this means that the focus is less on some outcome, less on the product of an event, and more on the process. By emphasizing the process character of community, narrative undergirds a framework of development, of generativity, of becoming.
“You can listen to a story, your own story even, and change it. You can change nouns into verbs. You can change a perceived state into a process.” (Joanne Ritter)
“I had come up with this title of ‘nurturing dynamic communities.’ I loved the word dynamic, because I can see someone saying, haughtily, ‘well, we’re a generative community.’ The process focus undoes that.” (Joanne Ritter)
“You [Joanne] talk about dynamic. One of the things that struck me during this recent visit to St. George’s was that, in reaction to the first video, people now come to them and say, ‘what programs did you adopt?’ Then they tell them and those people go back to their home communities and they implement them and they don’t have the effect. Because [at St. George’s] they’re being done in a context of dynamic steering, of always sensing in the moment where they are and where they want to go and making decisions based on shared values. If those aren’t present, it doesn’t make any difference what programs you adopt.” (Chuck Peters)
Generativity rides a razor’s edge between structure and freedom.
Generativity involves a balanced dynamic between openness and closure, between expansion and contraction, between structure and freedom. At any given moment, a community contains an infinite number of possible paths forward from where it currently stands. Maximizing the potential within a community requires enough freedom for diverse ideas and energies to make themselves visible. But it also requires enough structure for what emerges to be bundled and transported into real action. A community that’s locked into rigid frameworks is not a community that’s able to sense and respond.
For instance, repeated, ritualized convenings can yield a safety in their structure, but they can also become non-life-giving and deadening. It’s fine to begin with ritual, but, as with generative stories, where they go must be left open. The ritual functions as a kind of check-in for the rest of the narrative or convening session.
“Going back to this conversation about structure versus freedom, I had a professor who used to talk about structure and anti-structure and how both elements were important in every service. And I think churches get into trouble sometimes with overly structuring things so people feel they don’t have any freedom in their rituals or belief systems. I think you have to look within the church at large and find the best practices and the best examples of people getting this right.” (Courtney Ball)
“In Cedar Rapids, there was a pastor who gave very illuminating, helpful, and touching sermons that for me were part of that community’s narrating. There was also, before the service, an hour-long conversation group that was mainly composed of parents and had about fifteen to twenty people in it. Sometimes there was a text, sometimes there wasn’t, but there was always a topic. There was thus both freedom and structure; the sermon was very structured, and the conversations were free. It was a very effective mixture of the two modalities.” (Benjamin Smith)
Pure narrative mirroring can have amazing power.
Sometimes the first step in generative narrative is listening and not relating. Mirroring is originally a term from psychology describing human behaviors in which one person subconsciously copies the gestures, posture, tone, words, or affect of another. You see this very clearly in small babies. One starts crying for some obvious reason and soon others in the room begin to as well, even if they themselves were not slighted.
In narrative, mirroring means trying to retell what was experienced as simply as possible, without extra context or interpretation, without supporting examples or discussion. Much like a report or a scientific observation, mirroring might look simple and superfluous, and yet it is not to be underestimated.
Mirroring can be an effective practice in nurturing generativity for the same reason we have real mirrors: we often can’t see what’s right in front of our eyes. Narrative mirroring can be a powerful tool in boosting a community’s consciousness of what it’s already doing.
For instance, Chuck Peters produced a documentary film about the wild success story of St. George’s primary school in London, that went from one of the lowest rankings in the nation to one of the highest. Chuck has said that his intention in making the film was exposing how the school made such an amazing turnaround. In part he was interested in learning from St. George’s how other schools might follow a similar path.
But, when he showed the film to the administrators and staff at the school, their reaction was not just recognition. “Oh yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing all along. We knew that.” No. Instead, they were deeply touched, because it was through the mirror of the film that they were first able to see certain aspects of what they had accomplished. The film made visible what was previously invisible.
“You can take a ten-minute walk with someone else while you silently mirror their walk. You use their words. When you listen to them, you feed them back their own words. You show them the mirror Chuck was talking about. That’s why, when I interview [people], I tape them. Because I want to use their words, their own words.” (Joanne Ritter)
Narrative always has an intention behind it. It’s best to make that intention explicit and clear.
Our conversation repeatedly returned to the matter of intention. The idea is not to rid narrative of intention, for every narrative is motivated by some intention. But intention shapes a story. It highlights certain aspects, elides others. And readers are skilled in sensing intention, even when it’s not made explicit. Thus inferred, the implicit intention can generate distrust – “Oh, they’re just trying to manipulate me” – or push the reader to interpret the narrative solely within a single framework. That’s why it’s essential to be clear about intention, for ourselves as narrators and in the narrative itself.
Generative narratives are those whose intention is focused around “gifts, wholeness, and possibility”, and around “what wants to be born.” (Peter Pula) That intention alone has a strong effect on a narrative’s power to serve the conditions of generativity in a community. Often the intention is quite specific: to investigate a community topic, to tell a personal story, or to recount a recent discussion. And sometimes, as in mirroring, the intention is more vague: to simply reflect what was heard in the belief that it will effect something in the listener.
“The power of narrative can be lessened when there is hesitancy or skepticism or suspicion about the agenda behind doing the narrative work. We have to be really clear with ourselves and with the communities we work in what the intention is in our work.” (Michelle Strutzenberger)