Three Things I know about Stories

After almost twenty years in the trenches, there are three things I know about Stories.

1.Stories matter. They create power, incite wars, cause trauma, offer healing, feed despair, nourish hope. I am an evangelist for the ministry of stories, mapping their power in order to create a new narrative ethic of accountability. These last 17 years of work with promising leaders from Northern Ireland & Ireland, South Africa, Israel & Palestine, I know first hand the destructive power of old stories of hatred and the creative power of new stories of possibility. Being Half Welsh, half Irish and five/fourths Australian-(never good at math), its time for me to cherish the stories.

2. Stories are never innocent. They are pervasive, perverse, and always dangerous. Whose stories get told, heard and enacted, are all expressions of power. Equally, whose stories are censored, silenced or falsified bear the masks of oppression. Stories hold up our world because we story our lives into meaning, and meaning informs our choices and our actions. The public stories fed to us every day by governments, media, churches and corporations have turned out to be mostly lies. Yet the chance to unleash story power to inspire positive social change has never been more possible or more necessary. After 20 years in the field, its time to move narrative change into a 3.0 hyperconnected world and foster a renewed narrative ethic that treasures honesty over expediency, trust over trust funds, and need over greed. Human decency needs once again to be the coin of the realm.

3. Stories need to be harvested. My own included. 2014 is our time to sum up and share this body of work, by writing the manual-how to change the world by changing the stories. And boy, do we have work to do.! Not just the Middle East, but the economy, climate change, poverty, the environment, the economy, energy, immigration, health care, education. If ever there was a time for a new story and new leadership, that time is NOW. I am eager to meet other story-inspired people out there to help create a social movement for change where WE shape the stories that shape us, not the other way around. That means harnessing the power of stories to humanize, elevate, dignify, instead of pandering to the brands and demands of global capitalism that exploit, cheapen or  degrade.

If you have taken time to read this, then consider yourself invited.

Posted in Contemporary Stories, Ethics, Middle East, narrative, narrative ethics, Narrative Method, stories, Stories of Violence and War, Storywise, Training, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Healing the Corporate Story Anyone? Try a Dose of Ethics.

In the Washington Post Op Ed page this week, we were treated to  an exhibit A of Corporate storytelling at its most disturbing:

Comcast and Time Warner merge, two disasters making one big disaster, according to Catherine Rampell- quoting the story that Comcast has the worst customer service story in the nation, closely followed by Time Warner. The Cable industry is a monopoly, so they can do what they want, Rampell says.

Richard Cohen on General Motors calls it a “Moral car Wreck” where we hear more about why GM decided that a recall to fix a part for 74 cents was deemed not a commercial proposition- while the new CEO claimed that this was the Old GM and she is the new GM.  Coming in the wake of the record Toyota fine, one’s faith in our car makers stories should be a crisis of faith.

Below Cohen, we read Carter Eskew on Christie on Christie, and the investigation that he set up to impartially examine the bridge closing scandal- and the findings that Governor Christie was proud to announce, that his own commission exonerates him!!!!The fact that anyone could be so outrageous and seemingly get away with it, speaks to the degrading of any serious political narratives. The Grand Jury might have other ideas however.

Michael Gerson goes off about the Movie Noah and the outrage from religious conservatives that Noah is the not so righteous righteous man that God was relying on. Churches exert enormous pressure on how a story can be told because in their minds, Orthodoxy trumps Creativity. Echoes of a Taliban Mind.

On the side column, Rahm Emanuel attacks the  GOP on their crazy early education story, claiming that they don’t have one. The page opposite mentions DC elections and Ukraine. What an array of story wrecks that have unraveled. We would spend days looking through an ocean of newsprint trying to find the pieces of Truth to see why it exploded into this mess.

Looking for some brighter news, the next day’s Washington Post arrives, but alas, it’s not much better. The news tells us all about the CIA lying about the intelligence that they claim was gained from torture. The report says this was fabricated. The side show is Senators fighting heads of departments. Meanwhile, the Malaysia Authorities now release the real transcript,  and say that there could have been a mechanical malfunction, even though they like their first story that someone did it, even if they can’t find any suspects. We are still finding rubbish in the ocean that for a few hours, becomes the latest piece of the plane wreckage, until it becomes discarded fishing gear. If ever a corporate story mattered, it was this one,  and yet how poorly the victims have been served while CNN enjoys new ratings.

Then, we read the headline,  “GM Chief apologizes Little Else”  next to  “NSA confirms warrantless searches” next to “Japanese Lab falsifies data” next to  “CIA and frayed trust” and finally “DC casts a vote for honesty”  Phew, what a trip through the news in just two days. Is any signal coming through the noise?

You would have to say that there are not too many corporate stories that are working here. From the private to the public to the non for profit sectors, there is a crisis of confidence. No one tells honest human stories anymore- Everyone is making it up to cover it up, or to dress it up or to sex it up. And we are teaching corporate storytelling????? What are we teaching? This? I don’t think so.

The ethical piece surely has to become the heart of what we are doing. I wrote a piece last week asking- Has storytelling gone over to the dark side? We all have some soul searching to do.

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Negotiations are supposed to be Getting to Yes. At least that is how Harvard describes it. But how often is it a negotiation of “No’s?” I use my NO thinking it will force your YES, and you use your NO thinking it will force my YES. It amounts to a sure path of Getting to No- which is usually getting nowhere.

The fatal mistake is thinking a narrow Red Line NO can create a Bigger Green line YES, or a Story of Absence- what is wrong, what is not there, what we haven’t got or what we lost-our problem saturated stories- can somehow create a larger presence for the solution. Absence makes the heart grow fonder…yes, of being miserable mostly.

As Martin Luther King Jnr said, Hate cannot drive out Hatred, only Love can do that, and Darkness usually endarkens, it cannot enlighten because only light can do that. The way to YES is yes all the way, turning the No’s to Maybe’s and the Maybe’s to Yes, perhaps small, fumbling, risky yes’es, unsure, tentative, ‘leap of faith’ yes’es but a negotiating position where we are willing to affirm more than deny, forgive more than condemn, and honor our responsibility to the future over loyalty to the past.

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I am offended that you are offended

“I am offended that you are suggesting that the world is flat,” said the old sailor.
“I am offended that you think Russia is a spent force,” says Putin,
“I am offended that you attacked Obamacare,” says Obama,
” I am offended that you assert a strong opinion against mine,” says a friend,
“I am offended that you are offended,” says anyone who wants to sidetrack a debate or argument from the ideas in question. When you don’t have a response, you can make it personal.

It might perhaps be called political correctness gone mad, and some legal systems are now criminalizing unsavory speech, enshrining  a new human right as, “I have a right not to be offended.” It used to be about the color of the skin, now its about the thinness.

The crazy thing is that “I am offended” is the narcissist’s best strategy. They were talking about global warming, and to make sure it comes back to talking about ME, I only have to say “I am offended.”  Or we are debating, rather fiercely, I admit, if the World Cup later this year is rigged from the start for the host teams to win, and being from Brazil, you say, “I am totally offended,” and that invites me to leave the topic and address your emotional vulnerability, if I care. Or else, I know to  move in for the kill, and delight that my ideas are getting under your skin. Once you show you are upset, your opponent has scored a goal.

There is a joke about just such a heated debate where the response “I am deeply offended,” was met with the retort,” Good, I was worried for a minute that you didn’t get my point- which was to offend you.” The other side of this pandering to feelings over ideas is that other adage, used as a retort to “I am so offended…” which is, “Are you? Then build yourself a bridge and get over it.” What I feel or don’t feel tells me about me- it does not give any reliable indication about the intention of another. But emotional illiteracy is rampant in the circles that make a life out of debate and conflict or delight in shutting down the views they don’t want to hear. “I am offended” becomes the standard fair.

We have to relearn how to have a rational debate.  Emotions are a goodly part of it, but just because we feel right about something does not make it right, and just because I feel offended about something  does not mean it is offensive. Usually it means I am ticked off because you are exposing my prejudice or my ignorance and that surely is offensive to me- to realize I am such a klutz. Time we all got over being offended. The world doesn’t really care.

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In our work in the Middle East, we come at the world through the lens of story and a firm belief that there are other ways to change the world than raw politics and bluster of threats and counter threats.

We hear the slogans of End Child Poverty, End Pollution or End Terror, as in the War on Terror. They are cliches. From the point of view of narrative psychology, a story to end something only summons terminal energy- What happens after you end something? The real work is about beginning something else. If we can end X, what is the Y we are beginning. That makes for a far more compelling story. The slogan we hear most in our work is End the Occupation. Its a fair plea but it is a story that success will kill. It is so much more than ending something. One has to end the occupation as the first step to freeing a people to be able to build a nation of their own.

The same could be for Peace Talks or Peace Deals- if you want to know the dynamism of this word ” peace”, go to a funeral- We say Rest In Peace. Peace is a low energy story, unless it is part of a bigger story, such as Building a Future, or Progress, or Human Rights, or Freedom or Democracy, even Happiness- These are far more compelling titles to peace.

This way of thinking got us musing about the controversy over BDS, Boycott and Divestment and Sanction, that one side interpret as an attack, and the other as their weapon to force change. Any parent knows that if you keep catching your kid doing the wrong thing, you soon become the ogre. You have to use positive re-enforcement as much as if not more than punishment. So what about a new campaign that uses the insight of how a story of change works and how to build the energy of initiative, not termination.

We might call it AIR which stands for Affirm, Invest and Reward. Any persons or any actions or any policies that we believe further the path to a better future, we affirm, and we focus on investing in the businesses that employ and train young people and build capital, and we reward behaviors that we believe work for the future. The supporters of BDS claim that their way is non-violent, but what makes it controversial to many is the underlying intent- to deny access or investment as a means to force change. We are taking something away, not adding anything. BDS Supporters point to South Africa as their model, but South Africa had the ANC and Mandela working for change within.  Embargoes and boycotts fit what we call  the story game of war- economic war, tariff war, trade war. We know that story from how Japan got provoked into more aggression in World War 2.  It may work, and it may be the only effective strategy a David has against a Goliath. But what if there was another way? Is it worth exploring?

What if the new story became Affirm, Invest and Reward? What a difference that might make? It certainly is a new story. I can surely get mad at you from blocking me, but if your choices are not about attacking me but about living your values and exercising your rightful preferences about where you invest, what you buy, and who you support? Then what is the objection? What if doing right doesn’t always have to start a fight?

In the fallout from what may be another failed negotiation, the BDS drums will beat ever louder and the forces that will want to discredit it, silence it, boycott it ( with a certain irony) will grow ever louder.  The conflict will endure another chapter of mindless controversy. Perhaps the best way to respond is not to respond at all. Just simply say people are exercising their liberties.  Its a free country. people can affirm, invest and reward as they see fit. That surely is what BDS is meant to demonstrate anyway, when the fog of war clears.

Posted in Middle East, narrative ethics, Narrative Method, Stories of Violence and War, The Middle East, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


We all know that Columbine was about the trench coat mafia and bullying and misfits and classroom violence or a lost generation of kids that fell through the gaps- except that it was not about any of that at all-that this was the story we made up to explain and respond to a tragedy that had nothing to do with misfits or outcasts or bullies. Nothing. But once the story is told once, the second telling can never remake that first emotional impression that imprints facts as truly felt, not truly researched and confirmed. And we go on to make public policy by anecdote and gossip-distorting the reality even further. We got it way wrong.

We all know the terrible Mathew Sheppard case, the gay hate crime bill that came about because of his parents and because of the outrage of this hideous crucifixion. But it was not a hate crime and it was not a gay crime at all. It was a drug deal gone wrong, and one of the murderers was also gay, and had had a relationship with Matt. Huh??? How can that be a gay hate crime? It never was that, but the story locked it into public memory where it was deeply felt as true and therefore has stayed. Nothing will change it, and at least one of the assailants may well be a victim because his story would overturn all the assumptions about the event that made it so compelling.

We all know that Pat Tillman, great footballer, great hero, died in Afghanistan and his death was made into a recruiting poster, after it was learned that he died trying to save his team from a terrorist ambush. The highest brass in the army signed on to the heroization of Pat- until the family got suspicious and after unbelievable persistence, discovered that Pat was killed by friendly fire, in a total botch of command and control. The story was a cover up, and created by some of the best storytellers out there. And there was no apology and no retraction.

Our stories about stories need serious scrutiny, need an overdue moral revision, need some reality testing. We are engaged in teaching people how to tell better stories, which we thought was an all innocent endeavor. Then we discover that perhaps the greatest skill we can be teaching is how to resist stories, how to tell when a story is propaganda, how to decide from the story itself whether it is an ethical act or not.

That might be the new role that our profession might embrace, as if we are Paul turning back into Saul, from being the story creeds greatest proponent into the faith’s greatest opponent, because we have seen the damage of a naive story-ism that has become an ideology. Maybe its time we stopped pretending that stories were innocent. What if we taught instead that stories are too dangerous to handle without a hazard warning, and without an emergency radioactivity kit for when a story leaks like water from a nuclear plant, or gets contaminated, or gets out of hand, and takes us to war or torture or voting for criminals, or hate.  We might realize that we are part of the problem and its time to switch sides and become part of the solution.

Now that is a story revolution, if ever I saw one.


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A whole new narrative revolution is upon us, and we might be sleepwalking through it. Storytelling for Business and Organizations is becoming popular-yes, and every CEO wants to learn to become a better storyteller. But then Berny Madoff and AGC and the directors of Enron were consumate storytellers. they didn’t need us. So what is the value add? Do we need to be helping corporate America with a story bail out too?

This explosion in the business of stories for business is disturbing if one looks at all the damage corporate stories are doing to inflate realities, deny responsibilities and dupe people into buying more and more stuff that they don’t need and only trash the planet.  Think of one honest corporate story that you can guarantee is  truthful and not out to manipulate our emotions?

I can’t. All I can think if is BP, Shell, Enron,Exxon, Toyota, General Motors, Walmart, ObamaCare, the TeaParty, the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts,  NSA, Rupert Murdoch, AGC, Lehmann Brothers, Fox News, DC City Council,  and on and on it goes. This is corporate story-selling. How could storytelling ever survive the label of “corporate” and still be respected as an honorable profession? Corporate storytelling is another name for Capitalist storytelling, and at a time when even the Pope and the President are realizing that this system is marginalizing more and more of the poor and only empowering the rich. Surely there has to be a new imperative for the business of storytelling? Apart from corporations.

And sooner or later, we will have to face what is slowly emerging from new research about the power of stories that threaten turn our own operating assumptions on their head.

Let me describe four trends.

First, when the latest books having to do with stories are being written by neuro-scientists and statiticians, people like Kahneman and Ariely and Taleb, and not your usual PR and marketers or retired screenwriters, you know something unusual is happening. But its their findings that confound.

Their conclusions suggest that the most powerful force of stories is not to do good, but to deceive and distort, and to create false realities that shape our wisest and most informed decisions.  We get it wrong, again and again, and stories are the virus in the system. Essentially, we are being told that our art does more harm than good. We thought we had won the argument with Plato years ago when he wanted to ban the poets from the Republic. Is this Plato’s revenge?  Now these scientists come out and tell us we are magicians, expert in the narrative fallacy. If a story seems so true, it must be true. And we teach people how to make a story feel true- Essentially, we are teaching people how to lie in a convincing manner.

Second, another team of researchers on memory discover that memory is not a tape recorder or the YouTube between our ears where you can press replay and recapture the moment. No, memory is a serial storyteller, more like a fiction writer than a reporter. Eye witness testimony is unreliable and mostly invented to fit the moment of later necessity, and memories of trauma can be created by the story of the trauma, the emotional toll of its retelling, rather than by the event itself. Trauma is the pain of the memory more than the event.

Does this mean our trauma and grief counselors are delivering harm in the name of great good?  And what about our legal system? It privileges the eye witness in trying a case and that now seems to be profoundly misguided.  When 70% of convictions that are overturned are on the basis of false eye witness testimony that is delivered in good faith, you can start to see the problem that belief in stories is creating.

Take the case studies of 9-11 oral memories, those light bulb moments, and how radically they changed 5 years later and 10 years later- with the witnesses believing that they were telling the same story.  Or add the scarey evaluations of how critical stress debriefing not only does not work, but can plant false memories that can be as damaging as real traumas.  These findings are challenging all our most cherished assumptions about the power of stories to unite and heal. The research says stories are deadly, they cause more harm that our stories tell. These  findings sound like an all out assault on our virtue as well as our value as storytellers.

The third branch of this revolution is the study of how stories spread- the new field of Social Physics and network science- whose findings play havoc with our “word of mouth” theory of how  a story spreads, or what one best seller says, the stickiness of ideas. It all turns out to have little if anything to do with the story- its about the connection- the pipelines, the proximity pyramid, what is next to what- and why some great sticky stories get unstuck, and some teflon stories stick like chewing gum, not because of them but in spite of them. We profess to help people shape compelling stories and we are telling such a convincing story that we believe it, and they believe it and we remember it and they remember it, and what we forget is, that it maybe all wrong. We are unindicted co-conspirators in spreading this dangerous fantasy.  It makes one ask some hard questions, if we are guilty of grossly over-claiming our value and negligently understating the risk?

If stories are lies and deceptions, are we professional liars? Are we the victims of our own PR that convinces us that our stories about stories are true, that we are examples of the narrative fallacy that says that if it makes sense, and feels right, it has to be true. What if we are weaving the webs of deception, and all along, the memory acts as our co-conspirator, that fabulous fabulist who makes it all up as it goes along. We think we can make something go viral, or plant a story that is sticky, when the data says it is not so.

Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”  shows us data that debunks the myths – of the super brokers who successfully invest your money- where there is nothing super about their work save their bonuses,  or the army officer selection tests conducted over ropes courses, that predict talent but in reality, measure nothing, or a host of other seemingly obviously true stories that explain how things work or can be fixed. Military need better diversity and  gender respect, so lets do workshops. Do they work? No, but its a good idea because it should have worked. Students need to encounter other cultures so lets send them for a semester abroad. Do they learn intercultural competency? No, but its a great story. All these stories are rationales for what should work, but all that  works is the story’s power to deceive, making us blind to what is really going on. Our story fits, so why do we have to even look?

The jury is still deliberating, but the evidence implies that we storytellers are engaging in a business that perhaps does not deserve the rank of our self acclaimed high reputation. We are a profession that has dodged the ethical questions of our own practice because we are there to sell stories and our stories of success make us successful so we will keep on telling them. But what if  we are misguided artists of a sacred craft that even the ancients knew not to play with lest a story be let loose that destroys the world. Then our faith in stories might be in need of some atheists and agnostics, or at least a Martin Luther to post up the 93 theses to invite us to take a second look at this god we worship.


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Lets play the story games of war

And what are the story games of war, you ask?

War is a story game that requires you and me
to play complimentary roles
You must play the role of My Enemy
In order for it to be meaningful for me to hate you or kill you and hurt you
and You need me to play the part of Your Enemy
In order for it to be meaningful for you to hate me or kill me and hurt me.

We must both ensure that our hating is backed up by enough evidence so it appears plausible and defensible, better still, inevitable, and best of all, honorable
To that end, I need to harvest as much hatred from your past with me
To prove you always hated me-
Ensure any news from your present proves you still hate me
and project in apocalyptic terms your future to show you will always hate me
You need to do the same-
harvest as much hatred from my past
to show I always hated you
Ensure all the news from my present proves I still hate you
and project in apocalyptic terms, my future to show that I will always hate you.

We must both be vigilant lest our ancient hates grow stale, and determine to constantly invent fresh incitements and provocations, true or false matters little,
Should the present be too lacking in drama,  or our people come
too close to falling in love with peace,
we must urgently evoke catastrophic scenarios that place us both on the edge.
If there is a strong move to build trust and negotiate,
or play the story games of peace or progress or the Future,
We both need to double down on all the stories
that keep the story game of war alive.

If the question of legitimacy arises, be sure we agree on the plan
that I deligitimise you so that you can more assertively claim your legitimacy
and you deligitimise me so that I can claim my legitimacy as a badge of honor
so that we can both argue the case, if we were not legitimate in the first place,
would they (you)  try so hard to deligitimise  us
and would we try so hard to deligitimise them (You)?

When it comes to Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, the amazing BDS,
Lets use that to keep the story fiery and controversial, and newly contested
so that you can claim that BDS is anti-semitic and a form of economic apartheid
and we can counter claim that BDS is a legitimate protest against an apartheid regime
That way we have the nice balance of you applying your own BDS movement to boycott our BDS movement and we keep a nice symmetry of mutual attacks and  echoing rebuttals, forming a contest to see who can insult each other more.

And while we are at it,  lets have fun making ultimatums and threatening walk outs and dissing anyone who gets close to helping us in constructive ways,
And be sure to follow your script that accuses us- “It is YOU who set pre-conditions.
We just want peace,”
so that allows us in turn to respond
“If YOU keep building settlements, how can you be serious about peace?”
and that way, our game can go on and on and on, as it has.
Maybe to mix it up, lets shift the terms in mid stream, We demand a Jewish State and right of return,  or you  yours a Sharia state and a right of escape,
and maybe renegotiate the negotiations as part of the negotiations that need to be renegotiated.

To make sure we can both benefit from our story games of war,
lets agree that we both need hapless rescuers who take our side and supply us all the sympathy we need to make them feel guilty enough to give us aid,
but let us be sure they are not too helpful lest they recognize our racket,
or realize how naive they are,
and lets re-enforce their moral indignation so that they serve
as an echo chamber of all our lies and intrigues, and are never tempted to think thoughts independent of our agendas or realize how easy they are to manipulate.

Lets be sure that we never let on that the real enemy is not you and me
but any  change that would take us off script.
We will agree to keep demanding change from the other side
and keep blaming the other side for not doing what we are not willing to do,
which allows you to call us hypocrites and we can call you terrorists,
and we can keep the world giving us free aid, bribing us to behave
even though we promise we will never behave enough
for them to put away their check books.

Lets agree that that any peace will be a bribe that works fairly for both of us
and never amounts to a serious commitment to end hostilities which would ruin our game.
Our payoff from the racket is that if the rest of the world cares,
the rest of the world pays,
and if the rest of the world gets madder and madder at us
They will care more and pay more. We both win by losing.

Because- lets face it, our poor little nations exist at the edge of nowhere, full of nobodies and anybodies, and our lot is to be swallowed up by swirling powers and empires.
Our story game of war makes us both feel at the center of global politics,
and people affirm us as their excuse to be terrorists and assassins, so
“We must matter!”
All this makes it imperative that we keep up our theater of threats and counter threats,
and occupation and betrayal to keep the world on edge.

For us, the alternative to war is not peace but being forgotten,
even worse, becoming nobodies, and worst of all, exposed as shysters,
Where else would a Secretary of State spend two years solid, begging us to keep talking
and offering us incentives, or a Pope plan a huge visit, or UN resolutions that go on for days.  These prove our story game of war is working for us,  and is the incentive to keep inventing newer versions called Oslo III or Camp David Redux or Road Maps to Nowhere.

Our biggest fear, as trusted enemies that we are, is that once we make peace, We will both have made nations at the cost of having fallen off the map. We would both rather risk being despised than being forgotten and negotiators never get that.

Posted in Contemporary Stories, Middle East, narrative ethics, stories, Stories of Violence and War, The Middle East | Leave a comment


The old idea of stories that we learn as kids is like a golden age of reverie. We grew up to indulge the imagination with stories, fairy tales, a fantasy world where dogs and cats could talk and elephants could fly. It was a world made fit for children, but as we grew older, we were told to put away our childish things, to embrace the world of hard science full of facts and stats. It was time to leave stories behind.  That was the day the music died.

Some of us refused to grow up if it meant leaving stories. We became adult artists, trying desperately to survive in our profit obsessed culture. We tried to bring stories back in through a corporate side door. We called it Storytelling for Business.  And we made our case to NASA and the World Bank and IBM. Stories were good for leaders getting a message across. Stories were good for storing knowledge. Stories were good attention grabbers to sell your brand. Stories were for that inner child full of wants that we never outgrow anyway and they can increase the bottom line.  Stories can make you money, we pleaded, so please pay us so we can pay our bills and be able to keep on telling stories.

Twenty years ago that was a hard argument to make. But if success can be measured by the number of books that come out each year on storytelling for business, you would have to say that the battle is over, and stories won. Everyone wants to be a storyteller.  There is even an Organizational Storytelling for Dummies. We, this beleagued minority, has gone mainstream. We can bask in the glory of our success. But something doesn’t quite feel right.  Did we win the battle and lose the war?

Now that all the big companies want to use story,  and the market place is now seen as a battle of stories, has this- to quote an old title- “using narrative means for a commercial and corporate ends”, sold out the soul of story and what stories are meant to be about?

I wonder if once stories become the servants of selling  they become qualitatively different to stories that are created for the joy of telling? Stories are free agents. They resist serving any master, and refuse being colonized or being instrumentalized.  That is why we are always so suspicious of the “official story.” It means Toyota or GM love telling us that they make the safest cars, or the head of NSA promising they are not spying on Americans, or that Drones are not assassinating citizens. We have learned to be skeptical, because invariably, a different story soon leaks out. All these carefully crafted narratives  are exposed as  arguments or sermons masquerading as fairy tales. They are so over-determined that they are not stories at all but cleverly crafted propaganda, selling us something other than the story itself. They come loaded down with an agenda.

If we know anything about stories, we know their power works best when they disturb and upend, whey they make a farce of our over serious intentions. They are biblical stories like the story of Nathan and King David where the prophet tells the story  of injustice that enrages the King who demands,”Bring me that man!” and the prophet shoots back, “You are the Man!.’ Or in Shakespeare’s  Hamlet, where the play within the play was his trick” to catch the conscience of the King.” How many of us are telling stories that catch the conscience of our consumer culture, our leaders, our bosses, our fellow storytellers?

On the way to the bank, did we lose the leading edge of story that so excited us twenty years ago? Did we sell out? Did we have a choice? And do we have one now?




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The common story strategy for Israel- Palestine’s struggle for peace and justice is to invite the sharing of the dual narratives. What one side calls “nakba” catastrophe, the other side calls Independence Day, and so on. Let these two voices speak- we are assured,  from their shared yet divided reality, to allow compassion to grow. Now that sounds so logical, but what if its dangerously naive, and largely a myth told by outsiders who, as facilitators, don’t have to relive any of the trauma?

What if the dual narratives are incompatible and part of the problem, not the solution? In a bitter divorce, there are dual narratives- does anyone say, let the two sides listen to one another and it will forge common ground? No way! Each side’s story is armed and dangerous, told to discredit and blame the other. Their stories of hate and betrayal only fuel the battle. Why would Israel and Palestine be any different?

NSL believes that the past can only divide us and only the future can unite us, if both sides own their shared responsibility NOW, for choosing to shape it differently. No matter our tortured history, what do we choose now? Otherwise, we let the present remain hostage to the past and the future no longer exists save as a pitiful replay of the past. That is the choice Abbas and Netanyahu are making now. Not peace or occupation but the past versus the future. The stakes could not be higher.

Stories are as dangerous as weapons-sometimes more so- they are never neutral. To invite the retelling of those stories of our greatest pain is to risk remaining united in hate. To share stories of “What if”, to work together on a program to create an alternative reality, to dream together about ways to heal and to innovate, opens the chance for being united in hope.

Fragile, yes, fleeting, yes, uncertain as to its lasting impact, for sure, but never underestimate what gives birth to hope, that slither of light that comes through that crack in the wall, one that suggests that things can be different, that another world can exist if we continue choosing to create it, as we are doing now on NSL.

Today, on the eve of selecting our next class,  we celebrate our fifth birthday. Team 2014 will notch up our 50th graduate. It may not seem a huge cohort, but class by class, year by year, the network of inspired and innovative change makers grows, until one day, that proverbial tipping point is reached, and the towers of the old world will come toppling down, to make way for a new world rising from the ashes. Happy Birthday NSL, and a candle each for all our amazing students and our supporters and families who have stuck by us.

And a special remembrance to Diane Halley, that inspired force of nature, alum of the Irish peace program we ran in 2001, tireless worker for human rights in Jerusalem and Ramallah, co-founder of NSL in 2009, and lost to us March 30th 2013, way too soon. We feel your presence Dee and promise to keep your legacy strong.

Posted in Contemporary Stories, Middle East, narrative, narrative ethics, Stories of Violence and War, The Middle East, Training, Uncategorized | Leave a comment