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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

 

While the narratives that we tell of our lives define who we are and our place in the world, a story built up around the good bits only does not establish us as plausible human beings.   Since just over a year, thanks to facebook’s  new timeline feature,  everyone is dutifully filling in the gaps and plumping up their narratives with pictures, maps, apps and events.  The facebook sell on it is that it “helps you to tell your story” starting with “born on…”  and  following with images of ourselves from infancy to parenthood and beyond.

The idea behind facebook’s timeline is to help us create a chronological autobiography of annotated photos and posts,  likes and activities so that those who are our facebook “friends” are able to claim a bird’s eye view of our lives and have a fuller and deeper understanding of who we really are, how we got to where we did and who we met along the way.

What most of us naturally tend not to record are pictures of the times we didn’t make it to the finishing line with a big smile on our faces, of the loves that went badly wrong and cost us a fortune in therapy, of the numerous acts of poor judgement (not only in youth) or of the misdemeanours and everyday failings that go to make up a life lived.  We have no pictures of the conflicts we have kick-started, of those that we unwittingly became involved in, of the difficult conversations that we are still avoiding or the wounds that have cut so deep as to be unforgettable.

And yet, these negative experiences are the catalysts of learning and growth that chisel the contours of our lives and provide us with the depth and meaning essential to our development as human beings.   Without this downside,  our virtual timeline courtesy of facebook will never present the full picture and neither we nor our friends will ever attain the promised bird’s eye view of who we truly are.

As a conflict coach, I help people to understand the role that conflict plays in their lives, the conflict patterns that repeat themselves,  their personal conflict responses and the opportunities and potential for change that their particular set of values and strengths inherently hold for them.  While conflict profile assessments are a good place to start, I find working with timelines that record both the negative and positive milestones in life hugely effective in providing the client with an understanding of who they are in relation to conflict and gaining an accurate picture of their conflict profile as it presents itself over a lifetime.

A timeline therefore that reaches beyond the high-days and holidays to record both the negative and positive events in our lives allows us

  • to identify the opportunities that have come our way and the choices that we have made in response to them
  • to identify influential people or pivotal experiences
  • to recognize the significant thread or theme that runs through seemingly unconnected events in our lives
  • to identify behavioral patterns in relationships, particularly as regards managing conflict
  • to see how negative events have influenced us
  • to understand the challenges and stumbling blocks on the way to change

How to draw your timeline:

Turn an A4 sheet of paper broadside and draw a horizontal line along the length of it, leaving a small margin at both ends.  Mark the line off into five-year periods starting at birth up to the present.  Record positive events above the horizontal line by making a mark on the timeline and drawing a vertical line to the text above that names or records the event.  At times you may need to stagger the length of these lines so as to make space for multiple events during one specific period.   Record negative events below the horizontal line in the same way.  Leave enough space in the five-year period for several events to be recorded or for you to come back to and fill in later.  Make it as complete as possible and then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there an obvious theme running through my timeline?
  • Is there a single driving force that  has influenced the decisions I have taken in my life so far?
  • What are the important stages in my life?  Which people or events have marked them?
  • What are the turning points and which events have led to them?
  • Where are the forks in the road and the criteria that I used to evaluate my choices?
  • Which negative experiences have not been dealt with?
  • Are there negative experiences that through any act of mine can be turned into positive experiences?

Once these questions have been answered and digested and you feel that you have taken all you can get out of your timeline, use it as a launching pad for projections and planning for the years ahead.  The following questions will get you going:

  • If I am able to choose, where do I want to be in five or ten-years time?
  • What do I need to undertake to get there?
  • Is this consistent with the overall themes of my life?
  • What is your driving force for the next  period in my life?
  • Is this consistent with my long-term goals?

Now that’s what I call creating a fuller and deeper picture.  That’s what I call a timeline.

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I love a good story and there is no one I know who doesn’t.    This is because we as human beings, have since time immemorial been accustomed to hearing and to telling stories, to receiving information in narrative form and to making sense of it.  Narration is quite simply second nature to us and arrives on our doorstep almost hand in hand with speech and the ability to communicate.

The best storytellers are gifted weavers of magic who ignite our imagination through the creation of intriguing characters, complex plots and challenging moral issues.  And yet, it is not only storytellers who tell good tales, we tell them too:  packing everything from our life-journey down to the smallest daily interaction worth relating into narrative form as a way of transmitting it to others, of making sense of it to ourselves and of preserving it as part of our personal history.

We are in short, the best storytellers of our own lives and consequently the best storytellers of our own lives’ conflicts since conflict after all is the magic ingredient that makes stories come to life.

There is however a danger to this natural storytelling ability of ours:  as is the case with many an ancient tale passed down through the centuries, the lines between truth and fantasy easily blur in the re-telling and before we know it,  fiction acquires the status and the weight of truth and history.  The more we tell our conflict story, the more we believe our particular version of events and the more written in stone the villains and the innocents of the piece become.

In searching for ways out of this narrative trap comes one form of modern fictional writing that warrants closer examination –  that of telling a single story from multiple viewpoints.  As each of the characters in this narrative form tells his or her version of an event, a rich matrix of interweaving experiences, unexpected responses and differing outcomes presents itself to the reader.

From a conflict resolution point of view,  this form of narrative exploration of a conflict situation is a goldmine of knowledge for both the practitioner and client.  Inviting the client to retell a conflict narrative from the point of view of each of the characters in the cast  allows them

  • to define the conflict for each of the parties
  • to uncover an individual’s true interests and concerns
  • to explore one’s own wishes and fears as well as those of  the others involved and
  • to develop a larger number of viable alternatives to solving a problem   

In  coaching or mediation settings this narrative tool allows clients to examine the likely stories of all of the actors to a conflict rather than simply their own.  In this way storytelling reveals itself as untapped resource for creating understanding for the other side as well as an easy-to-use instrument for generating creative solutions.

As individuals we are invited to take this wonderful storytelling skill of ours seriously as we engage in the telling and re-telling of our own conflict yarns.  So, the next time you find yourself relating a conflict narrative old or new, step back for a moment and try telling it from the point of view of the other party to the drama.  You might be surprised to find the supposed villains of your piece portrayed as misunderstood knights or damsels in distress in their own version of events and furthermore, that seen through their eyes,  you are perfectly able to understand how they got there.   What a great starting point for solving conflict!

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