Master Facilitator Journal | Issue #0291, February 27, 2007 ....

Dear friends,

This week's article, "Everyone Loves a Good Story," was submitted by my colleague, Dennis Boyer. In this piece, Dennis tells how storytelling is useful is almost every type of facilitation, from helping groups think outside the box, to reinterpreting their currently limiting stories, to helping groups move through fundamental organizational or even societal change. He closes with some suggestions on how to make stories work for you in under various conditions.
I hope Dennis' contribution adds a nice twist to your life story this week!

Warmest regards,

Steve Davis
Publisher and Founder of


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The Point

Everyone Loves a Good Story
Use the art of storytelling to teach, inspire, and engage your participants

Presenting Skill

Recent pieces in the Master Facilitator Journal have raised the issue of "lies" in very effective ways. Sometimes lies are not the overt acts of deception one might think. Sometimes lies are the self-deceptions and rigidly narrow stories that one adheres to for security. A facilitator can challenge narrow stories with liberating and provocative stories.

Storytelling is useful is almost every type of facilitation, but I have found it particularly useful in broad and multi-session facilitations where fundamental organizational or even societal questions are on the table. If your participants are having trouble thinking outside the box, take them outside with stories.

A first step is understanding how their internal story confines them. Those confining stories need to be replaced with horizon expanding stories. I have used myth, folklore, and even science fiction when it was important to unleash that part of them that could imagine what could be. Next thing you know, they're thinking up other stories .

Some of you may be thinking, "He's asking us to replace lies with fantasy, how can that provide a solid foundation for group work?". Story can express fundamental truths and values without having a basis in historical fact. Sometimes they simply remind us of forgotten portions of our shared story that in turn might provide us with a way of looking afresh at a situation.

One of my colleagues, Jeff Prudhomme, impressed me with the idea that our type of broad policy possibility facilitation was a matter of "making the world safe for ambiguity". Tolerance of ambiguity is an extremely useful skill that may be developed through stories.


Finding the "Right" Story

Facilitators know that group process contains many twists and turns. This is especially true of prolonged multi-session facilitations where participants are asked to work through a broad overview of a subject and develop multiple approaches to it. It is not always linear in its progression, allowing for ebb and flow and learning. Multiple tasks and the mental shifts they require can generate "brain lock". Each task within such a major effort calls for its own story, with much initial emphasis on the need for an open-ended approach.

In one such setting I was bombarded with questions about my role as facilitator. Was I the expert? Was I mediating? Who decided things? I told them that I was a shaman from the tribe of democratic governance facilitators. My duties, as I understood them, were to listen, to ask questions, and to tell stories. Often my participants longed for something much deeper as they grappled with their discussion tasks and I would remind them that in all of our species' history it has been known to the old wise ones that the shortest path from confusion to enlightenment was through story.

Stories about different ways of seeing are a good starting point for "describing" what it is that we are discussing. Stories about how questions may be asked and how answers may be posed abound in popular culture and sacred text. Stories about consequences are present in much folklore.

My colleague Jeff has one of the best all-purpose stories to deal with brain lock, though it works particularly well with the task of asking useful and helpful questions:

There were two priests with rather severe smoking habits. Both chain-smoked at industrial levels, even during prayer. But they both felt bad about it and resolved to seek guidance about it.

They both decided to write letters to the Pope. The first wrote to the Pope and asked, "Holy Father, is it wrong to smoke while praying?". The Pope's reply was sharply rebuking, " My son, prayer is a sacred time and space that those with spiritual vocation defile at their peril!".

The second priest read the response, but was undeterred from obtaining a papal ruling on his own situation. He wrote, " Holy Father, is it permissible to pray while I am smoking?". The Pope kindly replied, " Dearest Son, it is a blessed thing to uplift human activities and frailties with the cleansing balm of prayer, blessings upon you!"

This is one way of letting a group know that if it is not coming up with rich enough answers to inform possibilities perhaps they have not described the situation adequately nor asked the questions in the ways they might be asked. But each time I tell the smoking priest story my listeners find more nuance in it. What might have happened if a third priest had written to the Pope? What do the answers say about mood, caprice, or outside factors? What does it say about the irony and silliness of the human condition? Some "sophisticates" may rankle at parables. I remind them of the vast underground treasures found thanks to penny candles.

Story Exercises

In the end, I think it works best for the facilitator to work on her own story tool kit, finding the right rhythm and cadence that fits the individual style. I use everything from joke websites to materials from the Dalai Lama. I am very impressed with a thoughtful work by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.

When your group requires a series of meetings to grapple with broad issues that would not be well served by a rush to a single solution or even a dualistic choice, you are in prime territory for storytelling. Here are some suggestions on how to make stories work for you in your groups:

  • Get to know your participants sense of metaphor. What governs their sense of how to describe the unknown or the vaguely known? That is where you will find your participants sense of imagery and how they approach the inexpressible.

  • Use breaks, meals, and other informal time to bring out their individual stories in ways that help identify what they can contribute to the group.

  • Look for ways to build the story of the group and its approach to discussions. One way that works for me is to ask participants what it is about the discussion topic that evokes joy or darkens their horizon.

  • Use "working documents" as periodic and tentative ways to chart the group's narrative arc. Let them rewrite it and retell it.

  • Maintain a "story reserve" for tasks and turning points that can be anticipated (getting "stuck", fatigue, digressions, conflict, etc., the Master Facilitator Journal has been a rich source for me). This is story Reiki or chiropractic and can realign group energy when things are flagging. Even a "bad joke" can do this.

  • Keep a super-secret nuclear story to blow things up if that is called for and a "shape shifter" story for those occasions when you need to shake participants out of an unhelpfully narrow vision of you as facilitator.

  • Use your wrap-up or summary or final report to tell the group's discussion story. Description of how they got there may be as important to participants and readers as the possibilities generated by the discussion.

A storyteller facilitator works from a sense of wonder, keeps an open mind, and entertains the notion that to assist a deep discussion is to embark on a journey out from a familiar place and at long last return there and see it as it has not been seen before.

About the Author: Dennis Boyer is a facilitator in the public policy arena and has written a number of collections of regional folklore. Dennis can be reached at


How can you use these these storytelling strategies in your next group?  Any "stories" you'd like to share that have truly worked for you? Share yours and I'll send you all that I receive. Just reply to this email to submit them.


The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham

This book is to spirituality as riding a rollercoaster is to physics. It is not a read; it is an experience. Kurtz and Ketcham have managed to tell their own story in such a way that the reader is invited to share in that experience. Finding this spirituality of imperfection in Alcoholics Anonymous and the twelve-step program, K&K have scoured spiritual writings throughout history to find the words to describe their experience. Boldface quotes and stories color almost every page.

K&K find the essence of the spiritual in human imperfections and failure, in the inevitability of pain. Spirituality is not the evasion of consequences or errors, but rather learning how to live with them. They call trying to be perfect the most tragic human mistake. They are clear, spirituality is found in asking the right questions, not in finding the right answers.

Perhaps every reader of this book will not be able to hear it's music. Perhaps only those who have been wounded by life, need it. Perhaps only those who have drunk deeply of failure will find nourishment here. All I know is that I did, and to Kurtz and Ketcham I will always be grateful. --Peter A. Kindle, Manvel, TX--

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