Whether you’re a social worker supporting a vulnerable child or adult, a social prescriber encouraging lifestyle change in a service user, a GP helping a new clinician settle into your PCN or practice, or you’re a manager/leader trying to ensure your team can grow and thrive, you will be establishing a vision, articulated or not, and seeking to move people towards it.
However, there’s often a significant gap between how we perceive our intentions and how the person or people we’re supporting interpret these. This means our efforts often miss the mark, resulting in wasted time, energy and opportunity.
So how can we reduce the gap between how both parties interpret and understand the intentions of the interaction?
Storytelling can be a powerful way to motivate the change we’re trying to encourage. We often find it easier to relate to and remember information if we can identify with the narrative that surrounds it.
Mostly this involves recognising what’s happening for the people we’re trying to support and creating a response that encourages them to visualise the change in a way that is meaningful to them. Importantly, we need to avoid couching the offer in ways that are meaningful to ourselves alone. We’re not seeking to change ourselves. In most cases we’re already sold on the idea, it’s others we need to motivate and mobilise.
There are varying approaches to storytelling, but most revolve around some common principles.
Some talk about creating a conflict in people’s minds to grab their attention. Others refer to ‘the problem and the pursuit’ to communicate that we actually understand the situation people are experiencing.
Either way, it’s important to start by setting the context. The context helps people ‘find themselves’ in our story. The context will have characters people can identify with and relate to. How do we know what to put in our context so it resonates with people? We talk to them, ask questions about their situation, what’s worked for them and what’s turned them off in the past. We can then use this information to build a narrative that piques their interest and sets out that we understand them.
It's then helpful to build on this initial engagement by showing that we understand the challenges or barriers they’re facing – this is the ‘conflict’, or the ‘problem’ mentioned above. This isn’t about being manipulative, it’s about recognising that if we want to enact change in others, we first need to be invited in. To do that we need to be seen to understand and we need to be trusted.
From here we can start the process of setting out our resolution or our ‘pursuit’. These are both different ways of saying something similar – that we get what you’re experiencing, and we get where you want to end up.
Clearly every situation is unique, and that’s ok, because it encourages us to be curious and ask questions.
Storytelling can be helpful in a broad range of situations where people are the focus of our attentions because it recognises our inherent social nature but also in most cases, if we try to impose change, we will generally tend to fail.
Storytelling encourages us to know and understand peoples’ journeys and to ask to walk it with them.