As social creatures, we communicate in stories: small and safe ones to establish commonality, membership, and trust, and bigger, more complex ones, to share ideas, or in service of finding new meaning. But stories are not like bricks: when you hand them on to someone else (or throw it at them) they do not just remain inert: they can collide, impact, deform, or fracture, the thing that they hit. Sometimes they bounce off altogether. Today i am considering four ways that stories collide: to reassure or reinforce, to undermine or invalidate.
My story may give you comfort that you are on the right track: comforting stories, stories of reassurance, can help establish commonality and trust, can draw us together. They are non threatening. But comforting stories may slow our thinking: we may become internally self referential, simply reinforcing how right we both are. Stories in this space are likely to conform both in format and content. These are not stories that carry surprises, but they are comforting, within a tribe.
Some stories reinforce: they take what you shared and add more validating information to it: these stories grow, expand, gain energy. These are the stories that become the dominant narratives
A reinforcing story may take something risky and make it safe: sometimes the first person to share a story carries the greatest risk, but if others reinforce the narrative, they are held more safely. The #MeToo movement is an example of this. Each narrative reinforces the validity of the ones that came before.
Other stories undermine: when they collide, one erodes or deflects the other. They may divert attention or bleed energy away from the edges. This is the space within which different narratives spar for supremacy. They may not be outright opposed, but they deflect, change direction, and fight for control of the narrative. This is very much an everyday space of power play.
Finally, some stories invalidate others; they outright deny their existence or truth, they seek to silence the opposing voice, or delude us that it is mistaken or invalid. These stories can be powerful, and hard to counter.
Social Leaders understand that they lead within a Landscape of Stories: some of which they shape and share, others of which they carry, and others again which are thrown against them.
Few of these battles are won through opposition alone, and none are amplified simply by turning up the volume. To navigate the Landscape of Stories is a journey into power, aggregation, amplification, meaning, ownership and control. And can leave us with a challenge.
Is the role of a leader to shape the story that gets carried forward intact, or is it ok if that story gets sacrificed in service of the end goal? I think that for most leaders, in most Organisations, they strive to keep their story beautiful and intact, when in fact the point of a story may be to be invalidated, evolved, eroded, or reformed, in service of truly finding new meaning.