Storytelling in Workplace Conflict Situations
When we talk about our life experiences, we invite the listener to enter into our world and share the experience that we have lived. Telling stories encourages communication below the surface and promotes community, kinship and unity by bringing people together.
As we tell our stories we become vulnerable. We can expose our weaknesses, failures and prejudices as we recount the history of what happened. We might tell a story about dragons, drawbridges and men with arrows and bring it to life as we tell it to our children. The same process takes place when hearing stories about conflict. Every conflict story tells a tale of one or more dragons and how the dragon might or might not get slaughtered, silenced or put to sleep. In some cases the stories might reveal that the dragon lost the ability to exhale fire years ago, although everyone still thought that it could.
Most parties in conflict, on hearing what the other side has to say about the dispute, are likely to find it difficult to suspend disbelief and spend time examining the story for its deeper truths and hidden meanings. In the first instance, the party is unlikely to feel empathy towards their opponent and stretch out a hand to discover more about the difference that divides them. Closing the divide takes time.
Every authentic story will strike a chord within us. When we hear authentic stories we imagine ourselves in the sequence of events that unfold and imagine how we would feel if we had been the storyteller. Storytelling can carry both the listener and the storyteller to a deeper relationship level and help to form a bridge over the choppy waters keeping parties apart.
Conflict stories can also be a recognition of failure, a cry for help, a confession or a request for forgiveness. Because people feel powerless in conflict situations, they look for ways to be able to justify their behaviour or to have it endorsed by an ally. If there is an opportunity for an ally to respect them as a decent human being who didn’t deserve the treatment they received, people will take it. Opponents may be characterised as evil, wicked and malicious people who want to do harm. This explains why the storyteller was unable to do anything to prevent or resolve it and puts them in a better light. In these ways, conflict stories can embellish what actually happened during upsetting events and divert attention away from obvious weaknesses on the part of the storyteller. The listener’s attention is diverted to what the perpetrator did. The perpetrator’s treachery is exaggerated in order to maintain the illusion of the storyteller’s innocence.
Conflict stories can be parables that describe how someone brought a crisis into the life of the storyteller. The storyteller can elicit sympathy from the listener, as they are seen as powerless and helpless in the face of the wrongdoer.
The objective of listening to conflict stories
Conflict stories are made up of a whole myriad of things including fear, embarrassment, shame, jealousy, inability to forgive and deceit. The goal of a mediator and conflict resolution specialist is to uncover what lies beneath the surface of what is reported by the parties in dispute. In order to do this, the mediator (or rescuer) listens deeply and with empathy to connect with the storyteller and to prompt them to say more.
A second objective is to try and look for the truth. Every conflict story has more than one side. I learned many years ago never to form a judgement about a dispute after listening to one person’s version of the story. Often someone might tell their story relating to the conflict situation they have encountered and, while doing so, portray the perpetrator as a demon. On meeting the so-called demon, however, you might discover that the label has been inappropriately applied to them. They may have been misunderstood, but to be classed as a demon is often somewhat out of perspective. The hope is that through the mediation process the first storyteller (or the accuser) may also discover this.
In the book Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution (2000), John Winslade and Gerald Monk indicate that every conflict story represents a ‘true’ story about what happened and a ‘false’ story in the sense that it minimises other stories that are equally true. Every conflict story then is an arrangement or connection of facts in a pattern that reveals the storyteller’s deeper meanings, and communicates to the listener how the storyteller would like them interpreted.
Winslade and Monk show that in addition to negative harmful stories about conflict, there are:
· Positive, acknowledging stories people can tell regarding what their relationship was like before the conflict began
· Things they did to try and resolve it
· Aspects they might have done differently
· Things they still respect about each other
· Ways they tried to reach out and communicate
· Examples of how they tamed their desire to escalate and strike back
A third objective is to see whether the storyteller might be willing to look at what happened from a different perspective. We can do this by asking a series of questions such as:
· Why do you think things unfolded as they did?
· How would you have liked X to have approached you?
· Was there a particular reason why X acted in this way?
· What do you hope will happen as a result of this conversation?
· Has X ever acted in this way before?
We can ask questions that help the parties search for sources of disagreement or invite them to find out what their opponent really experienced, thought or intended.
You can read more about storytelling in conflict situations in my book ‘How to Master Workplace and Employment Mediation’, published by Bloomsbury.