Cultivating Story Fields

Have you ever tried to plant a seed, and not managed to get your fruit, flower, tree or vegetable to grow?

Now, there may be nothing at all wrong with that seed – but perhaps the soil conditions weren’t right.

So it is with creating change.

Your idea, your seed of change, may be designed to bear fruit that will benefit the world, but if you can’t get it to ‘stick’ long enough for it to take root and grow, it will die.

cracked, dry earth

Image Credit: Texas A&M University

Before attempting to sow seeds of change, you might want to consider whether the receiving environment has the right ‘soil conditions’.

If the situation you are entering or operating in is affected by the cultural equivalent of poor soil structure or a prolonged drought, its going to be a lot harder to get uptake of your initiative, or for it to ‘stick’ without you being around.

The notion that people, if given good information, will draw the ‘correct’ conclusions AND make the logical, rational decision, AND then change their behaviour accordingly is largely misplaced, and often results in a massive waste of time and money – yet it continues to be the basis of many efforts by organisations, particularly public campaigns of governments. It is akin to throwing paint at a teflon-coated wall and wondering why the colour doesn’t change.

Fortunately, we’re now more aware than ever that, although our logic, our science and our data is critical, it is stories that have the power of emotional transformation, and which are enduring means of cultural transmission.

Text image: 'there are two ways to share knowledge: you can PUSH information out or you can PULL them in with story'

Image Credit: Landor Unleash

‘Stories’ in this sense means the stories we tell ourselves, our cultural myths, which reflect our assumptions about the world. These stories are underlying and often unconscious forces that profoundly influence identity, shaping collective and individual behaviour.

The concept of the ‘noosphere’ – from the Greek nous ‘mind’ and  sphaira ‘sphere’, or the sphere of human thought – has been around nearly 100 years. It suggests that just as the Earth has a hydrosphere (the mass of water found on, over and under the planet), an atmosphere (dynamic system of gases, including nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide that envelope the planet) and a lithosphere (the outer crust of the planet and tectonic plates), there may be a collective planetary ‘thought field’:

…the noosphere is the third in a succession of phases of development of the Earth, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). Just as the emergence of life fundamentally transformed the geosphere, the emergence of human cognition fundamentally transforms the biosphere.

Other theories are that there is a ‘psi bank’, ‘a magnetic memory field around the Earth that is influencing biological evolution’.

If this ‘noosphere’ is a kind of soup of our collective conscious and unconscious thoughts, could changing the stories in that thought field help to create the right ‘soil conditions’ for change?

Tom Atlee, director of the Co-Intelligence Institute and an organiser of the 2007 ‘Story Fields’ conference held in Colorado, USA, describes stories and their role in cultural change:

Stories (and even individual parts of stories) have a resonant, alchemical relationship with the way we experience life. A narrative or a role-model, for example, can act as a magnet aligning our awareness, beliefs or lives into congruence with its pattern.A story field is:a particularly powerful field of influence
generated by a story or,
more often, by a coherent battery
of mutually-reinforcing stories
– myths, news, soap operas, lives, memories, games –
and story elements
– roles, plots, themes, metaphors, goals, images, events, archetypes –
that co-habit and resonate
within our individual and/or collective psyches.A story field ubiquitously frames what is real, acceptable, and possible,
and directly shapes our lives and our world,
often without our even being aware of its influence.

A story field paints a particular picture of how life is or should be, and shapes the life within its range into its image.

Psychological, organizational or social transformation is usually preceded or accompanied by a change in the story field governing that system. It is therefore usually non-productive to try to change forms and habits without changing the story fields that hold them in place. Once the story field is changed, subsidiary patterns tend to realign rapidly.

Atlee gives the example of Gandhi as someone who effected change by changing the ‘story field’:

For several decades Gandhi inspired millions of poor Indians to step out of their story field of victimhood into a new story field that cast them as heroic nonviolent architects of their own fate – a story field that was reinforced with new stories generated by each victory in their unique campaign for independence.

What is missing for sustainability, and why it may be difficult for people to see disparate ‘bits’ of sustainability in context, is the lack of an overarching narrative, the story of the ‘project’ of our era.

In relation to sustainability, thinkers, writers and activists such as David Korten and Joanna Macy speak of ‘The Great Turning’ which Macy defines as follows:

The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. The ecological and social crises we face are inflamed by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth…A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world.

This might all seem a bit ‘meta’ to folks working at the coalface of day to day life, trying to manage upward in an organisation, or ‘herding cats’ in trying to effect behaviour change, but consider this: what impact does, for example, a cultural myth of limitless growth and limitless resources have, from macro economic and political policy making and investment risk assessments all the way down to whether people consider it important to recycle cans, bottles and cardboard?

So how does one cultivate a story field, exactly?

Atlee’s suggested strategies for how to cultivate positive story fields capable of shaping a new culture include:

– networking like-minded people, organizations, activities, and resources to deepen and spread the emerging worldview.- engaging ordinary people and targeted populations in telling their stories and visions in an effort to understand how their individual experiences and dreams reflect larger social issues, dynamics and possibilities – in ways that empower them to actively engage with those issues, dynamics and possibilities.- Imagineering which uses imaginative narrative to realize, create, or catalyze in real life the potentials we are imagining – especially applying it as a networking and organizing tool.- Possibility Journalism that explores the creative edge of society where experiments and visionaries abound, reporting on people’s active inquiries and possibilities and the energies and motivations that exist on the ever-emerging verge.

In terms of specific the skills and abilities that comprise ‘narrative intelligence’ – ‘the ability (or tendency) to perceive, know, think, feel, explain one’s experience and influence reality through the use of stories and narrative forms’ – Atlee includes:

– the ability and tendency to organize experience and ideas using stories and narrative patterns (an excellent example of this is the use of myth, which defines and discusses concepts – such as archetypes – in narrative form)- the tendency to understand things better when they are presented in the form of a story (and sometimes to have trouble understanding things when they aren’t presented as stories- curiosity about the stories behind things, and an ability to investigate such stories- a tendency to make up stories, plausible or fantastic, to illustrate a point

– the ability to maintain a repertoire of stories (real and imaginary) to convey meanings; the ability to access that repertoire

– resonance with the stories of others; the ability to see another’s viewpoint when presented with the stories which underlie or embody that viewpoint

– the ability to discover themes in the events of a life or story

– the ability to recognize (or select) certain elements as significant, as embodying certain meanings that ‘make sense of things’

There’s no point throwing sustainability seeds on fallow ground. The right ‘soil conditions’ need to be present.

As David Korten says:

To change the human course, change the stories that define the culture.

Cultivating story fields – through Atlee’s approaches, through conversation, through visual stories, through asking strategic questions – can help create a good soil structure with the right nutrients.

What ‘story fields’ are you aware of where you are trying to create change?What stories are we telling? Which ones should we challenge? How should we reframe them?



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