Kathryn Wellner: Storytelling - the Rope that Binds Us
When I traded a job in Oakland, California, for one in Kelowna, BC, I figured I was leaving storytelling behind. Down there I was storytelling director for Stagebridge, "the oldest senior theatre in America." In Kelowna, I would be food and health project leader for Interior Health.
I did not expect to find a fertile field for stories within a system that bases its values and its work on Evidence, the kind that is measured with numbers rather than the intelligence of the heart.
I was wrong. I underestimated the power of stories. I had forgotten the intensity of the first time I sat spellbound while a storyteller filled the stage, and my mind, with a swirl of characters, images, and emotions.
In September 2005, four months after moving back to BC, Ruth Beck asked me to lead a storytelling workshop at the Population Health retreat. At the time, she was the Nelson-based manager of the unit. I was grateful to bring my connection with stories into my professional life. I looked forward to giving a two-hour workshop for a group of about thirty staff from Population Health and its allies in Public Health.
Days before the workshop, I learned my task was not to lead a two-hour session. Instead, it was to facilitate both days. Two days with middle and senior managers. Two days with people whose time was valuable and would cost taxpayers a lot of money. Two days with people who could be expected to view storytelling as something for children.
The group gathered in the Naramata conference centre. Their easy banter did little to reassure me they would be seduced by storytelling. These were people with BlackBerrys and Important Jobs. They would have high expectations and little tolerance for anything that felt too much like wasting time.
With a lead ball in my stomach, I asked what they hoped to get out of the workshop. The first person to speak was Dr. Paul Hasselback, senior medical health officer for Interior Health. I held my breath as he began to talk.
After his first few sentences, I relaxed. Two years earlier, Dr. Hasselback had participated in a research conference in Montreal. The theme of the conference had been the use and abuse of stories in health care. The 150 managers, policy-makers, and health services researchers had also come together to learn to use stories more effectively to bring research to life and to encourage evidence-based decision making. (The report, Once Upon a TimeThe Use and Abuse of Storytelling and Anecdote in the Health Sector is available as a PDF file at http://www.chsrf.ca)
Dr. Hasselback did not need to be persuaded. He already understood why stories were important in the health system. As introductions moved around the room, I stopped crossing my fingers. For the next two days, this group of health professionals put most of their doubts on hold. They participated wholeheartedly. Their reflections and questions were provocative in the best sense of the word.
At the end of the two days they wrote comments like, "I will never look at stories the same way again. And I am committed to telling a story next week." Another wrote, "Compass vs. road map I saw this meeting as changing my compass." A third had come into the workshop with low expectations but wrote, "This has challenged my notion of 'businesslike' and 'professionalism.' I came thinking stories were for children. Now I see they are both businesslike and professional."
In November of that year, the Population Health team hosted a conference. Participants came from all over the region, many of them from community-based non-profits and from First Nations communities. Ruth again asked me to lead a storytelling workshop. This time it would be a three-hour, pre-conference option. I expected a dozen people.
As registrations rolled in, I kept revising my plans to accommodate
the growing numbers. Instead of the
In a large room packed with people, we could do no more than skate across the surface of possibilities. Participants were frustrated by the brevity of the session. They wanted more, but they still grasped the value of storytelling in a professional setting. On the evaluations, dozens of similar comments expressed, "This is very valuable in the context of my work and my organization."
In the months that followed, I was repeatedly impressed by the number of people who spoke of the importance of stories in their work. One manager in the Okanagan told of starting a particularly difficult meeting with a story that was a metaphor for the challenge the group was facing. The small tale defused the tension, and the group resolved the issue. Some called or emailed to ask for story suggestions. Others started staff meetings by sharing work stories or incorporated narratives into reports.
The workshops had not started all this. Rather, they had tapped into something already there, confirming what people were doing or giving them permission to begin.
So when Lori Silverman called to ask if she could interview me for her new book, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results, I didn't hesitate. It was clear that whatever small bits I could contribute would be repaid many times over through what I would learn from the others she planned to interview.
Storytelling in organizations, which had seemed a quirky blip
on the professional radar screen, was becoming mainstream. Ron
LaBonte had written what is still an excellent guide back in the 1970s. Now
others came on board. Stephen Denning stirred interest with his use of
stories in the World Bank, recounted in his book,
The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in
Knowledge-Era Organizations. Annette Simmons added to a growing canon with
The hunger for stories, along with belief in their value, led Vancouver Coastal Health's SMART Fund to organize a two-day conference in April 2007, with the theme of demonstrating change through storytelling. The Aboriginal Health Initiative Program co-sponsored, and the Roundhouse Community Centre partnered.
The conference grew out of observations that many projects were transforming communities yet not telling those stories effectively. Kate Sutherland was hired to coordinate the conference. She began Web surfing and phoning and e-mailing in a search for presenters, and I was one of the lucky ones she found.
With seven sessions to lead on the first day, I had little time to
absorb what was happening. The second day I was a sponge, drinking in the
rich mix of artists, health professionals, and non-profit staff and
volunteers all focusing on stories. In the
final moments of a heady event, Aline LaFlamme, from the
Aboriginal Front Door Society, encapsulated a thread running through the two
days. The Métis woman had emceed the conference. In her closing
remarks she thanked Vancouver Coastal for sponsoring the conference. She
One of the outcomes of this remarkable workshop is a website with conference presentations, background, next steps, and so much more. It can be found at http://www.vch.ca/professionals/ourstories. Fair warning, this is a website where you'll want to spend hours.
In April 2006 I met South African storyteller and writer Dorian Haarhoff. What he had to say about storytelling resonates for me and neatly sums up why my experience of storytelling in the health sector has been so satisfying. He wrote, "I believe in the power of stories to reach across cultures and to establish meaning. Stories form a language beneath our other languages. They place authority in the heart of the listener. Stories educate our desires and help us locate ourselves in time and place. The story rope holds us and binds us. And as we follow its threads, we find our way home."
Cathryn Wellner is a community developer currently working as food
and health project leader with Interior Health. She has performed and led
storytelling workshops in Canada, the US, the UK,
and Europe and incorporates a storytelling approach in her work with organizations.