Narrative and Power in Groups

May 12, 2010 Leave a comment
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This is the fourth in a series of postings about power and group facilitation processes, based on research from a few years ago. Today’s post is about how power is built into group narrative.

As I was doing research, I came across a batch of work about narrative theory by Sara Cobb and Janet Rifkin (cited below).  Cobb and Rifkin researched how a narrative is constructed and what impact it has on the ultimate outcome of mediation sessions.  They found that the first story told tends to be privileged and “colonize” later stories told.? By framing the discussion to come, this initial story tends to narrow and define the direction of the ensuing conversation.  Later versions are generally tied to the initial story and thus are unable to be fully developed. And the outcome of mediation is generally tied to the initial story.

This can also play a role in group facilitation. If the first version told in a group becomes the frame under which all other discussion happens, a facilitator must pay attention to who tells the first story – or to how to reinforce different versions.

Cobb described the importance of cultural resonance in creating coherent stories. When you consider situations in which different groups of people may have significantly different interpretations of events, it’s critical to design processes which ensure that many different interpretations of a story are viewed as legitimate – else the dominant narrative will win out.

So what do we do? How do we ensure that the first or dominant story doesn’t interfere with over versions being told? Cobb had a number of suggestions.  She encourages the use of private sessions with each person before a joint meeting to help each person develop a complete narrative.? In group facilitation, alternative approaches would be to survey a group about their versions before someone (often the leader with positional power) frames the discussion, to individually interview participants ahead of time, and to ask people to spend a few minutes individually writing their responses to questions or sharing them with one other person. Cobb also encourages a mediator to facilitate the full participation of all participants by using tools for intervening in the development of a narrative. And finally, she advocates for “circularizing” the narrative to ensure that everyone’s voice and contribution is fully incorporated.

Have you seen this kind of thing in group facilitation? Do you have other ideas for how to ensure that one narrative doesn’t colonize the others?

Here are some citings if you want to read more:

Cobb, S. (1993). Empowerment and mediation: A narrative perspective.? Negotiation Journal, 9(3), 245-259.

Cobb, S., & Rifkin, J. (1991). Practice and paradox: Deconstructing neutrality in mediation. Law and Social Inquiry, 16, 35-62.

Rifkin, J., Millen, J., & Cobb, S. (1991). Towards a new discourse for mediation: A critique of neutrality. Mediation Quarterly, 9(2), 151-164.

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  • Curtis says:

    I like it Linda. Resonates with other research I cited some time back about the order of conversations mattering to the outcomes (the first conversation sets the tone and possibilities). Another good practice would seem to be ensuring there is equitable stakeholder mix in the first place, so that we are not relying on say a single spokesperson to uphold his/her story against a larger or majority group. I’m intrigued by the idea of “circularizing” the narrative and wonder if dialogue techniques would be a way of getting at this.

  • Linda says:

    Thanks Curtis. I’m also intrigued with how all of this fits in with the research on framing. Haven’t done that crosswalk yet. I’ll pull the information on circularizing the narrative and will post more.

  • Talitha Abramsen says:

    Thanks Linda for the references to learn more about the power of narrative. Working with Peter Block and others this week, including an amazing woman from South Africa who’s main focus in her facilitation work is on narrative and stories in the liberation of communities and people, I learned so much more about the power of stories to limit, colonize or at their best, provide agency, when the author is conscious and self-realized and empowered. I loved the mention in your post about colonization, because Peter referenced stories, and the term “helpfulness” and equated them both to the act of colonization. It really gave me a whole new paradigm to look through regarding power, privilege and dynamics in groups and among people. Are there any other authors you or Curtis recommend to read around narrative? I loved Marshall Ganz’s work on the public narrative, so am intrigued what else is out there from other sectors or informing other fields.
    In appreciation for your voracious reading,

  • Linda says:

    Thanks Talitha! I’d love to hear more about this South African narrative expert! A book I love is one called “Narrative Mediation” which uses narrative to bring people together across often bitter divides. Curtis also has read a lot on this topic. And happy birthday (I think it’s recently in order for you). Would love to talk about all of this. Share more!!

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