Power and Narrative in Groups and Meetings

July 18, 2018 3 Comments

Image by Kevin Doncaster, shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

This is a repost of a fourth in a series of postings written by former IISC Senior Associate Linda Guinee about power and group facilitation processes, based on research she completed a number of years ago. Today’s post is about how power is built into group narrative. Also check out these other posts on power: “What is Power Anyway?” Power Dynamics: The Hidden Element to Effective Meetings

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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