While there has always been an art of storytelling, the study of storytelling as cultural anthropology and a science began in the 1960s. French cultural anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss developed a method for understanding how stories function in society. Stories are cultural expressions that pack large amounts of data into small, digestible packages. Deep-seated beliefs and opinions can be expressed in stories with relative ease, prompting their use to create brands, identify cultural values and educate. Further, stories have staying power; they stick in the mind long enough to shape a person’s attitude.
The deployment of stories by governments, businesses and civic groups is hardly new. Rome commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid and the resulting legend of Romulus and Remus founding Rome is still with us today. Aesop’s Fables are still used to teach; the lesson of the tortoise and the hare is alive and well. In America, the logging industry created the figure of Paul Bunyan and stories of his exploits still resonate more than a century later. Today, U-Tube and I-reports capture the stories of man-on-the-street and now, we can all be storytellers to a vast audience. Women, in particular, can take advantage of the storytelling mode because as the family historians, storytelling is a familiar communication model.
Diversity training can harness the power behind storytelling to organize a virtually limitless array of cultural data. Age, gender, ethnicity, race, belief system and personality differences are each extremely complex issues. Given the importance of diversity on a global scale, there are an increasing number of available resources about each diverse group: videos, articles and books. It is unlikely that we have the time or resources to train workers on every aspect of diverse group; multicultural literacy is a life-long pursuit. Successful diversity trainers understand that they will likely teach only a portion of what they know and must target their training to a purpose, rather than an academic pursuit of cultural knowledge. A key purpose of diversity training should be problem solving and conflict management.
Consider the value of having a framework in which to place cultural information that has flexible applications and maintains cultural integrity. This is the framework provided by the process of storytelling. When applied to problem solving, particularly its emotional component, storytelling makes the leap from awareness building to problem solving. By linking stories to comfort zone levels, the diversity trainer can dovetail personal/cultural stories with conflict management strategies. As participants get further away from their center comfort level, their stories will provide them with accurate metrics for assessing conflicts and increase self-awareness in the process. When the teaching of conflict management techniques accompanies these storytelling metrics, you create a common language that crosses cultural boundaries.
Every individual can tell a story with just a small amount of guidance. Storytelling is extremely user friendly and a powerful tool for the integration and coordination of a diverse workforce. Consider the diverse team that can communicate efficiently and with has the ability to navigate conflict with minimal emotional baggage even on sensitive issues. Think about the value of enhancing the team’s ability to negotiate a shared story, whether a vision, mission or goal.
We often talk about the goal of diversity training is to take advantage of cultural differences and using diverse perspectives to be creative, innovative and globally relevant. Too often diversity training seems to fall short of that goal. It is frequently awareness-raising training without connection to problem solving. Storytelling can make that connection. Expertise can be nurtured over time and easily reinforced with modeling techniques. The diversity professional’s conscious link of storytelling with problem solving and conflict management on a regular basis will encourage a more thoughtful and productive atmosphere for cultural diversity and encourage more creativity and less animosity on sensitive issues.
Storytelling lessons can be reinforced by writing it down. This article was written as a complementary piece to an experiential workshop that I recently presented to the national BlueCross BlueShield diversity conference in Atlanta. I appreciate the interest of the workshop participants in this topic and am committed to making this material widely available.
© 2009 Deborah Levine
Deborah Levine is President of American Diversity Report LLC, a Management consulting company and online magazine resource. An award-winning author, her work appears in The Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, The American Journal of Community Psychology, The Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, The Christian Century, and The Bermudian Magazine. Articles about Levine have appeared in The Chicago Tribune and the On-line Wall Street Journal. An urban planner, she founded the DuPage (Chicago) Interfaith Resource Network, Women’s Council on Diversity, the Chattanooga Diversity & Economics Think Tank and Global Leadership Class. Ms. Levine has earned awards from the American Planning Association, the Tennessee Economic Council on Women and Girls Inc.