The Potential of Story in Leadership

Sharing personal tales, with a facilitator, to resolve communication obstacles among a school’s staff by SARAH J. NOONAN

A few years ago I worked with a small group of teachers and the director of an alternative high school program who were experiencing significant conflict during team meetings. Every member, including the director, agreed that the group suffered from serious breakdowns in communication.

During meetings, two teachers refused to speak to each other except to resolve critical operational issues. Others simply avoided conflict by working on lesson plans during the assigned meeting times.

Sarah NoonanSarah J. Noonan (center), a former superintendent, is author of Leadership Through Story: Diverse Voices in Dialogue.

The conflict robbed the team of the time needed to make good decisions and to determine how duties within the school would be shared. As a result, the director often made unpopular decisions because the opportunity to plan together and reach consensus within the team evaporated over time-consuming petty arguments. Personal conflict, some tears, heated arguments and requests for transfers to a different school revealed the depth of the problem.

The communication problems severely affected the school climate, and the dysfunction became increasingly obvious to students and parents. After trying many strategies to change the situation, the director discussed the possibility of a new assignment with the superintendent.

Alarmed and disappointed, the superintendent started to attend staff meetings while meeting individually with several teachers. The superintendent summarized the problem with a simple question: “How can a group of individually talented and dedicated educators collectively fail to get along with each other and maintain a program they value?”

Over the years, the alternative school had enjoyed a solid reputation as a positive, collaborative and supportive environment for highly troubled students and their families. Located in a rural community, the school offered a personalized approach to student learning. Teachers devoted many extra hours to meet with students and devise individual learning plans. They also held regular family-style meetings with students to promote a positive school climate. As the conflict escalated, the staff found it increasingly difficult to hide the troubled relationships from students and work cooperatively.

Empathetic Listening
Determined to get to the bottom of the problem, the superintendent asked me to meet with the team and help members resolve their differences. I met initially with the director and superintendent to identify their perceptions of the problem and then set some goals for a planned half-day meeting with the team. I established the following goals for the first meeting: uncover the reasons for conflict, establish guidelines for respectful communication, and talk about meaningful and important issues commonly shared by the team. While difficult, the best way to improve communication is to begin communicating respectfully.

During the first half-day session, I temporarily ignored the dysfunction and instead asked individuals to describe the aspects of their work that were most rewarding and to compare their current experience to their first few years of working together as a team (approximately 10 years). I provided a few minutes of quiet time for reflection and then we got started.

The director volunteered to be the first speaker, modeling the importance of risk taking and participation. The director shared personal stories, revealing a lifetime of dedication to students. We began to know the director as a person and a passionate educator.

The next speaker, the most junior member of the team, shared stories about student teaching, getting a job and learning how to be a “real” teacher. Group members listened empathetically to colleagues without interruption (a guideline adopted by the group) until all stories were told. The process involved six teachers and one administrator and took about four hours. After a break in the meeting, I asked the team to summarize the major themes in their stories.

The members of the team and the director discovered several things: (1) They all felt passionately committed to the mission of the school and students; (2) they missed having meaningful discussions about the students; (3) the nature of their program demanded more from them than was reasonable to expect with declining resources and reduced staffing; and (4) they remembered they actually liked and respected each other.

Laughter, tears and heartfelt emotion emerged from dialogue. They made a commitment to repair their relationships by reducing paperwork at their weekly meetings and scheduling discussions about students and important aspects of their program.

As the facilitator of the group I simply established the ground rules for respectful dialogue, asked them to share their important stories and reflect on their meaning and listen without interruption to their colleagues. They did the rest. The team problem, caused by a lack of trust as well as numerous breakdowns in communication, needed repair. The colleagues had simply stopped talking to and caring about each other.

Facilitating Dialogue
What conditions cause a breakdown in trust and failures in dialogue?

Dialogue failure occurs when relationships and the quality of communicative exchanges deteriorate. Caused by failures of spirit as well as a lack of communicative virtues, dialogue breakdowns resist repair. Participants who shout, exclude, embarrass others, talk at rather than to people, or operate from hidden motives and agendas destroy trust and limit the possibility of dialogue. Leaders call a halt to dysfunction and seek to change the way people treat each other by establishing a place, process and practice for the exchange of stories.

Breakdowns in communication can be repaired with guided episodes of communication involving the mutual exchange of stories and the meaning associated with them. Stories help to restore respect and encourage active listening during conflict.

After adopting or presenting a list of ground rules for dialogue developed by the facilitator or group, participants receive a topic for discussion, guiding questions and a warning: Tell the truth from your perspective, listen with no interruptions, prepare your statements with care, limit your remarks and keep them on the topic, fill the space with your story, and avoid sharp words and judgments. The facilitator provides an opening topic, sometimes in the form of a question, and dialogue begins. A designated recorder may be added to take notes and later summarize and share the key points of the discussion with the entire group. Everyone else listens and only speaks when the space and rules allow.

Individual viewpoints emerge in dialogue, offering visibility to both diverse perspectives and people. Participants share stories and reflect on their meaning, exploring issues with the intent to understand, not to resolve, issues. When enough understanding occurs, the issues tend to get resolved. Debate polarizes discussion and should be avoided. Individuals should speak about things important to them, avoiding a direct response to comments made by previous speakers.

We add to the collective knowledge by offering our experience in story form as it relates to the discussion topic. Facilitators steer the group away from premature exploration of solutions because it reduces the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives and narrows the range of available solutions.

Solutions often emerge in the debriefing activity or even after days or months of dialogue. The selection of issues for discussion must be undertaken with considerable care. Trust among members develops through the exchange of stories. When true dialogue occurs, we are willing to be influenced by others through the exchange of meaning. Stories prepare us for dialogue, serve as the core process during dialogue and help us reflect on the work we engage in together as a learning community. Communication breakdowns occur as a result of our failure to share stories about the important work we do together in schools and the failure to listen to diverse perspectives.

Barriers to communication require us to negotiate meaning and create hospitable environments for all aspects of diversity, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion and lifestyle preferences. As communication hosts, school leaders invite diverse voices to the table, where all are welcome to participate in dialogue. Listening with an open mind and being fully inclusive of others, regardless of their positions, viewpoints, cultural differences or lack of expertise, should not be underestimated.

For the troubled school staff, the level of conflict changed after an honest acknowledgment of the causes for the communication breakdown and the adoption of constructive goals for team meetings. I monitored the team over a two-year period. They reported a change in their relationships because they changed the way they talked and listened to each other.

Building Blocks
Emphasizing the intimate and critical connection between leadership and story, leaders and members (followers) share stories to accomplish many aspects of leadership. The mutual exchange of stories and the meaning created from this exchange can promote the changes we seek within and among us. No matter what the leadership purpose — managing change, achieving goals, influencing others, building relationships or promoting the greater good — stories help us accomplish leadership.

Stories explain not only who we are but also what we are willing to do. Our unique capacities, enduring values and life experiences affect what we bring to leadership and how we participate in it. Stories serve as a foundation, building material and a tool for community building and healing.

To use stories to their fullest, leaders need to be aware of how the exchange of powerful stories, containing a moral or purpose, helps others to discover identity, become empowered and move forward. The exchange of stories is an inherently collaborative process.

Listening to diverse voices and locating turning points in dialogue — places where we are influenced and changed by others — inspires moral imagination and the commitment to find a different way to be together.

Sarah Noonan, a former superintendent, is an associate professor of leadership, policy and administration at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minn. E-mail: sjnoonan@stthomas.edu. This article is adapted from Leadership Through Story: Diverse Voices in Dialogue (Rowman & Littlefield Education), which she co-authored with Thomas L. Fish.