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Story-telling to change ways of thinking

Many facilitators use stories to help overcome barriers and change the way both parties think.

What challenges does it focus on?

Ways of thinking can stand in the way of a solution. Story-telling can change the way of thinking and understanding the other party.

Short summary

 Many facilitators use stories (parabels, traditional tales, experiences with situations that were similar and other narratives) to help overcome barriers. They can be used to make the parties:

  • Understand how the other party feels.
  • See that many people have the same problem. That tensions between people are part of human nature.
  • Think about their own situation. What are their options?
  • Think about the situation of the others involved.
  • Understand the disadvantages of quarreling, fighting and other adversarial behavior.
  • Understand that treating the other person equal has positive effects.
  • Understand that cooperation is difficult, but better than each doing what they think is right.
  • Accept that there is more than one truth.
  • Show that outcomes are not necessarily a gain for one party and a loss for the other. Outcomes can be valuable and fair for all parties involved.
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Each society or community has its own stories that can be used. These might be religious stories about the morals of disputes and the need to find solutions. 

Research evidence

 Evidence from practice

  • Stories to change views: In Egypt, facilitators sometimes use stories in domestic violence cases. These stories can demonstrates how the process of compromise can help parties maintain a relationship and also how women have to be respected as well as men.
  • Stories to develop commitment: In Cambodia they use a story about two crows who are fighting over fish caught in a river. Because of the fighting they both lose the fish. This story helps people see that if they work together they can get a better outcome.

Evidence from literature

Stories support the moral imagination and promote empathy between people.
Martha Nussbaum (1999) ' The Fragility of Goodness'

Interesting stories significantly change attitude and behaviour.
Neustadt, R. and E. May (1986). Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-makers. New York, Free Press. Monroe, M. (1991). The Effect of Interesting Environmental Stories on Knowledge and Action-Taking Attitudes. Michigan, University of Michigan. Doctoral Dissertation.

Personally engaging information is more easily recalled than abstract general material, even where the abstract material is clearer in expressing the message.
Hidi, S. and W. Baird (1988). "Strategies for Increasing Text-based interest and students' Recall of Expository Texts." Reading Research Quarterly 23(4): 465-483.

Communication through stories takes advantage of the way people process information
Kearney, A. R. (1994). "Understanding global change: A cognitive perspective on communicating through stories." Climatic Change 27(4): 419-441.

Narratological analysis, metaphorical analysis, and re-positioning stories: The idea of using narrative, or stories, as a way to get people “unstuck” from conflict situations runs through many of the interviews.
What We Don’t Know Can Help Us: Eliciting Out-of-Discipline knowledge for Work with Intractable Conflicts Jennifer S. Goldman, Peter T. Coleman Columbia University 2003 -2010 to download: click here.

See for the barriers in thinking that are relevant in conflict resolution: Mnookin et al. Barriers to conflict resolution, 1995. Conflict resolution handbooks Deutsch and Moffitt et al.

Best practices