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Sensemaking: the role of stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 21, 2005
Filed in Business storytelling

Conversation and sensemakingWhen something happens we like to tell others about it. This retelling of our experience often is done in the form of a story. “I can’t believe what Margaret just did. We have been working on the Acme project for 3 months and today she rings up, out of the blue, and resigns. I told her to get off the grass—no way! We spent an hour on the phone and it turns out she was unhappy with Jim’s attitude. Look like I will have to help build some bridges.”

This first telling enables us to hear what we think and upon reflection helps us make sense of what has just happened. The sensemaking process is also wrapped up in how we perceive our own character (our identity) and how we subtly portray our identity in the stories we tell. The sensemaking process is a learning process and stories seem to be the natural sensemaking mechanism. But perhaps more importantly is the need to have someone to tell your stories to; someone you trust.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

2 Responses to “Sensemaking: the role of stories”

  1. Matt Moore Says:

    Which is arguably why the market for psychoanalysis is so big (and indicates the role of the confessional in previous ages).
    There are secrets and stories.
    I find that I don’t get to the definitive version of a story until at least the 3rd telling – almost like practising a card trick or basket ball manoeuvre.
    Now secrets are a different kettle of fish altogether. They are special stories. Stories that are so key to our identities that we might only tell one person – or no one at all. And being the recipient of a secret can be a great blessing – or a terrible curse.
    How do narrative techniques deal with secrets?

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Secrets are not necessarily stories. They only become stories if ther relate a set of events over time. So I guess you are talking about ‘secret stories.’ Narrative techniques, like other KM techniques, adhere to the principle ‘knowledge can only be volunteered, not conscripted.’ If someone wants to keep something a secret it will remain a secret. That said, everyone’s stories reveal more about them than what is explicity said. For example, the tone of the stories, their topics, the people who are included or omitted all say something about the storyteller.

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