Story Dialogue as an approach to learning about Community

Story Dialogue as an approach to learning about Community Engagement
Why use Story Dialogue?
Story Dialogue is a useful method for enabling people to reflect on what they do and
how they do it. As an approach to learning, it offers a number of advantages, some of
which are particularly relevant to learning about Community Engagement:
 It is a relatively informal process, which can help people to reflect on their own
practice without feeling threatened.
 It brings out personal, subjective experience, which can be lost in more formal
training, but is often the aspect that we most remember.
 It enables people from different backgrounds to have productive discussions
about what works and what doesn’t. This might be relevant for different parts
of one organisation, or people from different organisations, or a mix of
professionals and community members.
 It can draw out the collective knowledge of a whole group, which will always
be more than the expertise of a single trainer.
 It can help individuals to learn, but also generate collective lessons for a whole
 It doesn’t need a lot of time.
 It doesn’t need a lot of preparation (though it does need a bit).
 It doesn’t need a lot of resources.
How does Story Dialogue work?
What you will need:
 A room, big enough for around a dozen people
 Some pieces of card
 Some pens
 A facilitator
 Someone to tell their story
The Story Dialogue process itself can be broken down into four stages:
1. The story teller tells their story. You’ll need to brief the story teller in advance
(see section below on briefing) and ideally identify the theme(s) that the story
will cover – it will help to give participants an idea of the aspects of practice
that might be covered, although the discussion may go in different directions.
2. Participants are encouraged to clarify the story using ‘WHAT’ and ‘WHY’
questions. These questions will largely be directed to the story teller.
3. The facilitator helps the group to move on to questions that will generate new
insights and useful lessons for practice:
 SO WHAT have we learned?
 NOW WHAT can we do about it?
These questions can be explored in the whole group if it is small enough, or in
groups of 3-4 if there are more than a handful of participants. As the
participants address these questions, they should be encouraged to jot down
each insight on a card.
4. The facilitator collects in the insights and tries to group them together where
appropriate, to generate collective lessons.
Analysis – the pros and cons of Story Dialogue
From the experience of using Story Dialogue in Falkirk, here are some of the pros
and cons of this method for learning about Community Engagement:
This was developed as part of the Scottish Government’s Better Community Engagement Programme
It’s really good for generating informal discussion and debate, particularly if
the story is interesting and engaging. This is partly about the subject of the
story and partly about the style of the story teller. The informal atmosphere
can be particularly useful in drawing out some of the less ‘objective’ issues
around Community Engagement. In our experience, people often wanted to
talk about the emotional challenge of engaging with angry communities and
story dialogue helped them to have this discussion.
It’s very effective at enabling people to discuss issues, even if their
backgrounds are quite different – having the story as a starting point brings
people together and allows them to move on to their own experience as the
process develops. We used Story Dialogue sessions with Council staff from all
departments and generated some really useful debate and learning, beyond
the departmental silos. This was particularly useful in relation to Community
Engagement because of the need to avoid duplication and to spread good
practice right across the Council.
It can work really well in a relatively short timescale – we ran Story Dialogue
sessions over lunchtimes so that we weren’t eating into people’s busy diaries.
Although it might have been useful to have a bit more than the hour that we
allowed, it was perfectly possible to complete the whole process in that time.
It works best with relatively small groups – certainly no more than about 12.
Our most effective sessions were probably those that involved no more than
half a dozen people, so we did not need to break into small groups for
The facilitator needs to be reasonably confident to move people on to the ‘so
what’ and ‘now what’ questions – many of the people who attended our
sessions were so interested in the details of the story that they would have
talked about that all day and not necessarily generated any useful learning
about their own practice.
As is often the case with learning about Community Engagement, one of the
challenges is to ensure that the discussion focuses on the engagement, not on
the service involved. Again, the facilitator needs to be reasonably confident to
encourage people to focus on Community Engagement rather than wider
service issues.
Briefing for facilitators
It’s useful to brief participants on the process beforehand if you can – just send round
an outline of what Story Dialogue is about. More importantly, it’s crucial to brief your
story teller (see separate briefing below) to make sure they know what is expected of
them, they will stick to time, and will make their story both personal and interesting
Start off with the usual bits – get people to introduce themselves, explain the process
and emphasise the importance of confidentiality to encourage openness.
It’s useful to have a scribe to record the gist of the story and the key points from the
‘what’ and ‘why’ stage of the discussion. It’s also important to record the key points
from the final stage – i.e. the analysis and action points. Individual participants should
be encouraged to record their own action points, but it’s also useful to record the
collective learning and circulate it to all participants after the session.
You may need to manage the length of the story – probably worth agreeing ‘wind up
now’ signals with the story teller in advance. It doesn’t matter if they’ve still got more
to say – usually this will come out through the next stage of clarification and
discussion anyway.
Ideally, you need to help the group move through the four types of questions in order
(what, why, so what and now what), but obviously it doesn’t often work like that in
practice. The key thing is to make sure that people move on from just discussing the
‘what’ and ‘why’ of the story to considering what they have learned from the story,
what they can learn from other’s views/experiences in the room, and what they
should do next to develop their own practice. If the group is large enough that you will
need to break it into smaller groups for discussion, you may have to do this quite
explicitly, but if it’s a smaller group you may be able to encourage this shift quite
subtly and smoothly.
As the group discusses the ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ questions, they need to be
encouraged to record their key insights on cards (in big writing so that others can
read them as you collect them). If you’re working in one group, you can ask people to
put their insights onto the floor/table in the middle of the room as they go – if you’ve
split the group up, you’ll need to collect them after you’ve brought the group back
As the insight cards are collated, try to group them into categories. Name each
category and check with the group whether they agree with these groupings. This
process should help to identify common lessons and potentially lessons for the
organisation as a whole.
Make sure you record the insights and how they have been grouped at the end, so
that you can send it to all participants afterwards.
Briefing for Story Tellers
Tell the story in the first person - I did, I felt etc. The story needs to be your personal
story as well as saying something about the theme.
Use a mixture of subjective and so-called ‘objective’ content. It’s your story from your
perspective. The more of you that is in it, generally the better the story will be. Take
some risks, if you feel comfortable about doing so. Don’t try to present just the good
bits – the story needs to be a starting point for discussion, not an example of best
You only have 7 –10 mins to tell your story so roughly 3 mins for the beginning, the
middle and the end. Once you have decided on the focus of your story, think about
where you want to begin, what the meat of your story is (the middle), and the
conclusions or reflections you want to draw at the end. The reflections process does
not need to be complete, as it will be continued in the seminar discussion.
It’s not necessary to write your story out in full or to share it with anyone other than
those in the group - it doesn’t work if people read their story off a page. The same
rules of telling a good story anywhere apply. You need to engage with your audience.
The story should reveal something about you as well as the broader theme. It should
resonate for the audience in some way and have some inherent dramatic tension.
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