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A Reflection on - The Story is Not the Terrain by Anuradha Shroff

Updated: May 21, 2020

I was not sure about attending this workshop on “The Story is Not the Terrain”. I had my own workshop to run the following day and felt that I should be preparing for that rather than attending a workshop on stories by David Lines. It felt a little indulgent and I was nervous about my own workshop. But deep down I knew this was the place I needed to be and that something important – even transformational – would emerge from David’s “The Story is Not the Terrain”.

As a facilitator and a coach, I strongly believe in the power of questions to provoke thinking and help people make sense of what is going on in their lives. I feel that the ability to pose powerful questions and to patiently wait for the other person to respond is a key skill in listening and building relationships. Thus as we worked through the day, some of the questions which helped me to peel the layers of the stories I tell myself were: “what do you think people heard you say”, “what did you hear people say”, “what stories are we telling about ourselves that we need to put down”. Each power-packed question helped me to delve deeper into the layer of “stories” I had been telling myself and the impact that was having in creating self-limiting beliefs within me.

My stories were based on assumptions I had about myself and other people and these were exactly what I needed to face to be ready for my workshop the next day. The story I was telling myself was that I was not as highly intellectual as my participants who were doctors and healthcare professionals, and therefore what could I value add to their learning. As David’s workshop progressed, he asked me “why do you think you are really here?” It then hit me that I was really there to connect with my core of why I do what I do and what I offer to people’s lives. I knew then that it was not my intellect that was required but rather compassion, the ability to “listen” to group processes and creating a safe learning environment. Once I came to this conclusion, I felt a rush of relief come over me and felt a lot more confident and prepared for my workshop the following day.My key insights about stories were that firstly, it is much easier for others to spot the stories we are telling ourselves than us. This means that we may need to ensure we have a trusting person or group where we can be supported and challenged through uncovering the stories we are telling ourselves. Secondly, people’s stories are not clearly marked with a beginning, middle and end. There may be a story within a story or stories may have been meshed up or even lost along the way. The point is not for us to try to rehash the stories we are hearing but rather focus on the emotions that people are “leaking” as they tell those stories and to take the lead from there. Thirdly, the key skill we need to hone over time is to ensure we have an “adult-adult” relationship with our own stories. Such a relationship would be a healthy way to view stories as lessons learnt rather than blame to be assigned and can help build resilience within us.

It has been about a month since I attended this stories workshop and I can feel it having an impact in the way I listen to coachees and clients speak about their stories. In one small group facilitation session which I was facilitating, one participant was particularly resentful of the “system” she was working in. This was showing up in the group by the stories she shared of her self-righteousness and “acts of defiance”. I noticed that the group was feeling the impact of her “acts of defiance” such as not completing the assignment. Thorugh a series of questions, I supported her by bringing to her awareness the stories that she was telling herself and the impact she was having on the group. I got a sense that there was a lot of deeper issues she was grappling with in her life and encouraged her to find an appropriate support for her to explore them privately. The key insight I had of myself was my complete calmness even in the face of someone “venting” their stories. I felt it was their story which they hold true and therefore it was my role to support and gently challenge them to see the various perspectives that may be present and which may lead them to different conclusions. Another important insight was that people hold on to their stories dearly – maybe because it offers them a frame of reference to the world which can be comforting. So to peel stories requires compassion, patience and the willingness to sit with the raw emotions which may surface.

Anuradha Shroff



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