top of page

The Story is Not the Terrain

As I begin this blog I am reminded of the truism that the stories we tell and listen to are true at that time for us and the people narrating them. Holding this premise in our mind is essential as we listen to ourselves, watch and hear the stories of other people unfold. However, another often conflicting premise is that, even though the story may contain elements of truth as experienced by us or the teller, for the most part they are memories of past events that are being kept alive within our mind and the person who is retelling their story. We hold this dichotomy with respect and compassion for ourselves and the other people we hear.

The paradox of stories is that whilst all are based on life, the narrative is a reconstruction or construing of experiences that we or another person may have been through, at least our and their belief is focused on the story being an accurate description of real events and experiences, often deeply felt. The process of relating a particular experience or significant happening in one’s life is fraught with difficulties, especially as some parts of the event may be outside of our language capability to describe. In some cases the experience may have occurred prior to when we developed the skills of expressing our experiences in words. As individuals talk about their stories they often leave out the pre-verbal aspects of stories as they retell what has happened or may still be happening to them. The body, soma, can remember but the mind cannot necessarily recall the events. However, our unconscious criteria or the assumptions that we use to evaluate the authenticity of the stories we hear, may lead to biases and conclusions that are not represented by the story itself. If the story appears to match our preconceived ideas of who we are listening to and seems to be narrated from the heart, then we are more likely to believe what we hear, and possibly concur with the story.

Whilst we keep in mind the paradoxes mentioned above, it is necessary for us to support others and ourselves as we all recover our personal stories. This process can lead to resolution of the embedded themes hidden inside the narrative. While we listen to the words we need to be tuned into the subtle inflections of speech, the micro-movements of the person’s face or changes in their body posture. As we tell out own story, tuning into our sensations and how we feel can surface important themes and possible situations that remain unresolved. We also need to keep in mind that the other person is trying to tell us something.

What that something is may be obvious to us at a surface level and very hidden at a deeper level. During the listening process we may begin to develop an understanding of the story and yet will need to guard ourselves against premature closure and assumptions that begin to shut our mind down. We need to keep ourselves open to what we are saying and what the other person is leading us to believe. And what they want, need or imagine happening after they have finished their story. All of this will keep us alive to the clues that are being sprinkled throughout the narrative.

This might sound like we are stating the obvious; we will also need to reflect on our relationship with the storyline, going beyond our assumption of whether the story fits the client. We may need to reflect on which stories resonate with us and which stories we discount because they are obviously untrue. Have we swallowed the story and imbued it into our consciousness without question? Have we merged with the reality of the narrator and lost contact with our personal reality? Are we still holding the space open for ourselves and other people? In the situation when we are listening to more than one person, we have additional dimensions. Where there are many stories being told we have multiple perspectives being aired. And all of them are representative of deeper themes. Can we hold these perspectives lightly and respectfully, so we can begin to live and work with what we have heard?

As we live with the stories we have heard an essential aspect is to listen to the real story behind the words being used. We all have reasons for relating these versions of our experiences. This collection of fact and or fiction is a way of talking about what is meaningful for us, the story maybe a fundamental part of our identity and emotional stability. It may be one way of holding onto a form of reality in a world where there is no appearance of acknowledgment, or recognition, for our past and the situation or experiences we are encountering. Where people do not feel heard or are visible enough to be seen by others around them.

The stories we tell about ourselves and the stories we listen to are developed from our memories, beliefs, assumptions and our meaning making. The need for the story to be true reflects on a code of behaviour whereby we trust what people tell us. However, when we entertain the idea that all stories are, even true stories, are also recalled memories of our experiences, then we are conflicted. As professionals who work in or with organisations, we will hear multiple stories. Often these are apparently about the same issues or problems that if resolved would somehow transform the working environment and make it more humane.

As we listen, our interpretations and meaning making will shape our questions and guide us in our interpersonal interactions. In Gestalt, listening to these pluralistic accounts is the beginning of inquiring, of looking at and sensing what may be happening beneath the surface of the social stories.

Gestalt supports the idea that all perspectives are part of the rich context that humans subjectively apply to their internal and external worlds. We will need to let the stories and perspectives to live through their own life cycle, stay open, and be aware when premature closure or interpretation begins to shape a direction to which our clients are not subscribing.

Our responses to the existence of ‘truth’ or the presence of ‘lies’ in the narratives we hear from others are important signals to deeper, possibly subconscious, areas of our life that we have not yet resolved. The stories given to us by our clients hold embedded requests, unconscious patterns, beliefs and unresolved requests. Being aware of our own responses in the here and now of our interactions and remaining open and sensitive to the emerging narrative of our clients provides us with an interactive human process. Our contact and engagement with that process will guide us, and our clients, through the deeper dimensions of stories in action.



bottom of page