Learning from stories

This weekend after a long time we met with a close family friends for lunch.

After a wonderful meal together, we sat down for a cup of tea. Under the coffee table, I saw a beautiful sculpture of an elephant. I picked it out and asked Lily, ‘what does this mean to you?’

Nothing really, it’s one of those souvenirs you pick up when you go somewhere. This one is from Sri Lanka.’

‘But actually I want to show you this book’, she said. I think you will like it.’

I flipped through the book, ‘The Giving Tree’, by Shel Silverstein. I was told that this was a popular children’s book.

As I turned the pages, there were powerful images of a tree and a child through different stages of life.

When the child was young, the tree would give it a swing to hang upon. As the child grew old, it would give shelter from rain and eventually as the child grew into an adult, the tree gave its entire trunk for this grown up man to build his house.

As the man grew old and feeble and needed somewhere to sit, the tree offered its remaining stump. The Giving Tree.

I turned to Lily and asked, ‘what does this book mean to you?’

She said, ‘obviously, the power of giving.’

I said, ‘That’s on the cover but why is this book so important to you?’

After some hesitation and a deep breath Lily started to recollect her thoughts. ‘It reminds me of my parents. They did so many things for us [pause]. I once remember when we were little we went to someone’s house and they had so many expensive toys. They were quite rich and my mother didn’t feel good about it but frankly it didn’t matter to us at all. [pause] I think that a lot of times parents react from their own fears and desires. It has nothing to do with children.’

Here’a a few themes that emerged from this story:

Give Power to the Storyteller:

Just as I assumed that the elephant meant something to this family, I was so wrong. If you want to meet people, leave your own assumptions outside the meeting room. Ask questions, be present, listen with intent, and be ready for surprises. Give people the power to create their own stories out of stories.

Listen for what is Significant:

In usual circumstances, most of us stick to the literal story. This is the story of a Giving Tree. Period. But if we want to learn from a story, we must learn to listen to the symbolic message. What is significant of this story to the storyteller? Why is it significant? Interestingly, the elephant in the room was not the elephant. It was this book. The significance is never in the artefact; it’s in the story.

Enjoy the Ambiguities:

Storybooks, stories, accident reports, and books in general follow a linear structure. But the process of learning and unlearning rarely ever follows a simple, linear structure. In a learning environment we learn to be present in the moment, absorb what is being said (without making judgments), appreciate pauses and silences and simply listen and record impromptu reflections. There is no need to make sense of those recollections in the moment. Enjoy the ambiguities.

And the Discomfort:

Hesitation and discomfort are part of the learning process. Up to this point, Lily’s meaning in this story was deep in her unconscious. The mind struggles with fragmented images, sensations, memory recalling and emotions when we bring the unconscious to the conscious mind. Discomfort is part of learning.

Explore Emotions and Feelings:

Why do people hold a story so dearly or, in adverse events, why are people reluctant to talk about their experiences. Learning requires us to recognise emotions, help people to turn those emotions to feelings, give them the opportunity to name those feelings (language) and broaden their vocabulary, perspectives and in turn, enrich their ability to anticipate the future. Lily how has a much better understanding of why that book matters so much to her. Our role is to help people realise their emotions and feelings.

Avoid Happy Endings:

Too often, we want to solve people’s problems or put a measurable outcome on learning (aka corrective actions). ‘Happy endings’ and ‘once upon a time’ are attributes of linear stories; they serve their purpose in storybooks, accident and audit reports. Save them for auditors, inspectors and annual bonuses. Create opportunities to revisit the stories even long after the reports are filed away.

Re-create Stories from Stories:

Even in my wildest fantasies, I would have never imagined how Lily came to relate with the story of The Giving Tree. What gave her meaning and connection with the story? It helps to understand that there is no such thing like ‘the story’. Listen and observe how a story gives meanign to people and how they re-create their own stories from stories. Personally, Lily’s story gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own approach to parenting.

There’s the story from the book, a story from Lily and my story from Lily’s story.

Deep down we are not an evidence-seeking but a meaning-making species.

A Culture of Learning


How to learn from stories

Learning from Stories in circles


Join us if you want to learn more

  1. Learning from accidents and events (London): 3-days event based on Social Psychology of Risk where you will learn how to storyboard (iCue) and learn from accidents and events using proven methods, practical tools, micro-experiments, semiotic walks and experiential exercises.
  2. Learning from accidents and event (Rio de Janeiro): Same as above in Portuguese.
  3. Culture and Risk Intelligence (Copenhagen): 3-days event where you will sharpen your listening and observation skills through proven methods, practical tools and semiotic walks and acquire the emotional and cultural intelligence to learn, understand and become deliberate and strategic about culture (or safety culture if you like).

More details are here: https://novellus.solutions/events/


Some useful readingsReference to reading books

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious by Carl Jung

The Science of Social Influence by Anthony Pratkanis (Chapter 4 on Dissonance Theory)

The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio

Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (available also on YouTube videos)

More than Cool Reason by George Lakoff and Mark Turner

The Essential Kierkegaard by Hong and Hong

Risk Makes Sense by Robert Long https://www.humandymensions.com/shop/

Steven Shorrock’s various blogs https://humanisticsystems.com/publications/

Are We Learning from Accidents by Nippin Anand https://nippinanand.com/

You might also enjoy