The Business of Story

An Interview with Dan Petersen, Life and Story Coach

How did you become interested in story?

I first got interested when I read Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, where he lists story as one of the three forces nudging us into what he calls ‘the conceptual age’. He describes how organizations like NASA, 3M, Xerox and the World Bank are using story to help understand and manage change for this coming age. He mentions another book by Robert McKee called Story. I was fascinated by what he said.  He confirms what I know through coaching which is that the most effective teacher or teaching always creates the conditions for people to learn rather than be taught. Stories are a powerful tool to boost this self-learning dynamic.

How do you see story as a catalyst for change?

I am an admirer of Robert Kegan’s Immunity to Change process. He proposes that we have a psychological immune system that is designed to protect us, a kind of committee in our heads that resists change. The problem is that it was created around fears in early life that no longer exist, such as the fear of being rejected by our peers. That can be a problem in adulthood since all creative leading edge thinking invites rejection. Through stories, we can help people bypass their limiting beliefs and interpret new ideas more objectively. This can make a huge difference in life and in organizations where new ideas are what keep us at the top of our game. With a psychological immune system as mature as we are, our new learning is optimized. I like the adage that says, “We see the world as we are, not as it is.” We see the world through the stories we tell about ourselves, so it is important to get our stories straight and up to date.

How have you used story in your own life to understand and make change?

I find using the principles of story I am able to make better choices in the moment because I am aware of my immunity, or resistance, to change in some areas of my life. Understanding my addictive tendencies, for example, allows me to choose how to act to generate the kind of story I want to be able to tell about myself. And beyond the personal, I am also applying the principles of story in the workshops we are doing together, creating the environment I spoke about where participants can accomplish sustainable change by freeing up their capacity to learn. One of my favorite philosophers, Eric Hoffer, sums it up pretty well when he says, “In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. Those who have finished learning find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

How might leaders use story to be more effective?

We know leadership is a practice, one of acting and reflecting at the same time as we go along, both generating our story and learning from it every day. Story is a tool leaders use to reveal hidden assumptions, both to themselves and to others. Telling stories engenders trust, expresses wisdom, and builds resonance among those we lead. By telling stories about ourselves, we also encourage others to reflect on their own stories and share them. So storytelling is a key leadership skill.