Andrée Iffrig Q&A
When I came across Andrée Iffrig this spring, I could not believe I had not previously heard of her and her work. I would characterize her approach to storytelling as possessing a certain gentleness and quietude. It is sane. humane, and gives me such a good feeling about the positive uses for storytelling in the workplace. She very kindly sent me a copy of her book, Find Your Voice at Work: The Power of Storytelling in the Workplace. And in the generous tradition of the storytelling community, the workbook that accompanies her book, workbook is a free download. I am also fascinated that her background is in architecture and design; in fact, a significant amount of her writing is about urban design. I am so happy to bring Andrée Iffrig to you in the Q&A series.
Bio: (from the site, Suite101) Andrée Iffrig is a writer and award-winning graduate architect. She uses her broad background in environmental design and community development to investigate trends in architecture and urban design.
Andrée is the author of Find Your Voice at Work: The Power of Storytelling in the Workplace (Limegrass 2007) and co-author with Keith Seel of BEING A Governor: A Process for Board Development (Mt. Royal College 2006). Storytelling is a life-long love that finds its way into her professional speaking as well.
Writing for elemente design magazine, Andrée has interviewed some of the stars of the sustainable design movement, most recently Cameron Sinclair, TED winner and humanitarian; Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer-prise winning architectural critic for The New Yorker magazine; Bill Valentine, Chair of HOK, one of the world’s largest architectural and urban planning firms; and Alejandro Zaera-Polo, founder of Foreign Office Architects.
Never content with the status quo, Andrée is currently exploring what organizations can learn from the field of sustainable design. Her articles at Suite 101 celebrate outstanding examples of sustainability, critique corporate greenwashing and educate readers about sustainability principles that have stood the test of time. Listen to one of her presentations on innovation through sustainable design at Banff Park Radio. In addition to her writing for Suite 101 and elemente, Andrée has contributed recently to Canadian Manager, Training Matters, Network and E-Source (publications of the Human Resources Institute of Alberta), Charity Village NewsWeek and Gift Planning in Canada. Over the years, Andrée has received several awards, including a Medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada for her thesis project, a Ganesha award from the Faculty of Environmental Design at the Institute of Technology in Bandung, Indonesia, for her community development work, and recognition for her winning teams in corporate challenges at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
Q&A with Andrée Iffrig:
Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: I have been listening to stories in professional and personal settings for more than 20 years. That experience has led me to some firm convictions about the kind of stories that are productive and life-changing. It is with dismay that I read some of the commonly-accepted literature in the business community. Some of these corporate experts in storytelling are condescending to employees; reading their books, I have the impression that storytelling for them is about spin and marketing.
While storytelling can definitely be used for these purposes, I believe the future of organizations lies with employees who become accountable for creating workplaces where people like to work. Find Your Voice at Work is a call to arms: an invitation to employees to find their voices, be genuine and support each other.
The fall of the old economic order and Obama’s election are two signs that all of us who care about employee and community wellbeing need to find our voices and stand up for what we believe in. It’s time to create new paradigms for development. Storytelling in peer or community settings can help us find common ground for repairing and healing a broken world.Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: Be genuine. And be brave: your story, no matter how ordinary it may seem to you, could be life-changing for someone else. We need to hear your stories.Q: The objective, reportorial way you describe these peer-learning groups in “Finding Meaning in HR” (an article published in HRIA Journal in Winter 2008) reminds me of the “visiting anthropologist” role you describe in your book, Find Your Voice at Work: The Power of Storytelling in the Workplace — “like a bird in the sky who can see the big picture.” Do you play any other roles in these peer-learning groups? Did you create the concept of this storytelling peer-learning group? If so, can you briefly discuss how the concept evolved?
A: My preference as a facilitator is to provide participants with tools they can use in a peer-centred setting. Some of those tools, such as the self-directed learning groups or storytelling circles, do not require professional facilitation (in other words, they don’t need me). It is my hope that by making these tools readily available on the web, and through my book, that employees will find ways to work together productively and create friendlier workplace communities.
Other tools require, or benefit from, more formal facilitation. Storytelling Dice, which I developed, can be conducted without a professional facilitator; the success of the game is improved, however, with professional guidance in drafting topics and clarifying ground rules for generous listening. Not many people have experience of practicing generous listening.
I have studied with Rachel Naomi Remen, of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness in California, and have adapted storytelling tools she originally developed for workshops in the American medical community. Participants use stories in the course of my workshops, but the goal is not storytelling per se; rather, I help professionals revive a dream of serve. The vehicle for doing this is storytelling.
The other influence on my work has been participatory development. Working alongside the Ford Foundation in the 1980s in Indonesia, we were using story as a way to structure case studies of effective and ineffective management practices in non-government organizations. “Development from the Ground Up,” one of the final chapters in my book, describes our use of storytelling for improving the delivery of programs in the NGO sector.
More recently, I have been working with peer groups as a result of co-authoring a book with colleague Keith Seel. Seel is the director of the Institute of Nonprofit Studies at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta. He uses a discovery learning process that mirrors what we used in Indonesia. Remen and other practitioners are also deploying a discovery learning process: a process of reflection, discussion and discovery.
Interestingly, I am not involved in the actual peer group as it does its storytelling; I facilitate the process but I don’t participate. This is intimate sharing; only participants in the peer group hear each other’s stories and own the learning. I can tell you from long experience that this is powerful learning, transcending conventional adult learning techniques; it is non-didactic and creates a level playing field; and the process is bullet-proof—it works every time, producing amazing results.
My job is to embrace the energy in the room, create a safe place for sharing stories, and be compassionate. Chris Corrigan describes this as “The Tao of Open Space.”
About the genesis of peer learning groups:
Peer learning circles were in use more than a century ago in Sweden; you can learn a little more about their use by reading the introduction to a guide I co-write with Keith Seel, available online (p.10). Here is an excerpt from that page:
Peer Learning Circles (PLCs) are a vehicle for enhancing participatory learning
They promote a culture of learning and discovery
PLCs have been shown to overcome the inertia that many people experience when confronted by the need for change in organizations.
Field testing with this learning methodology has shown that PLCs result in the kind of higher level learning that positions participants to develop new perspectives and to jointly work out solutions to thorny problems.
Unlike more process-oriented approaches or conventional training techniques, PLCs emphasize a combination of reflection, discussion and shared learning or discovery. This is experiential rather than didactic or practical learning, and is retained by participants long after the learning
Most of us recognize the difference between a lecture, classroom-based training, and exploring ideas in a small group. PLCs fall into the latter category. The participatory approach of PLCs means that group participants have greater control over what they need and want to learn. This in turn increases their capacity individually and collectively for critical thinking, problem solving and decision making. The benefit to the organization is the creation of new learning and action plans for furthering its mandate.
A: This is a tricky question! Advocates of social networking will insist that it enhances relationship building. As someone concerned with employee wellbeing, I beg to differ. Human beings need Real Connections in addition to digital ones, and if you create a problem or misunderstanding with an email or other digital technology, you cannot solve it with more of the same; you absolutely have to phone the other party or meet.
I sit on the program committee for Canada’s annual conference on Health, Work and Wellness. The statistics from the conference are worrisome: many professionals feel isolated; they are incredibly stressed at work; their lives are filled with busyness but there are few opportunities to de-stress.
At the stage they become cynical or depressed, creating connections with others who may be struggling becomes paramount. To revive the heart of work requires subtle techniques that help people rise above their current perspective. Storytelling conducted in peer settings can help people.Q: In several places, you describe an activity called Storytelling Dice, which “generates a rich compilation of stories in a short time.” What other benefits are there to this activity? What are some situations especially well suited to Storytelling Dice?
A: I have just returned from a conference where participants played Storytelling Dice. Participants came from the disability services sector; they have heavy caseloads, low rates of pay, and few opportunities for connecting. They told me that the game is one they can take back into their workplaces to play with employees who report to them, or who are peers. They foresee using the game on a periodic basis to improve working relationships.
They also reported that they were affirmed by the storytelling process. Our society does not value the professionals who care for people with developmental disabilities. Playing Storytelling Dice reminded them of their value and also contributed to reviving the dream of service each of them originally brought into their work.
Q: In the workbook for Find Your Voice at Work: The Power of Storytelling in the Workplace, you caution against “Victim Narratives.” Can you talk a bit about why Victim Narratives are not helpful?
A: By now, you have read the section in my book on victim narratives, where I clearly state that everyone has a victim narrative, and you need to tell it and know you’ve been heard before you can move on to becoming a survivor or hero.
Victim narratives are not helpful if you never move on from narrating them; if you remain permanently stuck in the victim’s role. In the book there is a story about a dean of a large faculty at a university who concludes his 10 year tenure as dean feeling like a victim. Can you imagine what it would be like to work for this man, even assuming he tried to be nice to his employees? It would be punishing.
People who have read the section on victim narratives in my book report that as they read Jake, Melanie, and Alistair’s stories, they experience an “aha” moment, recognizing themselves in these stories. Everyone has been a victim at some time, often unwittingly; we just didn’t recognize it. I have learned that victims need to be heard before they move on to being accountable. A story is a way to go from being a victim to becoming a survivor.
For more on this aspect, I recommend two books (both featured in my book):
Cloke and Goldsmith, Resolving Personal and Organizational Conflict.
Kurtz and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.