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Storytelling for individual growth

The ancient sages are full of advice on living a balanced life, most of related to avoiding adversarial contests in which neither side wins. For example:

Achieve success, but without vanity
Achieve success, but without aggression:
Achieve success, but without arrogance;
Achieve success, but without gain;
Achieve success, but without force.
Lao Tzu

They are somewhat less helpful when it comes to figuring out how to do this.

One possible key lies in the realization that abstract argument inevitably pushes one into the combative modes of discourse:

E.g. She attacked every weak point in my argument.
Your criticisms are right on target.
If you use that strategy, you'll get wiped out.
He shot down all of my arguments.
Lakoff & Johnson

In abstract argument: The loser loses. The winner destroys the opponent, and also loses The situation is no-win.

Is there an alternative?

"Imagine a world …
where no one wins or loses,
where there is no sense of attacking or defending,
no gaining or losing ground.
Imagine a culture where an argument is a dance…”
Lakoff & Johnson

This is the world of storytelling, a world where narrative intelligence enables interactive relationship full of laughter

It's also the true language of leadership that "feels fresh and inviting, energizing and invigorating, challenging and yet enjoyable, lively, spirited, and fun, as when equals are talking to equals. It generates laughter and energy. It is not laughter at others, but laughter with others. It’s the exhilaration of the discovery of possibility. Leaders show people that the end they thought they were coming to has unexpectedly opened: they laugh at what has surprisingly come to be possible." The Secret Language of Leadership, chapter 1.

Conversations Are About Learning

Leadership is less about telling people what to do, and more about having conversations in which they themselves discover what is best.

"Conversations are crucial to leadership because leadership entails the co-creation of innovation. Leaders depend on their followers to help complete the change idea in action. Since no complex new idea survives contact with reality intact, adaptation is inevitable. And adaptation will require the inputs of those involved in implementation. As the contexts in which the idea is being implemented will differ, so the knowledge of those differences will be important. And the contributions of those who have such knowledge will be critical.

"Conversation facilitates learning. It allows people with different views and experiences to understand each other. A good conversation has “trapdoors, secret gardens and hidden staircases.”9 It is full of surprises and unexpected discoveries. Conversations allow participants to explore these different pathways, construct their own meaning from what’s being said, and learn how to adapt a change idea to their specific contexts.

"In conversations, there is the laughter of recognition: it’s a stretching exercise for the brain and the heart. Conversations are seriously playful. When participants engage openly, there is no telling in advance how things will turn out. “To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. . . . When we are playful with each other. . . the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence.” (Finite and Infinite Games) By contrast, “seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility.” (ibid) To be serious is to press for a predetermined conclusion. To be playful is to allow for unanticipated possibility.

"Conversation is the intersection of multiple stories. As conversationalists, participants live on the threshold of different worlds. They come ready to explore other stories, other ways of seeing things, other universes. As Theodore Zeldin says in his delightful little book Conversations: “Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.” From The Secret Language of Leadership, chapter 11.


See Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership. Jossey-Bass, October 2007.

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago, 1980.

James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games.

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