To start off our blog in style, we thought we would recount our histories with participatory narrative inquiry (PNI) and our hopes for the future.

Into the past

How can I describe my journey with PNI? I can’t, because it hasn’t been a journey. I’ve never been far from home. I have sometimes found myself in what seemed like unfamiliar territory, but after a while I’ve always discovered that I’m just a day’s walk from where I was before. I guess you could say that I’ve never stopped describing circles around something central to my life. That central thing is what we do.

When I was a child, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I wasn’t exactly clear on what the word meant, and I think I conflated archaeology with paleontology, but I had an intense interest in what we — people and animals — do, and why we do it, and how we came to do it that way. By the time I finished college, I was pretty sure that ethology (the study of animal behavior) was going to be my way of studying what we do. I entered graduate school and expected my life to flow in the same course as the lives I saw there: teaching, research, professorship, and so on.

Falling on the ice derailed those expectations, and for a while I thought I would never return to thinking about what we do. As I started a new career as a programmer and writer, I found myself getting excited not about what we do but about helping people do things. This was another circle around the same thing, but in a more active way: not watching but empowering. I expected my life to flow in the same course as those of businesspeople I knew: product development, user testing, customer support, and so on.

Failing on the educational software market derailed those expectations, and for a while I thought I would never return to thinking about helping people do things. As I started a new career as a — as an anything, but I always fall back on writing — I stumbled into a group doing research into stories in organizations at IBM Research. I only applied for the job because my husband was already working there and we could commute together. But it wasn’t long before I discovered that I was circling the same thing again: what we do when we tell each other stories. As I learned more about people and stories, I realized that I was circling in both of the ways I had circled before: watching and empowering.

My third career has not yet ended. It has changed, deepened, built upon itself; but it still goes on. To be honest, I thought the third circling would have ended by now, because my circles seem to last about ten years each. But this one has been going on for almost fifteen years, and it doesn’t seem like it will end anytime soon. What will come next? I don’t know, but I have a suspicion that it will involve circling around some aspect of what we do.

Have I circled with other people? Yes of course I have. Sometimes I have walked with a person or a team for  years, and our steps have fallen into a steady, comfortable rhythm, each knowing where best to step next to keep the team moving forward. But teams come and go. Sometimes I have seen people beckoning to me from far away, and sometimes I have circled wider to walk near another person. Sometimes paths have met up not in cooperation but in jarring discord, and both paths have become distorted, staggering, then finally separated. Sometimes I have walked alone.

And sometimes I have walked along believing I was alone, focusing only on my own two feet, only to look up and find someone else walking right next to me. I think those times have been my favorite times: when I’ve discovered that I have not been as alone as I thought I was. When I discovered footprints on the sand right next to mine and looked up to find new friends. This new network and web site came about through such a discovery. I hope we can keep walking together for a while. I hope you can walk with us.

(Note: If you were looking for a factual rather than absurdly poetical account of my professional background, you can find that on my web site and at the end of my book. I thought that people who have already read those details might like to read something different here.)

Into the future

Enough poetry (of that sort); now we should move on to my hopes for the new PNI Institute. I can think of four distinct things I would like to happen within this new endeavor.

A community of mutual support. I love working on a great team. Don’t you? I love that feeling of discovering that we’ve just done something none of us could have done alone. I love discovering new ways to help each other with feedback, ideas, and sometimes a needed wake-up call or even a kick in the pants. I like knowing that I have people around me who won’t let me get carried away on my own hype. I think we all need that. So I’m energized by the possibility of building a community where we can all learn from each other.

A more specific hope in the area of mutual support is that we have a lively discussion forum on which people can bring up ideas, gather feedback, ask questions, and respectfully challenge each other when we become smug or complacent. I hope we can get some synergy going around that idea.

A rich resource base. One of the reasons I spent years writing my book was that I felt frustrated with what was “out there” to help people learn about stories. When I looked for books about stories, I found so many books on how to tell great stories, but so few on how to listen (and even fewer on how to help people work with their own stories).

Now that I’ve finally finished the book, I still feel that it is not enough. People still ask questions I haven’t answered in the book, even though it is far too long. The book isn’t enough, and I’m not enough. The world needs more than a single textbook. It needs a collective accomplishment. I am very excited to have found some people who want to do what I want to do, and I hope that PNI will grow as an approach useful to millions of people because of this new endeavor.

A more specific hope in the area of resources is that we eventually have some sort of wiki or other resource base, which helps newcomers to the approach get up to speed in any way that works for them — with diagrams, videos, case studies, whatever helps people get started.

A web of connections. The more I learn about methods for doing all of the things PNI cares about — helping people make decisions, transcending conflicts, bringing people together, helping people learn — the more I want to explore all the synergistic connections between PNI and other approaches. People who develop approaches talk past each other so much that I fear they may sometimes do more harm than good by bringing even more unrelated, isolated approaches into the world. I’d like to change that.

Right now PNI seems to me like a tree standing on a plain, with some other trees in the distance, but nothing close by. This is not anyone’s fault; it’s just the results of years and years of heads-down, concentrated effort on producing results. In five or ten years’ time, I’d like to see PNI as a tree linked deeply into a complex forest ecosystem, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its neighbors as animals (projects) scamper from one tree to the next, gathering what they need. I’d like to see PNI exchanging ideas freely through a vast underground mycorrhizal (idea) network.

Of course I want people to be connected in a PNI network; but that’s the easy part. I’d also like to see the ideas in PNI reach out and connect with the ideas in fields such as narrative therapy, appreciative inquiry, participatory theatre, qualitative research, conflict resolution — the number of potential connections is enormous.

A specific hope in the area of connections (actually this is more of a nascent idea) is the building of a translation dictionary, a set of babel-fish-like links reaching out from PNI into the dozens of related fields and approaches. I’m thinking of a wiki-style resource, with each page connecting PNI and another field or approach by explaining the top five or ten terms (like “narrative sensemaking” or “catalysis”) in the language of the other approach. It’s amazing how much great work is going on in the world, if we could only understand what we hear.

Global embarrassment. People who know me know my embarrassment rule: that I hope to be embarrassed by anything I’ve done in a few years’ time, because that will mean I have improved. I would love it if, five or ten years from now, what we all think we know about participatory narrative inquiry right now makes us blush. I would like us all to look back and say, “We did the best we could back then, but we can do so much more now.” I think we can do that. I think the world needs us to do that.

A specific hope on embarrassment? I don’t have one. The embarrassment rule doesn’t work that way. It either happens (and then you know you are doing things right) or it doesn’t. You can’t plan to be embarrassed by your progress; you can only do your best. If we have succeeded in being globally embarrassed by the things we say and do now, we will know it when the time comes.