March 2020 Event Review: Changing Workplace Narratives – Exploring the Power of Story with Andrew Rixon

Written by: Charlotte Francis, Grants specialist and writer, sometime ODA visitor!

Andrew Rixon

ODA’s March event was delivered online via Zoom reflecting the new reality of physical distancing and home-based working during the Covid-19 pandemic. More than ever, we need story to make sense of our changing world.

The session started with a warm-up exercise where everyone in the group chose an image from a group of images and shared why the picture resonated with them. We also explored the story of name, why our parents chose it, what it signified and how, and if, it had changed in any way. A great exercise to use with groups and it’s also a great way to help remember names.

A new experience for many of us, and a big success, was using Zoom break-out rooms for small group activities. Again using images as story triggers, we chose an image that related to our experience as OD professionals and then moved into story association. So many of our stories have common themes: where have we come from, where do we belong, journeys into new territory. We had fun exploring the wider universal significance of these stories through myth and fairy tales; it’s fascinating to be reminded how many of these fairy tales from childhood are embedded in our psyche. And that all stories share a common arc: the classic hero’s journey with a challenge that is resolved by the end of the tale.

Andrew shared with us how story-telling creates deeper connection and engagement in organisations, giving insight into what’s going on but, also, into what’s not being said. What stood out was the power of stories to overcome taboos, build empathy and trust, and to provide a creative way to resolve issues. I loved Andrew’s example of getting participants in an all-male company to explore the issue of flexible working practices through creating a fairy tale, and then drawing out the meaning.

In an activity named stop-action story-telling, we workshopped approaches to gathering stories and looked at story-eliciting methods. In terms of story-telling ground-rules everyone agreed on the importance of ensuring anonymity, time limits, creating a safe and confidential environment and giving all participants the chance to speak. Andrew’s case study of his work with the EPA around noise suffering in the community showed just how powerful story-telling can be in breaking down barriers and increasing understanding. He used visuals of noise-maker and noise sufferer archetypes and captured their stories via audio and in writing, and, then – and this is the bit I found genius – took in a subwoofer to start the EPA workshop, setting it at the 50-hertz sine tone, a stress-inducing low rumbling vibrational sound. What better way of making noise stress relatable to EPA workshop participants?

Our wrap-up reflection and learning exercise was to summarise in six words what we learnt over the evening. In closing, we celebrated how lively, participative and experiential the session had been given the online format. With one person joining in from Sydney, it underlined how story-telling builds connecting, engagement and supports connections worldwide. Thank you, Andrew!