Story Harvesting – A Wonderful Surprise

November 22, 2013

This morning — very early indeed — I appeared at UBC for an event to which I had been invited. I was unsure what to expect and what was expected of me.  But I needn’t have worried — it was a gas.

The event was put on by graduate students of the SPARC urban planning department. Many  have taken an optional semester-length course about Negotiation and Mediation. Today was the penultimate class for them, and it was all about group conflict and resolution. It used a method called story harvesting.

There were seven story tellers, around each of whom were gathered a group of students. There was a First Nations carver, a couple of community activists, a counsellor or two. We story-tellers had to tell a personal story about conflict and resolution (or not) for about half and hour.  We were then questioned by the students at the table for another half hour to bring out details and clarifications of the story told.  Each of the students at each table had to collect material on a particular theme — one looked for elements of “working with fear”, another on “unlikely leaders”, a third on “aha moments”; six themes in all.

In the second phase, the students separated into groups based on the theme they were collecting. So all the “unlikely leader” collectors met together, all the “fear” together, etc.  They worked in their groups to pick out unifying ideas and concepts that appeared in each of the story.

In the meanwhile, the story tellers sat together and we were led by a facilitator to discuss how we felt about the stories we had told, what we had learned from the experience. Several story-tellers noted how emotional they had become while telling their story, and we all remarked on the “safe” atmosphere that had been generated and that atmosphere had encouraged sharing.

Finally, we all gathered together and facilitators from each theme table discussed what they had discovered, what they and their colleagues had prised from the sessions. While we talked, some students created graphics of the discussion. The session ended by a short interpretive dance and music piece by two of the students.

It was a marvelous experience. These are baby city planners we were dealing with and it gave me great hope that the next generation of planners will give more heed to community and individual experience, and will not be sucked into the awful top-down approach that Vancouver is suffering through today.