Unexpected lessons from the journey

The significance of story-telling and emotional vulnerability in leading positive change by Tejal Patel.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

When we think about issues that we have with today’s world leaders we often regard them as ‘disconnected’, ‘not in touch with the everyday citizen’ or ‘unemotive’ in their efforts to understand and instigate development in the variety of communities that make up every region and country. I found myself struck by the very crux of this issue upon reflection of my Drivers for Change journey.

Wellbeing session in the sunshine on the Drivers for Change journey
Wellbeing session in the sunshine on the journey

My assumptions prior to the Drivers for Change journey were the following: it would entail workshop after workshop on how to build a business and how to tackle social issues that concern specific communities around the UK, broken up by a series of uncomfortable coach journeys with people I didn’t know and would probably not feel too moved by in the short amount of time we had together. Most of my expectations were completely subverted. This was, in part, because I’d never considered the emotive aspect of this journey, the part that had us walking away saying ‘this journey was life-changing’, ‘it was ineffable’, ‘it left me with memories that would last a lifetime’; things that someone who didn’t come along with us would never wholly understand. Yes, we did have workshops on building a social enterprise, yes, we also went into communities and learnt about existing social enterprises and their efforts to build up communities or tackle various social issues, but throughout the journey we were given the space to share our stories, and this is where I realised I had neglected a significant aspect of social development. It was what I can only define as emotional learning; acquiring a type of knowledge about oneself and those around you that facilitates the development of empathy, compassion and significant insight into why individuals are moved to act in certain ways.

Tejal with new friends Al-Ameen and Mayla
Tejal with new friends Al-Ameen and Mayla

In a socio-economic system based on human-wants, and therefore emotion, it may seem obvious that this is not a neglected aspect in business and yet, we are barely taught how to connect with others emotively or with empathy. Several thoughts came to mind as I was invited to take part in these exercises in interpersonal engagement, namely, if we want to change the way society operates, our efforts should be directed at understanding individuals and groups on a human level. Through various exercises in story-telling, Jude Kelly illustrated this idea to our cohort, that sharing stories empowers: it says ‘your narrative matters’. One exercise that stood out, during our time in Edinburgh, was when we had to share an object with another person that had meaning to us or represented our story in some way. We had to then repeat the other person’s story in first-person narration to them. This simple task addressed a more complex lesson in empathy: one that got us to engage with a viewpoint completely outside of ourselves. It gave rise to the idea that where you come from shouldn’t matter as to where you are going, but this should not take away from the significant role your story plays in who you become, and that this story is valid and important. Moreover, it isn’t selfish or egoistic to acknowledge and share these parts of yourself, but paradoxically in expressing more of your own emotive experiences widens the space for others to feel secure enough to express their own stories, hopes and worries.

It was after this day of story-telling that I observed a shift in the way we addressed one another; all of a sudden, we, on the DFC journey, had created a community where we firstly, felt safer and more willing to contribute to the DFC environment but also became more responsive to our peers. I was left with the question: why is this so powerful and important? To which I concluded that the willingness to tell our own stories, or understand others, is a willingness to introspect deeply. This, in turn, develops our humility and compassion, an integral part of leadership. The idea that stories bring people together is often thrown around as cliché, but this should be looked at more deeply.

Story-telling across a community is, in part, the sharing of a diverse number of perspectives and ideas; and is this not the basis of human connection?

Intrigued and slightly in awe of the setting that had been created, I was left asking, is it naïve or idealistic to think a community could be like this? To which I think no, it is truly plausible.

As David Orr wrote: ‘the plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people, but it does desperately need more peacemakers, storytellers…it needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it’.

It is individuals like the ones on the DfC journey, who have a willingness, not to assert power over others, but break down barriers, by sharing perspectives and being open to understanding each other empathetically. This emotional learning is not just to make us more empathetic individuals, or more understanding of others, but I see that it is an integral aspect of this societal paradigm shift away from existing isolation, deprivation and divide. We can only instigate change in human activity and behaviour if we understand it, and this means understanding all aspects of it, especially those interpersonal and emotional. And if anything, sharing stories is a powerful and valuable way to do so.

Thank you to Tejal for writing us this blog post and for capturing a part of the experience that is hard to put into words.