Yesterday a colleague asked me to explain how a narrative approach to conflict differs from a more positivist approach.
This is the answer I gave her and I thought it might be of interest to others interested in how stories related to conflict.
Almost two weeks ago now, I was learning a new turn in my Lindy Hop class. I thought I had it, but somehow on the 20th try, I got confused and landed on my ankle. I hollered and collapsed on the floor. I was out of my mind with pain.
A positivist approach to the "conflict" resembles an allopathic approach.
Allopathic approaches (modern Western medicine) and positivism (in conflict) would look right at the foot. And, it was hard not to look at the foot..it was large and blue.
I went to Urgent Care. They looked at the foot, touched the foot, x-rayed the foot, asked me to talk about the foot, and put the foot in the cast you see to the left.
Makes sense. Foot hurts, look at the foot.
Two days later, I went to a Chinese Medicine doctor: acupuncture works very well to reduce swelling. This doctor did not even look at my foot. She said when the wound is "acute" you cannot work right on it.
She showed me how my opposite hand was swollen as a result of my foot. So she put 5 needles in my hand and left the room.
This might be a considered more holistic approach to conflict resolution. It looks at the whole body, not just the area in distress.
So where does narrative fit into all of this? How do stories figure into a sprained ankle? A narrative approach might look at the stories I had running at the time I fell, maybe even the week before, and especially the ones I have running now.
Let's keep this simple and just focus on the stories I had after the fall.
I knew from my work on narrative and psychology, the meaning I start ascribing at the moment of the fall and in the coming days would impact how quickly I recovered and how content I felt during the recovery.
For example, as soon as I fell, my mind started racing to all of the ways this was going to screw up my fall. I thought "oh, shit, I'll be out of commission for months. I might have to get surgery. It might be ruined forever." Quickly, knowing the power of meaning making, I shut down these thoughts.
I knew if I started telling the story that this "conflict" was going to ruin my autumn season and forever ruin my ankle, then it might.
That was not a future that I was interested in living. So, I used my understanding of narrative to construct a story that would help me heal quickly and, even possibly, enjoy the process. In other words, I did a "narrative intervention" on myself.
Instead of talking about all the ways in which being on crutches was massively inconvenient. I decided to tell a different story to myself and others.
My new story:
"This has oddly been a gift. I am more present, slower, I even am reading better. I am more focused in my work and less distracted by all the shiny objects that surround me. I am learning what it is like to be disabled. This helps me appreciate all the wonderful ways in which DC accommodates disability. I am learning compassion for people for whom mobility is their daily focus. I wave at others on crutches (or, nod, actually since my hands are not free). I am amazed at the kindness of others and feel more patient with myself in many areas in my life."
In narrative we call this "a better formed story."
Deciding to tell a story of "this accident has something to teach me and I am going to find the gifts" instead of "This is really frustrating and this will be a long slow recovery," has made the past two weeks an incredible journey. Though of course I look forward to running again, driving my car and getting my haircut. and not being afraid of the escalator.
But by adding a narrative approach to the allopathic and holistic approaches, I staved off an emotional handicap that such an injury can create. Narrative approaches can help people find agency. Allopathic and positivist approaches talk about the problem and different solutions. They work well together.
A note here that most analogies fall short when pushed too far. This might be such an example of going too far.
I just wanted to highlight the difference between an approach that focuses on "fixing the foot," seeing the foot as separate from my whole self, and one that places me, my soul, in the center. Narrative understands how we create meaning and the impact the meanings we assign can have on our lives. I will listen to the doctor and then decide for myself how that information will affect my story and therefore, my life.
More to come on how to apply this to larger conflicts.....