A call for investment in narrative competency in divided times


Julia Roig and Dr Solon Simmons


One thing everyone seems to agree on these days is how divided we are. Toxic polarisation has many inter-connected causes and overlapping effects on society and on our political systems throughout the world. It also takes a very personal toll on individuals. Philanthropy can make a difference in addressing toxic polarisation by investing in Narrative Competency for their staff, partners, and grantees. Not only is this competency essential from a tactical perspective to achieve lasting social change; it is also desperately needed for any kind of healing and to avoid worsening divides.

Are philanthropists willing to center self-reflection and restoring societal relationships at the core of their giving, along-side their other priority issues? These are the critical demands of an era of toxic polarisation, and narrative competence may be the very thing that helps us to better understand ourselves while we work across the divides of broken relationships. 

Polarisation around any given issue is not necessarily bad. It is a normal aspect of a democratic society where conflict and disagreements over issues are healthy and drive needed change. Toxic polarisation, on the other hand, occurs when we start to ‘otherise’ and ‘de-humanise’ those who are not seen as within our in-group causing us to think more about how to hurt the other side than about how to help ourselves, compromising our ability to solve real problems and decreasing respect for the very institutions of democratic governance.

So why is narrative competency so important in this era of toxic polarisation? Narrative is a central and cutting-edge topic in a variety of well-established academic fields, encompassing much more than strategic communications or storytelling.  The study of narrative bridges the artificial divides between rationality and emotion or interests and identity that were once typical in the scientific literature and it offers important insights that need to be more widely embedded within the philanthropic ecosystem. To summarise a complicated topic: ‘narrative‘ is an abstract template for sensemaking, the central intersection of multiple, related stories that makes it possible for us to see the world in a meaningful way. Narrative is the lens through which human beings see the world and understand how it operates, and for whom it is the basis of political and moral decision making.

It is now commonplace to see organisations investing resources in order to ‘shift narratives’ or to combat ‘false narratives’. But before ‘combatting’ takes place, each of us needs to understand our own interface with narratives. Narrative competency shifts the story back from ‘the other’ to ourselves, demanding self-awareness of the way in which we contribute to the problem. Those with narrative competence actively seek out others who think differently. They test out assumptions against evidence and question their own biases toward the plots and characters that populate the narratives that resonate so powerfully within their own ‘bubbles’. People with narrative competency are more politically effective, using their improved observation skills, advanced active listening abilities, increased capacities for self-reflection and renewed openness to new ideas to engage on substance instead of surrendering to storytelling and rhetorical style. Activists, journalists, and organisers will all be more effective and resilient when they are more competent in the analysis and use of narrative devices.

Most important, committing to narrative competency does not mean giving up on our values and it’s not about just manipulating the other side to get what we want; rather it teaches us to better recognise the sources of our own values and to better integrate these priorities into larger stories that align with the purposes and ambitions of our supposed adversaries.

This piece is Part 1 in a series exploring investing in narrative competency. Part 2 explores the ‘how’ of this question.

Julia Roig is the President of Partners Global, an international non-profit dedicated to democracy and peacebuilding, and @jroig_Partners on Twitter. Dr Solon Simmons is an Associate Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and @solonsimmons on Twitter.

Comments (2)

Ina Breuer, Executive Director, NEID

Dear Julia and Solon, Thank you for raising this very important issue, esp. at this moment when everyone is reexamining their own values, introspecting and actually trying to listen. I run a donor network of international donors and philanthropists out of Boston that has members nation wide and many are very concerned with the polarization they are witnessing in the US but also actively working to re-understand decolonization and what it means in the global context today. We are reading, talking to others and actively learning and changing grant making practices. But nonetheless - for all of us - actually seeing one's own role in the interplay of forces that shape the polarized dialogue is the hardest thing and takes time. Immigration is a good example of an issue - where polarization is very hard to overcome. Both/all sides have fears, truths, standard arguments, positions and language. But its only once we see how our arguments and positions affect how others act that we will see the vicious circle of polarization in this debate. And its only once we see that circle and "get on the balcony" that we will find a way to re-conceptualize this issue, and find new solutions. One lens that many in philanthropy have become familiar with in the last few years and that I believe is a part of practicing "narrative competency" in conflict resolution terms is systems thinking. This is a road in - that can help make the case in philanthropy for funding "narrative competency" within their own organizations and among their grantees and make the case for unraveling the complexity of what we are facing. I agree that its vital that we all to take the time to reflect on who we are in the context of the larger picture and take the time to understand what dynamics will enable people on all sides to find new language and conceptualize new solutions. It will take this sort of activity and time to find a new common vision.

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