Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stop Action Storytelling

 I began my story …
I never knew who this guy was, but even before the meeting started he sought me out. Undoubtedly he had just arrived from the airport for this big meeting we were running for the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the Great Flood of '93, when the Mississippi overflowed its banks for months. He walked right up to me, a mass of curly black hair, green-canvas backpack slung over one shoulder. He extended his hand, not to shake mine, but to push a computer disk in my face. “This is my recommendation,” he said, “I need to print this out.”
… and then I stopped. I asked the group, “What would you do, and why?”

“Stop Action Storytelling” is a technique I use in training workshops. I tell a story that is pertinent to the subject matter – a true story or a composite of true stories in which I was involved, often with names and places changed. At a critical point in the story, where I or someone else in the story had to make a decision – to choose one action or another – I interrupt the story and ask the group, “What would you do, and why?”

Typically a number of people respond, describing the action they would take and their rationale. Each response can spawn a group discussion to explore the underlying reasoning and alternative actions that could be taken. Afterwards, I continue with the story, explaining what I actually did and why I did it, and – too often – what I wish I had done instead. The intent is not to find the single best answer, or even to agree on what should have been done, but rather to explore the underlying reasons – the values and principles that guide us – and the repertoire of actions that might be used to enact them.

The approach is based on the Critical Incident Technique. I first used this approach at the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) conference in 2000 in a session entitled, “Critical incidents: How do our values and principles guide us?” This well-attended session led to the creation of the Ethics and Values Task Force that developed IAF's Statement of Values and Code of Ethics for Group Facilitators.

Many of the stories I use in Stop Action Storytelling have multiple stopping points. For examples, here are two stories I have used in workshops for group facilitators: The Meaning of Wilderness and The Unaccustomed Participant.


Flanagan, John C. (1954). The critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin, 51, 4, 327-358.


  1. Thank you! This is great information, and I am looking forward to trying it out in some groups I teach, and passing it on.

  2. Thanks this is a great Article.
    I used a form of this as a create your own adventure Story at Girl Scout camps. It encouraged the girls to really be co-creaters and problem solvers. It was fun and it gave Adult volunteers insight to our campers needs, priorities, and hobbies.
    During that same 20 year period I was involved in Fire fighting and a an EMT. I was the Training officer for 2 of those years and it never occurred to me to use my recreational Story game with adults for planning and review. What a great idea!!! I will share it with others who can use it.

  3. Sandor, Thanks for the storytelling tool. I run workshops focused on critical & strategic thinking and I'm often challenged by the participants' lack of imagination. This gives them a running start.


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