Christina Blacken on the Power of Narrative Intelligence
November 10, 2022
Christina Blacken is a public speaker, performer, and founder of The New Quo. The New Quo is a leadership development and equity consultancy, helping leaders create inclusive practices, habits, and goals through their narrative intelligence, which is the psychological power of story to change behavior.

She creates transformational learning experiences on the topics of leadership, equity, and behavior change, and helps emerging and current leaders to use behavioral-science based narrative techniques to disrupt bias, build better relationships, and communicate new ideas with deeper connection and influence to achieve status-quo breaking goals. She's applied this methodology to a variety of equity problems, from social media content moderation, to creating equity goals and practices for every area of a business, to helping companies create more inclusive language in their content and services. She's trained over 10,000 leaders across 9 industries, and has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, and among other outlets.

What is narrative intelligence?

If I showed you a picture of a splash in a lake, what do you think caused the ripple? I show a picture of a water ripple and ask this question in most of my inclusive leadership and DEI training sessions, and every person has a different story to explain the phenomenon in the picture.

Narrative intelligence (NI), which I’ve written about in a white paper, is our inborn ability to create patterns and attach meaning to what’s happening in the world around us through stories. NI is using narrative to change behavior by identifying the social and cultural narratives that influence your own internal beliefs and behavior, and leveraging stories to influence other people’s emotions, beliefs, and behaviors.

Everything we do as humans is tied to narrative. Religion is a narrative collection of stories about morals and values. History is a narrative collection of the meaning of past events. Education is a narrative about knowledge. Entertainment is narratives that take people on unexpected fictional journeys to evoke aspirational and thought provoking emotions. Decision making is narrative. Whatever goals you are striving towards requires narrative intelligence to achieve them.

Why does narrative intelligence matter?

When you hear a story, the neural activity in your brain increases five-fold. This incredible

feature of storytelling is the result of two cognitive processes: narrative transportation - a phenomenon which helps you lose yourself in a story, and neural coupling, which causes the neurons in your brain to fire in the same ways as the storyteller. These impacts of story on the brain make it the most effective tool on the planet for trust building and behavior change.

Your narrative intelligence is like a superpower that comes with benefits if you invest in improving your own, from increasing your ability to influence others and have them adopt your ideas, to reducing bias in communications and building better relationships with people who aren’t like yourself.

Narrative intelligence gives you the ability to slow down behavior, recognize biased patterns of thinking, and understand and truly connect with each other’s values, past, present, and future. False narratives picked up from family, school, church, work, media and other institutions are at the core of biased thinking and behaviors. When we listen and share stories, oxytocin is released and empathy is increased. Without story, we cannot create the deep bonds necessary for well-being and flourishing which are necessary for overcoming the many inequalities plaguing our communities and society.

How can corporate leaders and startup founders incorporate this powerful work in their workplaces? (Of course hiring you is a good place to start!)

Narrative intelligence plays a huge role in diversity, equity, and inclusion, because biases are immensely shaped through the stories we ingest and believe. My work is about helping leaders and founders use their narrative intelligence to turn their values of DEI into practices, policies, and behaviors that achieve status-quo breaking goals.

The public wants corporate leaders to really prioritize DEI, but many leaders approach Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) as a tool in response to bad press, employee or consumer complaints, or for positive brand spin.

Corporate leaders need to start by understanding the importance of DEI as it impacts every area of your organization, from the success of your products and services, the delivery of your goals, to your recruitment and employee retention outcomes.

One way I help leaders to do this is through a behavior change process I call the Status Quo Shifting Method:

Awareness: First, leaders need to become more aware of the historical, social, and cultural stories that impact their own personal beliefs, communication styles, and behaviors. Narrative inquiry is a process of doing this by asking the right reflective questions to understand your own internal narratives and how they impact your leadership and communication approach. A few great questions to start that process:

  • What is my relationship to power? What power do I have with the various identities I hold? How do I express that power on a daily basis through what I say, what I do, and what I believe I am entitled to?
  • What assumptions have I made or projected onto others based on my experiences of power? What beliefs do I hold about how the world works that are not applicable to people without the same identities that wield power?
  • How diverse are my networks? What does my inner circle look like? If I have the power to hire and fire people, how many people who do not look like myself have I helped hire/sponsor/develop into a position of genuine leadership and authority?

Accountability and Action: once there’s more awareness of the cultural and social stories that lead to various biases, feeling a personal responsibility to the role we each play in maintaining those biases, and then taking conscious daily actions by building inclusive habits, drives genuine change. Those new actions could include a DEI audit, new recruitment, performance development, and goal setting practices, and even further training to get everyone to the same level of understanding and communication skills for building healthy relationships.

There are so many leadership and DEI consultants and experts out there, including myself, who have processes and clear ways of operationalizing DEI in the workplace. My approach is unique in the sense that every person has an inbuilt tool, narrative intelligence, that can make them an inclusive leader. They just need the right environment, education, and tools to leverage it.

Narrative intelligence can make or break a company's culture, the goals they set, and the impacts they have in the world. This ripple effect means our various levels of narrative intelligence have huge impacts on how we move through the world and the impacts we leave behind.

You shared with me recently about very interesting work you did with NextDoor. Can you share more about this project with our readers?

I’m so proud of this work. It began with an RFP Nextdoor created in 2020, after a ton of research into challenges of moderating content in a continuously polarized and hostile social climate we’re in. I created an Inclusive Moderation Course to train and support their moderators, designed from my training IP. The course helps Neighborhood Team members on Nextdoor facilitate respectful conversations by learning the history and psychology of both conscious and unconscious bias, and gives them best practices for building inclusive, respectful, and kind communities—both on Nextdoor, and in the real world.

I use my performance background to sing, entertain, and inform course participants with tools to build compassionate and empathetic communications into their interactions with each other in their neighborhoods as well as strategies to better recognize and respond to bias and microaggressions in posts.

Over 37k individuals have signed up to take the course, with over 10k fully completing the course, which has been rated a 4.2 out of 5 stars with 94% of participants rating the course material good-excellent. This is no small feat when talking about very challenging topics like bias, race, microaggressions with participants of all different demographics, ages, political leanings, and racial backgrounds. Stanford University’s research arm, SPARQ, has been involved in evaluating the impact of the course and found that the course has increased moderators’ abilities to recognize bias in online conversations (e.g.: posts that may include use of microaggressions and stereotypes), increases their sense of personal agency to combat any conscious or unconscious bias that they may see, and improves their ability to react and moderate any online conversations that use biased language or experiences.

Can you share with us how you came to do this work?

My family was part of the Great Migration of Black Americans from the Southern region of the U.S. and migrated from Memphis, Tennessee to Utah in the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up in Utah and my childhood of being a minority religiously, politically, and racially taught me how powerful story can be for influencing how we treat one another, and inspired the work I do now. In my career before starting The New Quo I spent 10 years using storytelling to change behavior in various roles and industries, from motivating 300k young people to get involved in various social causes, to closing 6.5 million in sales with various teams I worked with all through using narrative and building story campaigns. Every time I began to shift my own narratives and beliefs about myself, my work, and my life and shared that with others, dramatic growth and change occurred.

I founded The New Quo, which is a leadership and equity consultancy that uses behavioral-science based communication and storytelling strategies to help organizations and individuals transform behavior and build inclusive communities. I began to teach the power of narrative intelligence as a radical tool of change that everyone can access and leverage for personal transformation and reaching their full potential as leaders after seeing its impact in my corporate life and personal life.

How can others support your mission?

Engaging with my thought leadership is such a great place to start. I have a podcast on acts of courage from unconventional leaders called Sway Them in Color that brings irreverent and engaging interviews on so many life topics, various white papers on using NI as a tool for overcoming self-doubt and fear, and of course reaching out directly to if you’re in need of a speaker, training, or consulting on the topics of DEI, leadership, and behavior change.

What should we be paying attention to this week, this month, this coming year as we think about a future of work that works for everyone?

Conventional business goals are failing us. They are worn out clothes we’ve all outgrown and need to donate. A false narrative most organizations follow is what I’ve coined as the King Kong effect - pursuing wild, thoughtless growth and profit to the detriment and bewilderment of our ecosystem, and human flourishing. You can already see the fall out of these conventional goals - quiet quitting, the great resignation, climate change.

Questioning the dominant and destructive narratives that we build our workplaces around is key to creating new norms that can create the best outcomes for the most people, instead of exploiting and harming them.

Everyone should aspire to new types of goals, ones I call corporate social justice goals.

What women are on your radar?

I could list so many names but we have limited time so I’ll list the four that are coming to mind right now. My dear friend Cyndie Spiegel who is an amazing community builder and releasing her forthcoming book Microjoys: Finding Hope Especially When Life is Not Ok, Kathryn Finney who just released a dope book called Build the Damn Thing: How to Start a Successful Business if You’re Not a Rich White Guy, and Francesca Hogi who’s work and writing on the romantic industrial complex, love, and relationships I adore.

What are you currently obsessed with OR one thing you highly recommend?

The Artist's Way will change your relationship with your own creativity forever, and The Desire Map will completely change your perspective and approach to how you think about goal setting and personal achievement.

Which work tools/courses/apps have made your life easier?

I live by using calendly to organize my time and streamline the process of setting up chats and meetings.

Thinkific has been an incredible tool for scaling my work into courses that can be accessed at any time by thousands of individuals, and Otter AI, is a genius website that makes transcribing interviews more than a breeze.



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