Storytelling – sharing our experiences

This missive will be the first in a short series about storytelling. Much of my time as a conflict resolution specialist is spent listening to stories.

Sadly, my father died in 2006. For most of his life he was a church minister and as the youngest of five children I had no choice but to accompany my family to Sunday School. As time went by I learnt a few tricks to get out of going, but not enough to keep me away every Sunday. A memory that has stuck with me from this period of my childhood is of being in a class with about twenty other children hearing stories from the Bible. I can even remember the name of our teacher – a lady called Hermin Barclay. Ms Barclay told us how Jesus regularly used parables in his teaching sessions, and indeed it seemed to me that he in fact had a story to describe almost every situation.

Later in my life, as a corporate executive, I attended an advanced presentation skills training course, during which we were encouraged to tell our own stories as part of giving our message. The trainers suggested that stories have a way of gripping the attention of the listener. They commented that human beings have an innate interest in hearing about the life experiences of others. As we practised and rehearsed this principle during the course the word ‘parable’ was never mentioned, but images of Hermin Barclay and her teaching came flooding back to me.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, storytelling became a key tool in the kit bag for executives, comedians, politicians, speech writers and speech givers. When we tell stories, we share our heart. We become vulnerable as we relive experiences from our past. These stories might be sad, funny, distressing, regretful, long or short. Anyone who has experienced conflict will have embarked on a journey and will have a story of their own. In some cases the journey may have come to a successful end—some individuals and their opponents work out differences on their own or with the help of a third party. Other journeys may have ended in a more negative manner or may still be continuing. In some cases the journey could continue for years, as some never quite manage to find a resolution to the situation that has separated them and their adversary.

 Sharing our experiences

When we talk about our life experiences, we invite the listener to enter into our world and share the experience that we have lived. Telling stories encourages communication below the surface and promotes community, kinship and unity by bringing people together.

As we tell our stories we become vulnerable. We can expose our weaknesses, failures and prejudices as we recount the history of what happened. We might tell a story about dragons, drawbridges and men with arrows and bring it to life as we tell it to our children. The same process takes place when hearing stories about conflict. Every conflict story tells a tale of one or more dragons and how the dragon might or might not get slaughtered, silenced or put to sleep. In some cases the stories might reveal that the dragon lost the ability to exhale fire years ago, although everyone still thought that it could.

Most parties in conflict, on hearing what the other side has to say about the dispute, are likely to find it difficult to suspend disbelief and spend time examining the story for its deeper truths and hidden meanings. In the first instance, the party is unlikely to feel empathy towards their opponent and stretch out a hand to discover more about the difference that divides them. Closing the divide takes time.

Every authentic story will strike a chord within us. When we hear authentic stories we imagine ourselves in the sequence of events that unfold and imagine how we would feel if we had been the storyteller. Storytelling can carry both the listener and the storyteller to a deeper relationship level and help to form a bridge over the choppy waters keeping parties apart.

Conflict stories can also be a recognition of failure, a cry for help, a confession or a request for forgiveness. Because people feel powerless in conflict situations, they look for ways to be able to justify their behaviour or to have it endorsed by an ally. If there is an opportunity for an ally to respect them as a decent human being who didn’t deserve the treatment they received, people will take it.

Opponents may be characterised as evil, wicked and malicious people who want to do harm. This explains why the storyteller was unable to do anything to prevent or resolve it and puts them in a better light. In these ways, conflict stories can embellish what actually happened during upsetting events and divert attention away from obvious weaknesses on the part of the storyteller. The listener’s attention is diverted to what the perpetrator did. The perpetrator’s treachery is exaggerated in order to maintain the illusion of the storyteller’s innocence. Conflict stories can be parables that describe how someone brought a crisis into the life of the storyteller. The storyteller can elicit sympathy from the listener, as they are seen as powerless and helpless in the face of the wrongdoer.

I will build more on this theme of storytelling in next month’s missive.

 By the way, if you haven’t yet completed the online resilience survey we are supporting a colleague with, please take a few moments to click here to do so. It only takes a few minutes.

Until next month,