Storytelling as a Change Agent
Connected with, related to, and in furtherance of our work with dialogue, (https://valentilaw.com/pluralism-initiative/) we began to think about Storytelling. Here is the circuitous path that took us to and made Storytelling a part of our Dialogue work.
In 2000, drawing from theoretical developments in the social sciences and humanities, Winslade and Monk in Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution (http://ow.ly/99O6309Aj1z) offered the field of conflict and dispute resolution an approach to managing and mediating a variety of conflicts. This approach was centered upon the narrative – the notion that how we talk about ourselves and our conflicts shape how we perceive and react to these conflicts and was premised on the idea that language plays a central role in constructing who we are or how we engage or behave with others. This discursive process focuses on how complex social contexts shape the multiple facets of social conflict as they are played out and mediated in practice by examining how the words and language we use to describe and understand our conflicts are operative in constructing an image in our minds of the conflict itself. They felt that by examining the discourses surrounding the conflict situation, both mediators and disputants will emerge from the resolution process with a greater understanding of the biases and assumptions they hold in regards to the conflict itself. Through a process of uncovering and questioning these biases and assumptions, the participants will emerge with a renewed sense of the origins of the conflict and a renewed sense of alternative approaches or solutions to the conflict.
Stories can change the world for the better. Most successful stories are moral—they teach us how to live, whether explicitly or implicitly, and bind us together around common values.
This prompted the question:
Can we create connections between people to overcome:
Created by differences in:
How does Storytelling relate to this question?
Stories encourage us to think in an imaginative way. They let us see past cultural differences, conscious and unconscious biases and deep-rooted prejudices. Stories affirm who we are, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and others, real or imagined. Stories help us make meaning of our lives in the context of our life and our community. They help us see the world through the eyes of others.
Further research disclosed that Psychology researcher Dan Johnson published a study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology that found reading fiction significantly increased empathy towards others, especially people the readers initially perceived as “outsiders” (e.g. foreigners, people of a different race, skin color, or religion). He found that the more absorbed in the story the readers were, the more empathetic they behaved in real life. Johnson tested this by “accidentally” dropping a handful of pens when participants did not think they were being assessed. Those who had previously reported being “highly absorbed” in the story were about twice as likely to help pick up the pens.
A study in Science magazine adds more support to the idea that stories can help people understand others, determining that literary fiction “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” That’s to say, if you read novels, you can probably read emotions.
The way people choose to tell the stories of their lives, to others, is very significant. In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you’re on your way to become, the story itself becomes a part of who you are. This story becomes a part of our identity. The things someone chooses to include in the story, to exclude, and the way she tells it, reflect and shape who she is. A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.
And now it is known that It is through these stories that we become connected with each other, even with who we perceive to be our “enemy.”
Neuroscientist Uri Hasson, from Princeton University, researches the basis of human communication. Experiments from his lab reveal that even across different languages, our brains show similar activity, or become “aligned,” when we hear the same idea or story. He found that brain patterns in a story-listener simulate the brain patterns in a story-teller. Using functional MRIs on subjects, Hasson confirmed the existence of an alignment or common ground. However, his work caused a worry for him, that I will share with you.
In 2012, Jonathan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, (http://ow.ly/Zkmy309A8rH) describes his theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations.
Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, Gottschall tells us what it means to be a storytelling animal. Did you know that the more absorbed you are in a story, the more it changes your behavior? That all children act out the same kinds of stories, whether they grow up in a slum or a suburb? That people who read more fiction are more empathetic?
What can we do to foster different connections?
One way to do it is to go back to the more natural way of communication, which is a dialogue, in which, not only, am I listening, but also, I am speaking. You are speaking and you are listening, and together we are trying to come to a common ground and new ideas. Hassan calls this a coupling. And it is the people we are coupled to, who define who we are.
We should be worried, as a society, if we lose this common ground and our ability to speak with people who are slightly different from us.
And it is this worry that may prompt you to consider, as I have, that we need to move forward with storytelling and dialogue. What if we, as a society, lose this common ground and our ability to speak with people who are slightly different from us? What if, because we let a few very strong media channels take control of the microphone, to manipulate and control what stories we hear, and consequently the way we align? What if this results in an alignment with the those that control the microphone? How do we ensure that we do not allow that to happen? Given the now 24- hour news cycle with the presence of strong personalities delivering the news, are we at risk that story listeners become aligned with people who control the microphone rather than with the people who are the actors in the reported stories?
With this background, we have immersed ourselves in the storytelling community through producing Tenx9Chicago, ( http://ow.ly/RlSm309Al2z) a Belfast originated community storytelling night where nine people have up to ten minutes each to tell a real story from their lives. This is not a creative fiction seminar. It is an opportunity for people to engage each other’s lives through personal tales of life experiences.
This work has led to a Storytelling Lab at Cook County Jail, Chicago. The jail project, although in its infancy, has produced some very interesting results in terms of exploring connections between storytellers and story listeners. It has prompted thoughts of creating story groups amongst the detained community and law enforcement, amongst offenders and their communities, amongst victims and offenders.
Consider that we can take this knowledge that stories are a crucial way of connecting people, and that we can, in our work, create opportunities for these connections. Through these connections we can create an understanding of each other’s identity. We can create alignment and connections between people rather than distance.
We have members of the storytelling community who are willing to collaborate to develop programs to use these tools and skills in families, schools, communities, organizations, businesses, jails, prisons, juvenile centers, NGO’s, ans wherever else you may think this fits.
Storytelling to Build Community
Storytelling as a Force for Change
Storytelling as Engagement
Storytelling as part of a Restorative Process
Storytelling as Persuasion
Storytelling as a personal development tool
Storytelling as a Sales Tool