Working with Stories
When embracing the benefits of working with stories, it’s important to keep two things in mind: engage empathy and embrace emergence.
In a previous post, I presented the benefits of building a narrative organization—that is, an organization that continually elicits and shares stories. When embracing the benefits of working with stories, it’s important to keep two things in mind:
Develop and engage a keen sense of empathy. Consider what people physically and emotionally need in order to share their stories. Make certain that people are in no way coerced into sharing a story, and explore and protect against any possibilities that the teller may be stigmatized, or even harmed, because he or she has shared a story.
Remember that each individual wholly owns his or her stories. Personal stories are not commodities, to be taken from one person and given to another, in exchange for reimbursement of some sort. Aspen Baker, the leader of Exhale, a “pro-voice” organization that facilitates nonjudgmental sharing of stories about abortion experiences, asserts, “The storyteller must stay at the center of the story.”
Remember, too, that the audience is a partner in the story sharing. Create conditions favorable to the listener fully receiving and making sense of the story. Sam Gregory, of WITNESS, and a leader in sharing stories to combat human rights abuses, observes that storytellers need to make “a shift from a notion of the empathetic first-person witness to empathetic engagement.” This was clearly and recently valued by Exhale, which initiated 16 and Loved, a campaign to ensure that three young women who shared their stories about abortion on MTV were supported and that viewers were provided with a context in which to watch the program.
One of the best ways to develop empathy toward your story sharers and listeners is to share and listen yourself. If you are asking for stories about a particular subject, undertake the elicitation yourself, and share stories about the topic. Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice is asking thousands people, “What makes your family strong?” Staff members and volunteers answered the question themselves, and shared their responses with each other. They even invited a group of funders to do the same and to experience the power of sharing stories about their strong families.
Understand that story begets story. Story is a contagion: By sharing a story, you will elicit stories in response. Keep this in mind, creating both the time and physical requirements that respect and enable a flow of stories.
In order to hear the real range of people’s complex experiences and emotions, you must avoid communicating that only certain stories are acceptable, welcome, and valued. If you are too descriptive about the types of stories you want to hear, you may not hear anything at all. For example, someone once complained to me that she asked her nursing staff: “Tell me a story that I can share in the hospital newsletter, and that will increase staff morale and employee retention.” She didn’t get any stories. If she asked for experiences about people feeling valued at work, or about their best day on the job, she would have likely gotten more stories. To truly gain insight into problems with staff retention—and to demonstrate genuine respect for them—she could also ask about times that they did not feel valued or about their worst day on the job.
Listen, too, for the stories that you may not be hearing. Are you hearing stories across a spectrum of emotions or from just one point of view? Are you hearing from absolutely all of the people who may have something to say? If necessary, seek out the voices that have yet to surface, and ensure that they are heard. If Exhale heard only the stories expressed on its free, post-abortion talkline, it would miss the voices of the women and men who never called. Exhale aims to capture stories it would otherwise miss: Baker says, “Exhale must work in diverse forums, online and offline, to meet people where they are—emotionally, geographically, and through a medium in which they are comfortable sharing their story. ”
Refrain from starting a narrative project with a predetermined sense of the stories you will hear. When stories are elicited with honesty and benevolence (and they must be!), you will most likely be surprised, delighted, and frightened by what you hear. Commit yourself to the journey, not to the product.