I Would Love to Hear Your Story
In almost every workshop on effective presentations, participants are encouraged to tell more stories. Of course, the stories need to be engaging; if possible both humorous and emotionally touching, and make a relevant point to the speaker’s topic. We all know that after hearing a presentation, we are likely to forget or misremember most of the stated facts but that well-told story remains. After we hear it, we find ourselves retelling the story and giving it additional life.
Less commonly do we talk about the importance of helping other people tell their own stories. In David Brooks’ How to Know a Person, he devotes an entire chapter to why this is so important to build relationships and add value to others. Brooks is best known as a political and social commentator. In recent years, he has broadened his reach to include what matters in our personal and communal quest for morality. He writes, “If you see each person as a soul, you will be aware that each person has a transcendent spark inside them…. If you see people as precious souls, you’ll probably wind up treating them well.”
Most people, if you provide the right setting, enjoy talking about themselves. One person’s story or comment reminds you of your own experience and before you know it, you are sharing a similar experience. Creating a common link is the beginning of many relationships and often leads to enduring ones. So why don’t we encourage more storytelling from others?
Brooks notes that we often engage in conversations that are either more analytical or more narrative. In analytical conversations, we collect data and form arguments, often putting our focus on the correctness and persuasiveness of what we have to say. In most work situations, this is our default mode and serves us well. However, this does not enhance our understanding of the individuals we work with and encounter in our lives. We need to enter into narrative conversations to provide the relational context for deeper understanding. However, we must train ourselves, especially in work environments, to step out of the analytical mode and press into the narrative mode.
So, it starts with our willingness to give space to allow for different and deeper conversations. But we need to do more than just give space; we need to help people structure their experiences through better questions. For example, Brooks suggests that rather than asking, “What do you think about X?” we should ask, “How did you come to believe X?” Rather than asking people about their values, ask them, “Who is the person who shaped your values the most?”
We also need to understand how to help people tell and interpret their stories. Our stage in life and various experiences can play a big role in accurately understanding and communicating our life’s story. Early in our careers, we are more likely to tell a linear story with the expectation that life will progress similarly. Recently my son jokingly asked if I remembered being his age and having my whole life in front of me. At his age, I only experienced the expected progression of college, work, and graduate school. Each step led naturally to the next wrung on the ladder. Thirty-five years later, I see just how non-linear life turns out to be. Those early experiences played a significant role, but other decisions and events greatly shaped my journey.
Not surprisingly, with more and varied experiences, our storytelling improves. Brooks notes we not only more accurately identify our core desires, strengths, and weaknesses, but also become a bit more forgiving and appreciative.
These insights into our own story are indispensable to discerning how other people come to view their situations. By reflecting on our own broad experience, we can often help people see their present condition as part of a larger story where they have the agency to make choices and actively influence outcomes. Our stories also help us to show others that limitations exist and life requires us to make choices.
The best and most authentic stories are always about life’s tensions, competing motives, and personal growth. We are enriched by hearing each other’s stories and being reminded of how much we have in common. Brooks said a big motivation for writing this book was to explore our growing inability to connect with others and see what unites us rather than what divides us.
Unfortunately, the kind of insightful, empathetic, wisdom-producing storytelling exchange Brooks advocates for does not happen naturally. We can go through life simply living in an echo chamber of believing misinformation about ourselves and others. The best storytellers are the ones willing to be transparent and vulnerable. In their humility, they realize their story is not focused on themselves, but part of a much larger and significant narrative. Perhaps that is why stories often change so much from our youth to our old age. When we understand that there is a greater story being told, we are eager to hear the stories of others to discover how their journey, as part of the larger narrative, connects to us as well.