The Power of Storytelling
Winter always inspires me to regroup and reconnect. More of my time is spent indoors, and it invariably leaves me feeling a little claustrophobic. This year, I am using that energy and inspiration to go through my ridiculously ample book collection, and read books that I have collected and received throughout the years. Many have joined me throughout various moves, but I’ve only had an opportunity to read a select few. I am happy to report great progress, only 9 weeks into the new year, and I have read over 12 books by many incredible authors!
My current reading includes Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. My curiosity piqued as Pink explored the concept of narrative medicine. Eager to learn more and excited about the potential to extrapolate this concept into areas of my own work, I immediately took to the internet to do some digging.
Narrative medicine: healing through personal accounts
Narrative medicine is an approach to medical diagnoses and intervention which begins with inviting a patient to share his or her story. By providing an opportunity to narrate his or her whole experience to a medical practitioner engaged in deep listening, the patient is able to feel a sense of safety and validity, which are both important in the diagnostic and healing processes. The experience humanizes medicine and offers the opportunity for whole-person treatment (mind and body) and for creating a more profound doctor-patient relationship.
I was delighted to learn that there are a number of highly-regarded, well-respected medical and educational institutions who have adopted these principles, including Columbia University. The landing page for their master’s program in Narrative Medicine offers the following introduction:
“The care of the sick unfolds in stories. The effective practice of healthcare requires the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others. Medicine practiced with narrative competence is a model for humane and effective medical practice. It addresses the need of patients and caregivers to voice their experience, to be heard and to be valued, and it acknowledges the power of narrative to change the way care is given and received.”
Unsurprisingly, this concept is being incorporated into current medical curriculum as a means for future patient care…but what about applying it to situations outside of healthcare?
Narrative: humanizing individuals through story
I have become an instant fan of narrative medicine, partly because I am a devout believer in the power and possibility of narrative in other contexts as well. A very good friend, fellow academic, and former member of the FBI lives by the motto, “stories are powerful.” He’s an evangelist for this sentiment, and his arguments are persuasive.
Many years ago, I was moved to see the world through his eyes. He shared a vivid, colorful, and compelling story during one of our classes, using his life’s story as a metaphor for an assignment. We were required to synthesize two reading assignments into one, drawing conclusions from each to make a coherent and articulate whole. Many of us struggled with the assignment, while Bill’s clear and resonant images brought many of us to tears. He used poignant moments in his own life to illustrate the key themes of each reading assignment, metaphorically using his personal experiences to bring life to the material. At one point, he shared an image of his childhood home, describing every detail down to an old porch rocker, that I can still see in my mind to this day. Most importantly, his story, and the details within it, made him human. Uniquely human. Deep, beautiful, flawed, brilliant, self-effacing, and HUMAN!
Narrative and storytelling has incredible applications in the business world as well. It offers a voice to others, allows us to practice the art of listening deeply, asks people to share their stories of success, strength, triumph, opportunity, and even fear. It can provide us insight into how their (and our) worlds work. These stories unlock possibilities for the future, provide a glimpse into other perspectives within our organizations, and hold the key to improved futures for our people and our businesses.
Before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, he penned The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a call to each of us to seek other’s worldviews, develop empathy and subjectify the people in our midst:
“Man, say they, conscious of his own weakness, and of the need which he has for the assistance of others, rejoices whenever he observes that they adopt his own passions, because he is then assured of that assistance…”
We are all unique and keepers of incredible stories. Ones that can encourage others, or perhaps even ones that can assist others in learning from our mistakes. The stories are out there, it’s up to you to seek them out.
Narrative as a facilitator of support
I had the incredible pleasure of sharing breakfast last week with two friends, who are also former work colleagues; our team is blessed to have a large and vibrant network of such folks. During our conversation, Barry (a pseudonym) asked that we pass along his deep appreciation, “…for [his] current life situation,” to Jason, one of our partners. A number of years ago, Barry and his family were consumed in a family nightmare. Not sure where to turn to at the time, he asked if I would meet with him. I immediately agreed and it was then that he shared the harrowing story of his youngest son’s drug addiction. Over time, there were chapters to his story, including many ups and downs. The family struggled with legal and financial concerns, while also juggling family dynamic and work-related implications for Barry, his wife, and their two older children.
Through a multi-year-long series of conversations, often over tearful cups of morning coffee, he shared the story. One morning I received a panicked phone call from Barry, asking for urgent assistance with a new development in the situation. Late the night before, the local police showed up at his door. Barry’s son had been charged with a DUI, following a traffic incident, and was being arraigned on charges later that day. The stakes of the game had changed. Because he had shared and I had listened over the many months prior, I knew this day may come. I hung up the phone, with a heavy heart, and called Jason.
Jason and I had worked together for a number of years, and he is now one of our business partners. Having spent the early part of his career in social work in our region, he knew immediately who to reach out to. I asked for his immediate assistance, and he was able to make calls and get Barry, his son, and their family connected to the right people.
Barry’s son eventually lost a long and difficult battle with addiction, but through it all Barry is grateful that both this journey and Jason have led him to a new faith and his retirement vocation as the vice-Chairman of the rehabilitation center where his son and their family received treatment. He is an active speaker in the fight against substance abuse, especially opioid addiction, and an incredible model of resilience and dedication, continuing the time-honored tradition of active listening and storytelling.
My connection with Barry and the support that we were able to offer throughout this difficult time would not have existed had it not been for narrative. Barry was willing to open up to me and, in return, I strived to be accessible and supportive during some extremely dark times for him and his family. The stories exist, but they take active effort from each party involved to be uncovered.
Storytelling: people as your biggest resource
Kudos to those who have adopted a person-centric, narrative-filled view of the world. It is a richer, more vibrant experience for each participant. And, a call to each of us who would benefit from adopting the skills of active listening, cultivating curiosity, and advancing a more human approach to our worlds. The benefits of such an approach are myriad – higher levels of employee engagement, deeper levels of customer commitment, greater creativity and innovation, stronger stock performance, increased discretionary effort from employees, and perhaps even a sense of personal virtuousness and purpose.
We are eternally grateful to Barry and his family for trusting us enough to share their story and allowing us to be with them on their path. We learned a great deal about ourselves in the process, through which we have greater meaning and purpose in our work, and stronger ties as colleagues and business partners. I, for one, am more fulfilled when I have made a deeper connection with others, particularly when I am able to understand things from their point of view. It’s an extremely rewarding process, and one that drives the motivation behind the work that we do.
It might not always be easy, but after reading this, I hope that you will take an opportunity to listen to the stories that exist around you. You may be surprised by the potential and depth that exists within a person. You may also be surprised by how much someone’s story resonates with you, particularly someone that you may not have much in common with. These stories can inspire, uplift, and move you…but only if you’re open to them.
Each person carries with them powerful stories that make up who they are. We are all human, and our stories are all different. We can learn so much from each other if we take advantage of our chances to connect. I challenge you to make a conscious effort to actively look for and listen to the narratives around you. They will not only strengthen your connections with others, but they will also strengthen you as a person. So go out, learn from the people surrounding you, and become the best version of yourself that you can be. I promise it will be worth it.