On Storytelling

I am a reader. I love novels—from murder mysteries I buy at the airport to pass the time to more nuanced stories that push me to pay attention and explore new ways of being and understanding.

So, I’ve been intrigued by the workouts we’ve been doing in the past couple of weeks in Future Forward about storytelling and my relationship to it. I’m noodling in my head what it means to have a conscious and intentional approach to listening to and telling stories.

Last week I told a story that was quite personal to my workout partner. She responded in kind with a very personal story. It felt in the moment like we were each taking risk. What followed, for me, was a number of emotions – gratitude that my vulnerability was met in kind with vulnerability; happiness that the similarities in our stories could provide a point of connection between us then and in the future; and, unexpected relief because our sharing met a core need of mine in that moment.

In debriefing our story sharing, my emotional responses became more refined. We probed and asked questions of each other that revealed that some of what we heard from each other was true to what the person shared. And, we also noticed that it was easy to project our own experiences in to the other person’s story in ways that had the potential to distort the experience of the storyteller.

These distortions are not necessarily bad. Rather, it seems important to note when and why we are projecting ourselves in to the stories. It’s interesting to think about whether we are more prone to project when storytellers and listeners have shared life experiences in terms of things like gender, race, or economic security, or when we don’t. And certainly, there are times when projections and distortions do cause damage because they reify perceptions or stereotypes that undermine the dignity or autonomy of the storyteller or the listener.

Seems like there is a potential important difference between reading a novel—since in most cases we don’t get to follow up with a conversation with the author—and sharing stories for the purpose of cultivating relationship or furthering collective work, as we are seeking to do in Future Forward. In these cases, the ability to move through projections and distortions and seek understanding through dialogue that is present and open to possibility seems like a muscle we all need.

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