The first time I taught an interpersonal communication class I assigned the opening chapter of The Call of Stories by the great child psychiatrist, Harvard professor, and writer, Robert Coles. In the thirty pages I assigned, Coles lays out a compelling argument for medical practitioners to hear the stories of their patients and not just reduce them to jargon and theory. I asked my students after reading the chapter to tell me a story about themselves that would let me get to know them (without disclosing deeply personal information.)
We are all born as storytellers. Some are more skilled, more descriptive etc, but we are each the protagonist and the narrator of our own lives. In trying to make sense of the day to day and the random, of the trajectory of our lives, we build narratives. Our stories are filled with primary, secondary and tertiary characters, characters who play pivotal roles and then recede and characters who stay in our lives, changing and remaining constant.
At the time, I conceived of the exercise for my students as a way for me to get to know them and for them to engage in some introspection. And I did learn some fascinating things about my students- I got to know them much better than I would have if I had asked a more directed question. But what I also learned was that many of my students did not trust their own ability to be story tellers.
My students, who had undoubtedly told friends and families numerous stories in their lives, had difficulty crafting a story about themselves. Some came to me struggling with such an open ended instruction. I began to feel that somewhere along the way my students had learned to accept other people’s narratives about them and lacked confidence in their ability to construct their own. Throughout the class I encouraged them to find their own voices, craft their own narratives and I knew that part of my job was to listen.
I learned a lot about my students that semester. I also learned the importance of listening to stories. When I saw each student through their stories- in their own voices- they were more vibrant and alive than my gradebook suggested. When my students were empowered to tell their own stories, they grew in confidence and as people.
A common coaching tool is to ask clients to write their own stories- designing a narrative that stretches from the past into the future. The practice of consciously telling your own story can be transformative.
But as we craft our own stories, it is important to remember that everyone else is engaged in a similar act. Everyone you meet has a story- with joy and pain, triumphs and defeats. Being aware of this fosters greater understanding. The first step in creating that understanding is remembering that each person is a product of their stories and the second step is remembering to listen.