I’ve always been addicted to story and story-telling in one way or another. I ended up teaching literature for many years and completed a PhD in English a decade a go. In that time I was busy examining, deconstructing, and theorising narrative and meaning-making, and I can still busk a post-structuralist debate (“does experience shape language, or does language shape experience?”). When I changed careers, I found myself immediately drawn to the marketing and communications side of business – still enticed over questions of how we make meaning.
I have more than my fair share of pleb tastes too. I’m the go-to person if you want to know the latest TV box set to gorge on (FYI: Fargo). I load up my kindle on a regular basis, whipping my way through titles like Christmas at Rosie Hopkins Sweetshop (yep) or Dawn French’s According to Yes. I got positively misty eyed at Star Wars – The Force Awakens.
To unwind, I go for the predictable stuff of chick-lit (horrible term, but I prefer it to ‘romance’) or mysteries. They’re comforting and familiar. But too much and you can end up with that post Christmas holiday feeling – overstuffed, a bit numb, and not really tasting that chocolate mint truffle any more. It’s then that I crave something more challenging, a narrative that opens up new thinking and fosters creativity, not mere comfort for comfort’s sake. So beside my bed are pen-inked copies of Thinking Fast and Slow and David and Goliath. Wolf Hall also loiters there accusingly, half-read.
Shared experience, through story, is how we connect with each other
Ultimately, story-telling, shared experience, is at the root of our ability to connect and empathise with others. Neuroscience shows that stories bring our brains together. Character-driven stories apparently cause oxytocin synthesis in the brain, and researchers have looked at how you can ‘hack’ the oxytocin system to encourage people to engage in co-operative behaviours.
I recently worked with colleagues to design a workshop that brought together people from different divisions and geographical locations in our organisation. The purpose of the day was pretty standard – how can we work more effectively together? Rather than focusing in on processes, roles and responsibilities, we decided instead to focus on building rapport and connection. Many of the people had not even met each other prior to the workshop. The brief for speakers: ‘no powerpoints, no information giving. Just tell us some stories about what you do in your job – what a good day looks like, what a bad day looks like.’
It seems perhaps an overly simplistic approach, but the level of engagement in the room was palpable. People were visibly curious about what their new colleagues would reveal about themselves and their work, actively listening and empathising with nods, smiles, grimaces, and knowing shakes of the head. As the speakers opened up about some of their ‘grittier’ experiences, I could feel the sense of empathy and support growing.
A colleague came up to me afterwards and confessed to having a lot of assumptions about the ‘other team’ before the day had started, “but now I realise they’re each just one of us, really.”
The point of the day was to answer the question, ‘what needs to happen to help us work more effectively together?’ and by the afternoon we’d collectively identified multiple solutions. But for me, the real gains were more intangible. By building connection and rapport through story-telling, we can shift perceptions and begin to tackle the more fundamental aspects of our culture and behaviour.
But what stories are you making up?
One of my favourite mantras is ‘don’t presume intent.’ We humans have a tendency to leap to assumptions about the intent of others. Our assumptions are often far more about ourselves. We need to constantly challenge ourselves on this: ‘what assumptions am I making about this person or situation?”
Brené Brown has a slightly different way of framing this question, and that’s “what story am I telling myself?” or “what story am I making up?” Brown is, of course, a great believer in the power of story, and as a social researcher using grounded theory, she is a professional collector of people’s stories (what she calls ‘data with heart’). Her work repeatedly shows how it’s story that ultimately connects us as humans, and it’s story that can empower us to overcome struggle.
But she also shows how story can get in our way – giving us a quick-fix comfort of certainty and resolution:
“In the absence of data, we will always make up stories. It’s how we are wired. In fact, the need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive survival wiring. Meaning making is in our biology, and our default is often to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar, and offers us insight into how to best self-protect (Rising Strong, pg. 79).
The brain rewards us for clearing up ambiguity – even if we’re wrong.
Brown touches on the work of Robert Burton. His research shows how our brains reward us with a nice dopamine hit when we recognise complete patterns. Of course, Brown notes, stories are patterns: “The brain recognises the familiar beginning-middle-end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately we don’t need to be accurate, just certain. The tricky part is that the promise of that sensation can seduce us into shutting down the uncertainty and vulnerability that are often necessary for getting to the truth” (79).
So our challenge really is to use story or shared experience as a deliberate means to connect emotionally and build trust, but at the same time remain aware of story’s seductive power, and of the stories we make up to mask complexity – giving us a resolution but not necessarily the truth.
It’s in challenging our own ‘comfort’ stories, or at least distancing ourselves enough from them to examine what tales we are telling to ourselves, that we require courage. When we replace certainty with uncertainty and more questions, we open ourselves up to discomfort and anxiety. It’s sometimes the moment when we realise the ‘story we were making up’ is one that absolved us of accountability, and that a new one might mean owning it. Now that’s a tough ask. And this is where we often resist.
We can resist even harder when the story we are making up is the one that casts us as ‘not good enough.’ Re-telling that story can be the hardest but most transformative of all.