A Personal Narrative:
After learning that my school struggles as a kid could be traced back to a battle with anxiety, I wanted to share what I had learned with a dear family member. When I opened up about my experience, I initially thought that this person would be accepting.
As it was, I was completely wrong about that. This person had contradictory beliefs about mental illness, leaving me feeling frustrated. Our discussion turned into a heated debate that would last at least 6 months and would form a rift in our relationship. I felt as if I’d made an important discovery about a mental illness I’d been dealing with, and this person didn’t want to accept that narrative.
It was after a particular heated debate that I thought about how to make them understand my experience. In previous conversations, I had opened with information that I’d learned from psychology websites and journals. An argument would then ensue when the other person would rebuttal with contradictory opinions.
But, when I thought about why I’d identified so strongly with the anxiety disorder, it was because of the stories I’d heard YouTubers share of their experiences growing up with the specific anxiety disorder. Many of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences were emotions I’d had as a child.
A Milestone in the Discussion
I decided to share a story that I remembered from first grade. I felt embarrassed to share it at first, since it involved me peeing my pants as a 7-year-old, but I described how my extreme fear of walking to the door had outweighed my urgent need to go to the bathroom.
“That makes me really sad to hear,” said the person when I ended. This was a milestone in our many conversations and debates regarding mental illness. The note of sympathy was the first I’d heard from this person. It was also the first time an argument hadn’t ensued.
I felt relieved that my experience was finally validated. And I felt a sense of connection after sharing my story. I brainstormed more personal experiences and used those stories to convey any points I wanted to make for future conversations. I’d found a more effective way of making a point. Maybe I wasn’t going to convince this person to agree with all of my opinions. But by sharing personal stories I was able to make them believe that I dealt with anxiety.
Powerful Effects of Storytelling:
My experience with difficult communication with my family member taught me a valuable lesson; I learned that telling stories are effective when talking with other people.
This discovery comes from my own personal experience. But there is research to back this up as well. “Telling stories is one of the most powerful means that leaders have to influence, teach, and inspire,” says Vanessa Boris. One of the most effective ways to influence people is by sharing your authentic story; this is most effective when people share what events have shaped their perspective. These stories that we share build bridges between individuals, communities, ideas, and opinions.
The reasons are numerous as to why sharing personal narratives is effective. One of the first reasons is that it allows others to share in your emotional journey rather than hear bullet point information. By sharing the effects personal experiences have had on us, we are emotionalizing information, which helps people to remember it better. Our brains are actually programmed in such a way that we remember emotions better than information.
Additionally, stories build bridges between people, cultures, and ideas. As we listen to the experience of other people, we tend to understand more of what makes us similar (our fears, hopes, and dreams). Seeing these similarities between people and ourselves builds a sense of connection and community. In the same way that we feel connected when hearing people speak of their individual experiences, authentic stories also help us to understand and appreciate the diversity of humankind. And they also help us to appreciate our own uniqueness as a person in this world.
Stories allow us to learn from each other. The experiences we have can not only serve as learning curves for ourselves but also lessons that help other people. Our personal stories help other people to learn from both our triumphs and mistakes. Stories also give others a chance to learn about cultures, communities, and people with different abilities. As I’ve opened up about a few experiences of having difficulty communicating my most basic needs as a young child (eating, drinking water, and using the bathroom), people start to connect the dots as to why other young children might have the same issues.
Lastly, stories also help us to empathize with one another more. They help us to better understand one another. Most people make assumptions about others daily. It’s easy to make assumptions about other people without knowing what emotions they’re battling on the inside. Another person’s actions might seem thoughtless or careless from our outside perspective. By sharing our stories, we open up about the emotions and thoughts we were thinking that led to our actions or impulses. When other people hear those emotions and thoughts, they develop empathy for our experience (and vice versa). And we start to understand both ourselves and one another better.
There are so many times when storytelling can be used to improve communication. People have found storytelling to be effective in fields such as business, politics, education, job interviews, etc. Furthermore, there are so many times that we use storytelling when conversing with other people (connecting with people, processing experiences, communicating solidarity, finding common ground).
In my own personal experience, I used storytelling to communicate my ideas with someone whose beliefs juxtaposed mine; I used it to turn a disagreement about an idea around. I haven’t fully convinced this person that my opinions are correct, nor do I expect to. And I don’t believe that all of my opinions are more valid than those of others. I just hoped for this individual to believe my experiences.
When I shared stories from childhood, this worked to my advantage; the individual began to see the validity in many of the arguments about mental illness I had shared. Their perspective of me went from being an immature kid to a student who had struggled with severe anxiety.
Using storytelling in disagreements is a really powerful tool. Everyone lives in their own reality created by ideas from varying organizations (political, religious, cultural, etc.). It’s uncomfortable for most people to hear a lecture about information that juxtaposes their own beliefs. This can make it difficult to have conversations with people who have opposing opinions.
As stated earlier, stories help to emotionalize the information we hope to convey. They allow others to walk in our shoes. And stories can drive people to take action. I was listening to a podcast recently in which environmental activists found that people who held opposing beliefs about climate change were more inclined to act when they heard stories of climate change affecting their communities. When we tell a story in such a way that our narrative resonates with other people, we have a greater chance of influencing those that we are talking to, even if our beliefs don’t exactly align.
Storytelling in Education
So, how does this relate to education? The field of education is no different than other fields in that there are so many different opinions. In many ways, progress has been made to benefit students as we learn more about different groups of students. And yet, there remains so much to learn about effective educational practices.
As either educators or parents, we are bound to run into others who don’t share our beliefs. And students may also struggle with communicating their own individual needs with the adults in their lives. Regardless of what our position is in the field of education (teacher, parent, or student), it’s imperative that we understand one another and that our own needs are understood. It is in the best interest of our students that we find ways to improve our communication with others.
So, the next time you find yourself in a heated debate with someone, remember to think of a story that illustrates what has led to your beliefs. Don’t just spin your wheels by lecturing them about why they are wrong and you are right. That rarely works and it drives people away from us. Think of a story that shows why you feel the way you do. And let that story do its work in influencing the mind of the other individual. When we share our personal stories, we improve our communication and understanding of one another.
Boris, Vanessa. “What Makes Storytelling so Effective for Learning?” Harvard Business Publishing, Vanessa Boris /Wp-Content/Uploads/2018/12/HBPubCorpLearn_wide_crimson.Svg, 4 Feb. 2019, www.harvardbusiness.org/what-makes-storytelling-so-effective-for-learning/.
Team Tony. (2019, September 27). Learn the power of Storytelling & how to utilize IT: Tony Robbins. tonyrobbins.com. https://www.tonyrobbins.com/career-business/the-power-of-story-peter-guber/.
Eikenberry, Kevin. “Five Reasons Stories are a Powerful Communication Tool.” Kevin Eikenberry on Leadership & Learning, 11 Oct. 2010. https://blog.kevineikenberry.com/leadership-supervisory-skills/five-reasons-stories-are-a-powerful-communication-tool/.
“The Neuroscience of Story: How Stories Change Our Brains.” World Full of Bliss, 12 June 2020. https://www.worldfullofbliss.com/post/the-neuroscience-of-story-how-stories-change-our-brains.