Storytelling, Moving Conversations and Other Empathy Fostering Tools

20 Nov

It started with an NPR story about two women, Farryn Giles, a young black mother trying to use a Section 8 voucher in a North Dallas suburb and Nicole Humphrey, a young white mother sharing her “why I don’t want them here” views. As I listened to the story, I got angry, so angry in fact that I had to pull over. My first thought was to drive to the Frisco suburb, find Nicole Humphrey and berate her for being such a racist ass. Although that might have made me feel better for a moment or two, I knew it would do little to help Farryn Giles and others like her. My second thought was an overwhelming feeling that if I could just get the two of them in a room together, face to face, talking about what they had in common — i.e. wanting the best for their children, then maybe Nicole would look at things differently. Instead of “those people” it would be this person, Farryn Giles who came to mind and maybe that would make a difference.

As I began to think about what that conversation might look like I realized that in order for it to work, it would have to be about more than helping them see what they had in common. I also realized that my not so hidden agenda to help Nicole Humphrey see the light was too one-sided. In order for any lasting good to come from this, both sides would need to be able to talk about their views and feelings and feel validated. If we made our goal one of changing Nicole’s mind, or as my friend said “talking some sense into her” we would fail. If instead, we set the goal as giving both parties the opportunity to talk about why they felt the way they did and honoring that sharing, then maybe, just maybe, those stories would cause a crack or two in the hard veneer and help each side to see the other side in a new light.

I decided that day that I wanted to learn more and do more to facilitate these kinds of conversations — in the workplace, in the community and also in my own family where differences had deepened the divides between us. I set out to collect resources that would help me and others like me facilitate meaningful dialogue. I was encouraged by what I was able to find. Here are a few of my favorites.

Narrative 4 and Story Exchange

One of the most powerful processes I found is called Story Exchange. It’s the work of a group called Narrative 4. I first learned about Narrative 4 and story exchange in a New York Magazine story on Gun Violence and Radical Empathy.

Story exchange is an exercise where people are paired off and each shares a story that in some way defines them. Afterwards, each participant takes on the persona of their partner and tells their partner’s story in the first person. In the gun violence article, gun advocates were partnered with people on the other side of the issue. Todd Underwood, the owner of the gun shop that auctioned off the pistol that killed Trayvon Martin, was partnered with Carolyn Tuft, a survivor of the 2007 Trolley Square shooting, the massacre that seriously injured four people and left five dead — including her 15-year old daughter.

The story exchange is a simple but powerful process based on the idea that by knowing another’s story, we are able to better understand one another. Since it’s inception four years ago, Narrative 4 has introduced the story exchange to tens of thousands of people around the globe, increasing understanding and empathy all along the way. Check out the Narrative 4 website for details and read the New York Magazine story on Gun Violence and Radical Empathy to get a feel for just how powerful this process can be.

Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy saved my life. After the election last year, it was one of several books I read that not only gave me hope but gave me the tools and support I needed to reconnect politically and socially. One of the things that struck me the most was the idea of viewing differences and the tension that often surrounds those differences as a good thing, a creative force, something we need in order to sustain the democratic process.

When we choose to engage, not evade the tension of our differences, we will become better equipped to participate in a government of, by and for the people. — Parker Palmer

As I read Palmer’s book and others like it, I realized so much rested on our ability to do two things — listen and reflect. We have to be able to talk to each other, openly and honestly, without judgement or attack. In order to do that we have to be able to listen. That’s the real lost art, not conversation, but listening. And we have to be able to reflect, to think deeply about what we hear, what we experience and what we feel when we hear other people’s stories. If we can do that, then maybe there’s a chance we can bring back another lost art — the ability to change one’s mind.

This requires a shift for most of us. We are inundated with information and opinion but rarely ever engage in a real conversation, rarely ever go outside our own group of like-minded people. We watch and listen to only those who share our particular political beliefs and point of view. We have grown accustomed to being talked at, through a TV or computer screen and in the process lost sight of what it really means to truly converse — to listen to what the other person is saying, reflect on what they’re saying and be an active, open minded participant in the conversation. It is a skill we have to re-learn, for many of us maybe learn for the first time.

Real dialogue is important to healing the divides between us, but it is also important for our own wellbeing. If we cannot talk about all the disturbing things that are going on around us, and try in some way to make sense of them, use them or learn to be at peace with them, it will eat away at us with both mental and physical repercussions.

Palmer is not one to prescribe or offer up a step-by-step program for tension holding. He notes that..

We do not need techniques. We need insights into ourselves and our world that can help us understand how to learn and grow from our experiences of diversity, tension and conflict.

He does, however, offer guiding principles that I find helpful and use in the workplace, with civic groups and with my own family.

To listen to each other openly and without fear, learning how much we have in common despite our differences.

To deepen our empathy for the alien “other” as we enter imaginatively into the experiences of people whose lives are radically unlike our own.

To hold what we believe and how with conviction and be willing to listen openly to other viewpoints, changing our minds if needed.

To seek out alternative facts and explanations whenever we find reason to doubt our own truth claims or the claims made by others, thus becoming better informed.

To probe, question, explore, and engage in dialogue, developing a fuller, more three-dimensional view of reality in the process.

To welcome opportunities to participate in collective problem solving and decision making, generating better solutions and making better decisions as we work with competing ideas.

Ideo’s Creative Tensions

Another program I like is called Creative Tensions. It was developed by the design firm Ideo. Partner and Global Managing Director, Fred Dust describes the process in a recent Fast Company article.

The Creative Tensions format works by collecting a group of people together in a room, and asking them to arrange themselves along a tension — for example, between the statements “police make me feel safe” and “I feel nervous when police are around.”

People move, like life-size chess pieces, around the room, aligning themselves next to others whose views differ slightly from their own. The fluid dialogue structure, Dust says, allows people to find common ground, rather than focusing on their differences.

I love the Creative Tensions exercise because it offers a way to speak without speaking. You “speak” by moving around the room. And you listen by watching other people move around the room. Lee Anderson, a participant in a Creative Tensions exercise provides some insightful thoughts on the process in her Medium post Creative Tensions: A new approach for understanding.

You see people making eye contact, smiling, turning towards each other, testing the water of making contact. No more rows and lines and fixed positions. Suddenly we are aware of our bodies. And we are aware of the other bodies around us. And that those bodies represent a point of view, past experience, and future ideas.

As we are challenged to consider the tension and re-position ourselves in the room, we are aware of our own point of view. We are aware of the process of thought that leads us to that decision. We are aware that some people arrive at the same stance as we do, while others are far to the other end of the spectrum, all to varying degrees. And sometimes the reasoning is parallel, but the conclusion in opposing. It’s totally fascinating to visualize and experience how disagreements might be formed if you accept anything at face value. By listening, we learn that our goals might be aligned although our methods are different.

Active reflection brings us back into the moment, and generates more profound reasoning. The suggestion that, if you feel yourself swayed by the argument of another participant or protagonist, you can physically adjust your location in the room is freeing. You become comfortable with the idea of altering your triggered response, and challenging that instinct.

Those walls of formal structure evaporate by making us aware of the other people around us. Having to consider our position relative to them in the physical space makes us more empathetic, which I like to believe makes us more willing to hear out the person on the other side of the debate.

Putting the tools to use

In learning about these tools and seeing them in action, I am inspired and excited. Like a wanna be carpenter with hammer in hand, I see nails everywhere. We have plenty of issues, opposing viewpoints and lines in the sand. There is so much work to be done. In the midst of the excitement however, I realize I am also afraid, afraid that it won’t work, that I’ll find myself in a room with angry and frustrated people yelling at each other and I won’t know what to do. It’s risky, to be sure, but what’s even riskier is doing nothing and watching the divide grow deeper and the anger and frustration get stronger.

I don’t know how to do this and I’m learning to be OK with that. I’ve shared information on all these great tools, but I know that it’s not about the tools. I can provide an environment and some exercises that increase the possibility of people opening their minds and their hearts but I cannot orchestrate, manage or control it. The moment I start thinking I can is the moment when the odds of making a difference dramatically decrease. I am simply another person in the room, wanting the same things everyone else in the room wants — to be heard, to be validated, to be loved. When I wrote the words that I say when I begin an exercise, I remind the group that I wrote them for myself. It is what I would want to hear if I were you, if I were with you….because I am.

I am not here to educate you or change your mind. I am here because I want to hear your story. I want to help you feel comfortable telling your story without the worry of being judged or told you are wrong. I want you to experience what it feels like to be heard, to be appreciated, to feel valued. I also want you to experience what it feels like to help someone else feel those same things, even people you vehemently disagree with. I’m not asking you to change your mind, but I am asking you to open it, to listen, truly listen to people with different views, understand why they hold those views and empathize with them even though you may not agree with them.

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