I’ll let you in on a secret…

Story TrioTwo weeks ago I was supporting an Art of Hosting training in Gothenburg, Sweden. No, I don’t speak Swedish, although the 4 or 5 Swedish words I know are very useful ones! The Hosting Team, of course, explained to everyone in the circle that we were practicing multiple languages. Many people presume that Art of Hosting “speak” is actually English. They don’t know it is a language all its own.

There’s nothing surprising in that – all practice circles develop their own language of practice. Families have their own collective language. People suffering from a similar medical condition have their way of speaking about it. Specialists have their own lingo. We like to throw the word “jargon” at each other, as a complaint that we don’t understand what others are speaking about. We feel excluded. And yet it is the nature of humans to create their own structure of language around shared experience.

But here’s the secret — there was actually another language in the room that nobody even recognised. They all heard it and yet it stayed under the radar. They all used it, but no one realised they had. Have you guessed it yet?

It was the language of STORIES. And it is the one language we all know together.

On the evening of Day 2 of the training, we did a Collective Story Harvest. It is a very simple method, which uses targeted listening as a way of making collective sense and meaning together. We had selected nine stories from our group. There were a variety – stories of initiatives, personal transformation, projects, community engagement. And we had created seven themes for people to choose as their lens for listening.

It was a powerful learning (or maybe remembering) for me when we developed this method to realise how much more engaged people are when their brain has a specific task to attend to. We are able to hone in on elements that may be useful, while at the same time engaging more fully in the story. We are able to bring our individual skills and talents together to become a body of collective meaning making.

It is a powerful experience to engage in someone’s story. Actually it happens naturally. When we get “hooked” into someone’s story, the brain of the storyteller and of the audience light up in a similar way. The brain also releases coritsol and oxytosin, powerful hormones which stimulate the sense of community and sharing amongst us. We literally get a high from stories that engage us.

After the stories were shared, we sat in a circle together in a profound and deeply connected silence. Something had changed in the group and everyone felt it.  Where before someone might have rushed to fill the space, by this point we sat together, basking in the silence. Eventually I said: “Do you hear that? It is the silence of companionship.” I was greeted by a silence that felt like a collective “Ahhhh…”.

I learned after this that our one storytelling pair had found a deeper connection through this exercise. As a former refugee from Somalia, we asked him to focus on his journey of integration into Sweden and asked her to take up the story of the project they were holding together. They were profoundly moved and strengthened to gain a new layer of understanding about each other and have their experiences reflected back and extended by the circle of listeners.

The next day during a deeper dive session people kept asking me: “How do you DO that?”. People have been continually asking me to help them explore “how to do that story thing”. The first thing I tell them is that to be a story teller you need to be a good story listener. Here are three tips to get started:

  • Begin to recognise stories: We all naturally tell stories, even if we don’t recognise them as such. See if you can spot people who seem to really engage others and pay attention to what they are saying. Often you can tell a story is coming because there is a marker of time or place. “That reminds me of…”, “Last month we…”“Do you remember when…”.
  • Practice deepening your listening ability: Become a “StoryCatcher”. See if you can stay fully present while someone else is speaking. What can you catch of what they are saying? Can you stay engaged or do you float off into your own story? How do they present their story? What is it in the way they put the story together, the way they told it, that is so engaging? What can you learn from this person about how to tell a good story?
  • Practice listening on different levels:  There are many different ways to listen. Start practicing them and find out where your listening superpower lies. You could listen for content – what happened in the story? You could listen for emotion – how did the storyteller feel during the story? What do you feel listening to it? You could listen for turning points – where did the storyline change? Where were the opportunities for change and movement inside the story? What conditions led to a turning point? You could listen for what’s not being said – a story consists of all the words, but also what is between them, behind them, what is not said at all. What can you notice if you really listen? Each of these ways of listening helps you begin to learn how to build a better story.

There are some opportunities coming up to learn with me online starting this month and you can find out the details here. And if you’d like a free “Zine” (that’s a double-sided pdf that folds up into a little book, like a workshop in your pocket!), a little “Freebies” widget will pop up and I’ll send it to you.

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