In my interview with Monica Guzman, author of I Never Thought of It That Way (BenBella Books, 2022) and Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, she spoke about storytelling as a tool that can bridge seemingly intractable divides. Intrigued, I sat down for a conversation with Mark Yaconelli, founder of the storytelling community The Hearth and author of the newly released book Between the Listening and the Telling (Broadleaf Books, 2022).
BECKY GARRISON: How do you see storytelling as a way to build community?
MARK YACONELLI: Every human brain is wired to tell stories, and stories move us beyond the level of right and wrong into this full-body meaning-making. Story is the language of experience. When I tell a story, I am inviting you to see what I saw, hear what I heard, and feel what I felt. And if you listen well, you enter my experience, you feel my life and I go from being a stereotype or a two-dimensional person to a three-dimensional person. Suddenly, the differences between us are a little less strong. The more we tell our stories, the greater the possibility that we can find a place of connection that can help us soften the divisiveness that we face.
BG: What are some of the specific training techniques for people that will be interested in learning how to use storytelling as a way to make positive change?
MY: Mostly, it’s about creating a listening space. I put people into groups and have them start to remember different kinds of experiences they’ve had. When they tell these stories in small groups, they start feeling the wider landscape of their being. I give them that experience of sharing and telling stories first, then we analyze how those stories work. Then we start talking about how to apply the power of empathy and compassion. How do you apply story-sharing in the context you live in and with the problems we’re facing?
BG: When I chatted with Monica Guzman of Braver Angels, she noticed how changing the questions from “why you believe that” to “how did you come to your beliefs” creates a space for letting one tell their story.
MY: That’s very true. Take for example the hot-button issue of immigration. if you tell your immigration story instead of ticking off your arguments on immigration, I more likely to listen. I will be less defended. You’re the authority on your story, so I’m less likely to debate. When you share your story instead of lecturing me, I’m going to be less defensive. I might actually allow myself to feel what you’re feeling.
BG: Can you give me an example of how storytelling can change hearts?
MY: I had a group of combat veterans come to me and say they wanted to tell their stories. They said, “No one actually wants to hear our experience.” They told me people will say “thank you for your service” but they don’t want to hear what we actually have been through.
So we did an event with six local combat veterans sharing stories. As it turns out, one of them was undocumented having been brought to the United States at six months only. When he told his story of what it was like to be in combat at the end, he said, “You know, I don’t have citizenship. I did my two tours. And they promised me citizenship, and I didn’t get it.” In the audience were a number of guys wearing MAGA red hats. After they heard him speak, they went, “What are you talking about? We’re getting you a lawyer. We’re going to help you get citizenship.”
Now, if we’d had a night when we were debating immigration, they would have been on opposite sides. But when they heard his story and lived through his experience, there was empathy and compassion. They saw themselves in his experience. Then the debate took on a new color because of the camaraderie or the connection they felt.
That’s what a story can do. You get people together, who are on different dividing lines. After we hear each other’s story, we feel a little more empathy and connection. We feel less alone and better equipped and more grounded to take on the problems that we’re all facing right now.
BG: What’s standing in the way of creating these connections?
MY: Right now, we don’t have that relational trust. Without that trust, we’re just going to continue to suffer. But instead of writing people off as crazies and kooks, if we heard the pain and the story behind their actions, maybe we could feel some empathy for them. Once we feel empathy for the other, maybe together we could find another way to address these problems that aren’t so destructive and divisive.
BG: How can you create a safe space where those on the margins feel safe sharing their stories?
MY: In my work in Oregon, the people who tell stories are often far more diverse than the listening audience. That’s by design and formed in partnership with different marginalized groups. So we don’t have a night that’s like, come hear the story of LGBT people. Instead, we’ll have a story where we’re going to raise money for the hospice center. Then I have a gay man telling the story of grieving when their mother died. This way people encounter one another in a third space. In that space we’re more likely to hear the humanity instead of the political or social issue.
BG: How can storytelling help break down the narcissism that seems to be ever-present in our social media selfie-driven culture?
MY: It takes sitting in circles and giving equal time to everybody to talk. Story is democratic. Everyone has a story. Everyone deserves to be heard. So no one’s story should be elevated above anybody else’s story. Also, in some spaces, I try and center other stories so that somebody like me, who’s white cisgender and has had a lot of privilege, is willing to listen to stories that might expand my own heart and correct or challenge some of my biases.