Why listen to stories?


When a person tells a story in a group, that person is given both the floor and the attention of the group. Asking people to tell you stories sends them the message that you have given them your attention. It sends the message "I am listening" rather than the message "I am interrogating," and triggers a different social response.


A story is a socially accepted package in which people have learned from a young age to wrap up their feelings, beliefs, and opinions. People know that they can metaphorically place a story on a table and invite others to view and internalize it without exposing themselves to the same degree as they would if they stated those feelings, beliefs, and opinions directly.


Asking people to tell stories shows respect by legitimizing their experiences as valuable communications. Respect is also communicated by giving people the freedom to choose what story they will tell and how the story will take form. The mere fact of saying "we really do want to know what has happened to you" is something many people have rarely experienced.


Asking people to talk about their experiences can sometimes lead to useful answers even if the wrong questions were asked, because the contextual richness of stories provides information in excess of what was directly sought. Being surprised by the questions answered (and posed) by collected stories is a standard outcome of participatory narrative inquiry.


Stories convey complex emotions with more ground truth than any other means of communication. Direct questioning generates more precise measurements, but story elicitation ensures greater depths of insight into complex topics and complex people. The act of listening to a story told by another person creates a displacement of perspective that helps people see through new eyes into a different world of truth.


When people tell stories, they sometimes reveal feelings and beliefs of which they themselves are not aware. When the answer to a direct question is, "I don’t know," asking for a story may provide the contextual triggers that bring out the tacit knowledge and relevant experience required. After the story has been told, the storyteller may still not know the answer to the direct question. But the answer is there in their story.


Asking people about their stories gives them the freedom to say forbidden things - it’s about the story, not about me - and the safety to admit fault or place blame. Also, people tend to have stronger reactions to stories than facts or opinions. This makes asking people to interpret their stories a useful means of surfacing their feelings about important issues.


Every story has a natural shape, with a situation, a tension, and a resolution. People usually find it difficult to exit the story before the tension has been resolved, whether they are telling it or listening to it. The story pulls them in and engages them until it has completed its course. Because of this, people tend to stay longer (and say more) than they would have otherwise.


When a topic is complex and many-layered, the best course is to increase diversity, think out of the box, and prepare for surprise. Asking a diverse range of people to tell you what they have done and seen enlists their imagination along with your own. Direct questioning, though precise, is narrowly focused, and produces unidimensional content that can provide only one answer.