Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Conference report, part six: Stories and NVC

 This is the sixth in a series of blog posts about two conferences I attended this fall (NCDD and NYSDRA).
  1. started by describing the Red-Blue Dictionary and the exercise I designed for it (which I call "Ground Truthing with Stories").
  2. Then I described a new conferences-and-meetings variant of the "Twice told stories" exercise, called "Bubble up stories," I designed for a NCDD plenary session.
  3. Then I described a "Sticker stories" landscape exercise I designed for a session on story work.
  4. Then I talked about Cross method mapping with the Group Works cards.
  5. Then I played with some ideas about childhood trauma, sparked by a conference session at the NYSDRA conference.
This post is about another NYSDRA conference session that got me thinking. It was about Nonviolent Communication.

A curious discovery

Amazon says my first exposure to Nonviolent Communication took place in 2008, because that's when I seem to have bought Marshall Rosenberg's 44-page book The Surprising Purpose of Anger. I think I may have bought the book for parenting purposes, because my son would have been about five then and was probably taking his first steps into asserting his independence. I do remember that the book's central thesis, that anger masks unmet needs, made perfect sense to me, and I've been loosely using the idea ever since.

Over the past several years I've heard people talk about NVC now and then, and I've read a few web pages about it here and there, but never paid it a lot of attention. So when I saw that one of the NYSDRA conference sessions was on NVC, I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn more.

Most of the session was as I remembered and expected: judging actions and emotions stands in the way of understanding needs and values. That made sense. But then there was a slide (or something) that described one of the four steps of NVC. It said "Feelings: emotions or sensations, free of thought and story."

Wait, what? Free of thought and story? Why? Sharing stories is one of the ways we articulate and understand our feelings, right? Why should stories not be included in this?

So I looked to see if this was a fluke. It wasn't. A few short excerpts from web sites and books on NVC (emphases mine):
What is unique about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) ... is that it gets us out of our stories — the stories that we’ve already told over and over to no avail to deaf or disinterested ears, without relief.
Nonviolent communication is designed to strip away the narrative people automatically build in their heads — that big looming cloud of supposition you might be carrying around about a person or situation, disabling you from working effectively.
This was the sad but familiar idea that stories are bad because they are simple. It's one of the symptoms of the decline of knowledge about stories in everyday life, a misunderstanding that takes the word "story" to mean a simplistic representation that holds us back from nuanced understandings -- like a Disney fairy tale or a TV commercial. Yes of course, stories can be simple and limiting; but they are also capable of expressing and exploring manifold complexities. I'm used to countering that argument, so I wasn't surprised or bothered by this.

But some other mentions, particularly of conversational story sharing, were more concerning. For example (again, emphases my own):
(on many lists with names like "Obstacles to Empathetic Communication" and "Communication that Cuts Off Connection") Story-telling: Moving the focus away from the other and back to your own experience - "I know just how you feel. That reminds me of the time..."
Intentionally or not, [telling a story in response to someone else's story] can also have the effect of bringing the attention back to your own experience rather than keeping the focus (at least for the moment) on the person we want to support. Especially when someone is sharing intense feelings, sharing an anecdote or comparing their situation to one of our own is unlikely to foster greater understanding or connection. Because it shifts the focus away from them, it can act as a form of minimization or denial.
(during an exercise practicing "Ways to Respond Non-Empathetically") (Speaker) "My mom passed away last week" (3rd person / Storytelling card) "That reminds me of this time when my dog died. I was really sad for a couple weeks. But then I got a new one!
Now I was wide awake. These were not examples of story sharing; they were examples of unhealthy story sharing being used to paint all story sharing as something to be avoided. That's like saying to an asthmatic, "You wouldn't wheeze so much if you would just stop all that breathing."

Curious, I wondered where this animus toward stories was coming from. So I took a closer look at Rosenberg's original book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

A particular view of stories and storytelling

As I read through Rosenberg's book, I found a few telling mentions of storytelling situations. First was a story about a school principal who had been dominating every conversation by telling boring, unconnected stories about his childhood. At the triumphal conclusion of the story, someone finally told the principal that he had "a big mouth." What surprised me about this story was that Rosenberg attributed its crisis not to the principal's domination of the conversation but to his "storytelling habit," as if storytelling itself was to blame. Strange.

A second story about storytelling was even more troubling. Rosenberg described a group of people who were sharing stories in a room -- just the sort of thing I help people do. But his take on what was happening was quite different than (I think) mine would have been in the same room. I'll try to shorten his account as much as I can without removing needed details.
I’ve been invited from time to time to work with groups of citizens concerned about racism in their communities. One issue that frequently arises among these groups is that their meetings are tedious and fruitless. ... I knew members of one such group that had been organized to effect change in the local school system. ...
One man began the meeting by calling the group’s attention to a recent newspaper article in which a minority mother had raised complaints and concerns regarding the principal’s treatment of her daughter. A woman responded by sharing a situation that had occurred to her when she was a student at the same school. One by one, each member then related a similar personal experience. After twenty minutes I asked the group if their needs were being met by the current discussion. Not one person said “yes.” “This is what happens all the time in these meetings!” huffed one man, “I have better things to do with my time than sit around listening to the same old bullshit.”
I then addressed the man who had initiated the discussion: “Can you tell me, when you brought up the newspaper article, what response you were wanting from the group?”
“I thought it was interesting,” he replied. I explained that I was asking what response he wanted from the group, rather than what he thought about the article. He pondered awhile and then conceded, “I’m not sure what I wanted.”
And that’s why, I believe, twenty minutes of the group’s valuable time had been squandered on fruitless discourse. When we address a group without being clear what we are wanting back, unproductive discussions will often follow.
I have helped thousands of people build connections by sharing stories. If you were to ask any of the people I've helped whether their needs were being met by the current discussion, not one person would say "yes." That does not mean their needs were not being met! It just means that the activity they were engaged in wasn't one that produces obvious results right away.

I'm also not surprised that the man who started the story sharing didn't know what he wanted. Nobody knows what they want when they share stories. That's how it works. We have an instinct to share stories with each other, and we have it for a reason. Sharing stories draws us together in ways we can't explain to build connections and understandings we need to survive. It's a way of communicating that is deliberately oblique and roundabout, and it's especially useful when we don't know what we want. My guess is that the people in that room drew together in subtle but important ways during those apparently squandered twenty minutes. Rosenberg just couldn't see it.

We all have an easy time making sense of some things and a hard time making sense of other things. Narrative conversation sounds like meaningless chit-chat to people who don't get stories, just like football looks ridiculous to people who don't get sports and coffee smells like mud to people who don't get coffee. I don't get spectator sports. When my family starts going on about some championship or another, I wander off, because it all sounds like meaningless jibber-jabber to me. I just didn't get the gene for it. However, I get it that lots of other people do understand and appreciate spectator sports, and I don't go around telling people it's a fruitless waste of time.

Yes, story work does seem unproductive -- right up until the moment when its productivity becomes obvious to everyone. You can't predict in advance when that moment will arrive. It emerges. I always think of the first part of any story sharing session like a garden whose seeds are germinating. Nothing seems to be happening, but a lot is going on under the surface. I've found that in any group, some people understand this from the first moment of the session, and some need help getting there. People who habitually think in stories can sense what's happening as the stories flow. People who don't think in stories can't sense anything happening, and they get frustrated with the apparent fruitlessness of the discourse.

I've met people like Rosenberg, and the man who had better things to do with his time, many times. I've helped them become more aware of what was going on around them, and I've helped them participate as the group moved on to the next stage of story work, the part where the seeds germinate and the group's productivity becomes obvious to everyone.

It's possible that the group Rosenberg was trying to help was stuck in a phase of story sharing where people share individual stories without drawing them together into anything coherent. It sounds like they needed to start juxtaposing and linking stories to make sense of them together. But twenty minutes is a very short time frame for story sharing. I usually ask people to share stories for at least half an hour, and that in small groups, before they start drawing anything together. If this was a group of say ten people all sharing stories together, twenty minutes would not have been time enough for the drawing-together to start.

Also, people often get stuck in that early phase for a reason, which is usually that they aren't ready to draw things together yet. That doesn't mean they'll never be ready; it just means they need to do more connecting and accumulating first. This is often especially true for taboo or sensitive topics. There is a pace to story work, and it takes practice to understand and work with the process.

Here's the next story I found in Rosenberg's book about storytelling:
[I]f an aunt is repeating the story about how 20 years ago her husband deserted her with two small children, we might interrupt by saying, “So, Auntie, it sounds like you are still feeling hurt, wishing you’d been treated more fairly.” People are not aware that it is often empathy they are needing. Neither do they realize that they are more likely to receive that empathy by expressing the feelings and needs that are alive in them rather than by recounting tales of past injustice and hardship.
Actually, people often express the feelings and needs that are alive in them by recounting tales of past injustice and hardship. If you are not a person who pays attention to stories, you might not see this happening. That doesn't mean it's not happening.

Nobody likes to be interrupted while telling a story, even if they've told it a million times. No, especially if they've told it a million times. When an old person tells you a story that they know you have already heard over and over, they are expressing to you a deep emotional need: to be heard, to matter, to be acknowledged as a fellow human being. Cutting them off in the middle of their story would be cruel, especially when they have exposed their need in a way that is so obvious to everyone. I find it strange that someone who was so focused on unmet needs would be so willing to disregard this particular need. Sure, if Auntie is mired in a negative story, we can work with her to highlight positive stories and so on. That's narrative therapy, and it can be amazingly effective. But no story worker would ever cut anyone off in the middle of a story they so obviously needed to tell.

I'm not saying Rosenberg is at fault in this theoretical scenario; he's just ... unaware. His response is not very different from what would happen if you put me on the sidelines at a football field. I'd be bored to tears, and I might get a little annoyed about watching a bunch of guys chasing a stupid ball around, and I might say things that trample on feelings I can't perceive.

Here's another interesting tale that comes just after the "auntie" story.
Once at a cocktail party I was in the midst of an abundant flow of words that to me, however, seemed lifeless. “Excuse me,” I broke in, addressing the group of nine other people I’d found myself with, “I’m feeling impatient because I’d like to be more connected with you, but our conversation isn’t creating the kind of connection I’m wanting. I’d like to know if the conversation we’ve been having is meeting your needs, and if so, what needs of yours were being met through it.” All nine people stared at me as if I had thrown a rat in the punch bowl.
I wonder if the conversation wasn't creating the kind of connection Rosenberg wanted because people were sharing stories. I wonder if people stared at him because they had been doing something they themselves didn't understand. That would make sense. If you were walking down the street, and someone came up to you and started asking you why you put your foot in exactly that position, or what caused you to hold your knee in exactly that way, you'd stare at them too. It doesn't have to mean the conversation was actually useless. In this story, and in the story about the community group, Rosenberg seems to have taken the group's confusion as proof that he knew something they didn't, when it could have been the reverse.

It would be one thing if one person was confused about the nature of story sharing in groups, but Rosenberg's advice to interrupt storytelling has been taken up by some -- not all, but some -- of his followers. Here's a sentence from a blog post extolling the virtues of interrupting "long stories":
Telling the details is a strategy that people sometimes take when they want to be understood deeply or when they like their comfort zone and are avoiding taking action.
And how do you tell which of those things is going on? I've been working with stories for seventeen years, and I can't always tell. I find it works best to give people the freedom to choose for themselves what their stories mean and why they are telling them. Sometimes people are not yet ready to step out of their comfort zone, but if you let them tell a few stories -- and listen to their stories -- they'll get ready. I've seen that happen lots of times, but I've never seen an interrupted storytelling end in anything productive.

We are all limited by our personalities and habits of thought. Every one of us knows someone, maybe someone close, who thinks in a way that makes no sense to us. One person hates planning ahead while another can't stand spontaneity; one person is passive-aggressive while another is just plain aggressive; one plans in pictures, another in words, another with their hands. We're all different, and that's good. The danger is when any of us thinks everyone else is like them, or should be like them.

I've noticed that many social science professionals, in many different fields, have what Diana Forsythe called "I am the world" reasoning, in which they assume that every human being thinks the way they do. I've met a lot of story professionals, for example, who believe so strongly that "stories are the way human beings think" that they pepper everything they say and write with such universal statements. I always try to correct people when they say things like that, because no statement about stories in human life applies to everyone equally. Nobody never tells stories, but people vary considerably in how much they tell stories and how important (and useful) stories are to them.

My guess is that Marshall Rosenberg made the same "I am the world" mistake, only on the other side. All of the things Rosenberg said about stories are true -- but their opposites are equally true, and for whatever reason, he couldn't see that. I would never want to disrespect this accomplished man or his valuable contributions to our world. I just wish I could have had a quiet conversation with him about the role of story sharing in human life.

What I would tell Rosenberg, if I could, is that stories are like fire. Both inventions are prehistoric in origin, and both led to major improvements in human life and society. The acquisition of managed fire helped people colonize colder climates, deter predators, and develop stronger social ties. Most importantly, fire helped people cook their food, which led to greater intelligence through better nutrition.

The development of story sharing helped people cooperate more effectively, making possible a variety of collective survival strategies unavailable to uncoordinated individuals. People sat around fires and told stories, and this helped people develop strong social ties. Most importantly, stories helped people cook their experiences -- that is, make sense of the things that were happening to them and pass on the life-saving knowledge thus obtained. This led to greater collective intelligence.

Yet both of these ancient practices can have devastating effects if they are not treated with care and respect. Fires and stories support and imperil human life. No one would claim that we should stop using fire, in all the myriad forms that support our modern lives, because it also carries danger with it. The same is true with stories.

Just as we can learn to distinguish between violent and non-violent communication, we can learn to distinguish between violent and non-violent story sharing. Violent story sharing is dominating, controlling, refusing to listen, drawing attention back to oneself. Non-violent story sharing is collaborative, generative, connective, and empathetic.

What NVC says about stories and empathy

Now I'd like to address another surprise I encountered on reading more about Non-Violent Communication. Storytelling has been categorized in many lists of things that lead to sympathy (understanding someone's plight, feeling sorry for them) but not to empathy (seeing things through another person's eyes). I found this astounding, because seeing things through another person's eyes is exactly what happens when people share stories.

When story sharing is healthy, people don't just throw response stories out to dominate the conversation or draw attention to themselves. That's not how it works. People listen to the stories others tell, ask questions about them, and respond with stories that communicate their empathy and understanding to the original storyteller. Linking stories together in this way is an act of community, of mutual support.

But the writings I've read on Nonviolent Communication seem to ignore this aspect of story sharing. For example, one of the quotes I mentioned above is a perfect example of the storytelling that happens when story sharing is not going well. I'll copy it down here:
(during an exercise practicing "Ways to Respond Non-Empathetically") (Speaker) "My mom passed away last week" (3rd person / Storytelling card) "That reminds me of this time when my dog died. I was really sad for a couple weeks. But then I got a new one!
Yes, that's a horrible response story! But it's unrealistic. You are not likely to hear such a response in any group of people who care about each other, or even any group of people who were brought up with good manners. Anyone who would tell a story like that in a situation like that would not have been listening or connecting.

I wondered why this strange example was being used to represent something that is likely to happen in a group, when it is actually something that is unlikely to happen. It raised my suspicions. When someone gives a distorted, pathological caricature of a behavior as an example of the behavior, you can be sure that whoever is speaking hasn't taken the time to understand what the behavior is actually like.

Still, I didn't want to simply condemn what people were saying about stories. I hate it when people make claims without providing evidence. That's what I'm faulting Marshall Rosenberg for doing, after all. So if I wanted to claim that story sharing, taken as a whole, increases rather than decreases empathy, it seemed to me that I ought to provide some proof of that. So I went looking for proof.

What the research says about stories and empathy

To begin with, I've seen articles for some time linking empathy to reading fiction. A 2006 study found that people who recognized more names of literary authors, and reported habitually reading literary fiction, and said they often got "lost in a story," scored higher on tests of empathy. However, it was unclear whether reading fiction increased empathy or empathetic people liked fiction.

A later study did find an increase in empathy after reading fiction, but only after reading literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction). Say that study's authors:
[W]hereas many of our mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations. Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters. That is, they must engage ToM [theory of mind] processes. Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction, which is more readerly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable. Therefore, it may reaffirm readers’ expectations and not promote ToM. We propose that by prompting readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits ToM.
So literary fiction gives us incomplete, vague, and surprising information, which causes us to have to work to make sense of what is going on. Healthy story sharing does the same thing. Rather than being "readerly," or passive, it's an active, though ritualized, negotiation process. When people are listening to each other (and not just waiting for their turn to speak) you can see them actively making sense of the stories they are hearing and telling. This doesn't always happen, but that doesn't mean it can't.

Another aspect common to healthy story sharing and literary fiction is transportation. Richard Gerrig's 1993 book Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading introduced the term emotional transportation. Similar to Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, emotional transportation describes the feeling of being "lost in a book," so deeply engrossed in a story as to feel temporarily removed from the everyday world and located, so to speak, elsewhere.

A 2013 study connected transportation theory to empathy by asking people to read excerpts from well-regarded literary short stories. Not surprisingly, the authors found that self-reported transportation correlated with increased measures on tests of empathy. Surprisingly, though, they also found that people who read non-fiction texts, or did not report transportation into the fictional worlds they read about, showed decreased measures of empathy. That decrease connects, I think, to what happens when story sharing does not go well, and I think that's what Marshall Rosenberg was talking about.

The neurological basis of narrative engagement

Next let's consider a series of studies conducted by Uri Hasson and his colleagues at Princeton University on the neurological patterns that occur when people tell and listen to stories. In a series of studies, the authors found that when several people listened to the same story while in a functional MRI machine, their brains developed neural patterns that were spatially and temporally coupled, that is, that showed similar activity patterns in the same brain areas over time. When they compared the neural patterns of a storyteller and of people listening to an audio recording of the same storytelling, neural coupling took place between teller and audience as well. The only difference in the patterns was a processing lag of one to three seconds in story listeners.

Some of these neural couplings were in areas of the brain that process auditory information, which means nothing more than the fact that all of the people were listening to something similar (because even the storyteller was listening to her own voice). But some couplings were in areas "known to be involved in processing social information crucial for successful communication, including, among others, the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires, and goals of others."

These initial findings led Hasson and his colleagues to devise a series of experiments to isolate the conditions that led to these higher-order social-information neural couplings. When they had people listen to stories in a language they did not understand, the social-information coupling disappeared. When they had people read lists of unconnected words, again, there were no shared patterns in social-information brain areas. Sentences that made sense but did not connect into coherent stories also created no neural entrainment in social-information areas.

As I read about this research, I was excited about the idea of storytelling creating physical resonance in our brains. However, two things bothered me. First, the reports I read did not mention whether any attempts were made to test non-story speech of personal relevance, for example, the expression of feelings or opinions about a topic. After all, the same coupling could have come about without the actual telling of stories.

Secondly, I'm not sure that brain activity in the areas responsible for processing social information has to be uniformly pro-social. It could describe decreases as well as increases in empathy. As far as I can tell, test subjects were not evaluated for changes in empathetic feeling. So this research doesn't necessarily connect story sharing with empathy.

Still, other results from the same research point connect story sharing with increased social understanding, if not empathy. For example:
  1. Hasson and his colleagues asked story listeners to write down as much as they could remember from the story they heard. Those who were able to recall the story more fully showed stronger neural coupling. 
  2. Those who recalled stories best were also more likely to show anticipatory responses -- that is, neural coupling that preceded instead of lagging behind the same pattern in the storyteller. (That sounds to me like active "writerly" engagement.)
  3. In one experiment, the researchers presented two groups of people with the same fictional story of a man losing his wife in a crowd. One group was told that the wife was disloyal, the other that the husband was overly jealous. Each group showed neural coupling with people in their own group, but not with people in the other group.
I take these combined results as even more evidence that story sharing can be both healthy and unhealthy when it comes to understanding each other. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I've seen all of these things happening in groups of people sharing stories. You have probably seen them too. Everyone has experienced what it's like to tell a story and have other people join you inside it. They listen to the details, anticipate your emotions, and leave their assumptions behind. Everyone also knows what it's like when somebody won't join you inside your story. They don't pay attention to details; their responses are distant and delayed; and they replace what you actually say with what they think you might say based on their assumptions about you.

It's like your story is a train. Sometimes people board the train and go on a journey with you. And sometimes they wait for your train to pass by so that their train can come in and take them where they want to go. If a story sharing conversation is like a train station, it can be busy with passengers coming back from one train only to surge onto another, laughing and crying as they travel together, or it can be full of annoyed and annoying people sitting on benches and grousing about delays.

This makes it seem like it's always the listener who doesn't engage in healthy story exchange, but sometimes it's the teller. Sometimes people tell stories that nobody can get inside, including themselves. Their train cars have no doors. Sometimes this happens when people close themselves off due to traumatic experiences or bad habits. And some people just aren't used to going on journeys through their own experiences.

But again, it's not always the storyteller's fault, either. Sometimes stories come out opaque and featureless when people feel forced to speak, or when they don't trust those who are asking them to speak, or when the atmosphere is one of censorship. One of the things I always look for in story projects is whether people are in their stories. It's hard to explain exactly what I mean, but when a person is in the stories they tell, the stories reflect their unique perspectives. If one person's story could equally well have been told -- word for word -- by any other person, they aren't in the story. It's a story, but it isn't their story.

Here's an example of a story with nobody in it:
Last month there was too much work to do. It was totally unrealistic. There was just no way to meet our deadlines. The boss wouldn't help. It got done anyway. People made sacrifices. The team worked well together. But there were hard feelings. Things will be difficult going forward.
That's a train with no doors! Now here's the same story with somebody living inside it:
We had so much work to do last month. I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my life! The worst day, at least to me, was when a bunch of us went to the boss and asked for some help meeting our deadlines. I was the person with the least seniority in the group, and I'll tell you, I was nervous. I was afraid she'd say "if you can't cut it, get out" and let me go. She didn't do that, thank goodness, but she didn't give us any help either. We walked out of there determined to figure out what we could do without her help. We came up with a great plan, and by working well together, and giving up our personal lives for a while, we got the work done on time. I'm proud of what we did! But I'll tell you, I learned a lot about who has my back and who doesn't around here. And I'm not the only one. I don't think anybody is going to be knocking on a certain door anytime soon.
I made up both of these stories, but I've read many like them. Projects with more stories like the first one tend to fail, and projects with more stories like the second one tend to succeed. The first story is uninhabited. It has few personal pronouns, expressions of emotion, emphases, or unique perspectives. It's a story, but the person who told it didn't feel comfortable inside it. They might have felt unable to speak freely or uncomfortable with the situation or the topic. They might not have felt they were being listened to. Sometimes it's hard to tell why stories are uninhabited. Causation in story sharing works backward and forward at once. Sometimes a train car shows up with open doors, but if nobody is waiting, the doors close or even disappear.

Stories and oxytocin

So that was interesting, but I wanted more. I kept exploring any connections I could find between stories and empathy. After a while I fell into a rat's nest of contradicting studies about stories and oxytocin. This hormone is involved in a variety of social situations, from family bonding to sex to hanging out with friends to petting the family dog. It is linked to trust and empathy, but in ways that are far from simple. For example, increased oxytocin also seems to correspond with envy, schadenfreude, and ethnocentrism.

From a 2010 study about oxytocin and groups:
[P]articipants self-administered oxytocin or placebo and made decisions with financial consequences to themselves, their in-group, and a competing out-group. Results showed that oxytocin drives a “tend and defend” response in that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive, but not offensive, aggression toward competing out-groups.
The reason oxytocin matters to you and me right now is that apparently its production also spikes when people listen to stories. Frustratingly, though, I can't find any discussion of the strength of this finding, or any replication of it, or any exploration of context. Does it happen in response to all stories? Or only certain stories in certain contexts? Almost everything I can find about the relationship between oxytocin and stories comes from Paul Zak, a scientist-turned-evangelist who calls oxytocin "the moral molecule" and (so say many) has simplified and glamorized its effects on behavior to the point of danger.

I did find one curious study about oxytocin and gossip, published just this month:
Twenty-two female students were randomly assigned to a gossip conversation or to an emotional non-gossip conversation. ... Salivary oxytocin and cortisol levels were measured. Oxytocin increased significantly in the gossip compared to the emotional non-gossip conversation. ... Our findings suggest that oxytocin may represent a potential hormonal correlate of gossip behavior.
I was not able to read this whole study, but I did find lots of discussion about it on a bevy of news stories and blog posts about how gossip is "good for you." (Such is the buzz around oxytocin that any mention of it sounds like a miracle cure.) What I managed to find out (mainly from an article at was that the "emotional non-gossip conversation" involved in this study was actually the telling of a personal story.
The first group—prompted by an actress who steered the conversation—gossiped about a recent unplanned pregnancy on campus. The second, non-gossip group heard an actress tell an emotional personal story about how a sporting injury meant she might never be able to play sports again.
So that's interesting. Stories were exchanged in both cases, but oxytocin did not spike in both cases. It's possible that stories are only linked to oxytocin when they are specifically about one's social group.

Okay, so here's a study specifically about stories and social groups, published in 2014:
Participants read a story about a counterstereotypical Muslim woman and were then asked to determine the race of ambiguous-race Arab-Caucasian faces. Compared to a content-matched control condition, participants who read the narrative exhibited lower categorical race bias by making fewer categorical race judgments and perceiving greater genetic overlap between Arabs and Caucasians.
If all stories produce oxytocin, and oxytocin causes people to defend their in-group, this study should have come out differently, right? But notice what type of story was told: a "counterstereotypical" story. That story might have acted to expand the definition of the in-group to include the Muslim woman in the story, causing the oxytocin spike (if there was one) to be applied differently. Most people encounter plenty of stereotypical stories every day, and they probably have the opposite effect. That's more evidence that stories help and hinder pro-social behavior.

The importance of context in studying story sharing

I have just two more studies to put before you (and then I promise to stop). Together they point to the paradoxical nature of story sharing as it relates to empathy. The first study examined empathy and experience, and was given the excellent title "Having Been There Doesn't Mean I Care." From its abstract:
[P]articipants who had previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying) more harshly evaluated another person's failure to endure a similar distressing event compared with participants with no experience enduring the event or those currently enduring the event. ... [T]hese findings present a paradox such that, in the face of struggle or defeat, the people we seek for advice or comfort may be the least likely to provide it. 
The authors of this study attribute the lack of compassion they found to two things. First (they say), we tend to retain positive memories more easily than negative ones, so our struggles seem smaller now than they did in the past. Second, knowledge of our own success back-flows onto the story, so that our success seems more certain now than it was then. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves change as the events of the story unfold. That makes sense.

But there are methodological details that set a particular context to the storytelling involved in this study. In each of the five parts of the study, researchers had people read fictional vignettes that described people struggling with distressing events, then answer some questions about their evaluation of those fictional people. They did not test what might happen if people actually talked to people who were struggling with distressing events. Reading a vignette about a person you know to be fictional doesn't have the same impact as talking to a person who is telling their story to your face. These results can't say anything universal about the way we evaluate the experiences of other people. Here's what concerns me most: the authors claim their results prove that seeking advice from real people -- presumably in real conversation -- will have the same effect they found in a completely different context.

In storytelling, context is a thousand times more important than content. When people engage with each other during an event of face-to-face story sharing, they exchange a variety of subtle signals that keep story sharing healthy in that context. We all learn to give and receive these signals as we learn to get along with each other, and we learn how to pay attention to the context in which we are sharing stories. One of the things we learn is that the same story told in two different contexts is two different stories.

But people seem to design and interpret research studies about storytelling without taking account of context. It's as if people studied how opera singers breathed and said it means something about breathing, and then studied how divers breathe and claimed that they had overturned everything we knew about breathing. That would be ridiculous, because anyone can see that an opera singer and a diver breathe in very different ways. But somehow because it's stories, people think it's all one big undifferentiated thing.

One more study and I'm done. This one comes from the field of nursing, which has become a hotbed of research on stories and empathy (for obvious reasons). In this study, people were asked to respond to the reading of a "pain narrative" in one of three ways: by retelling the pain narrative they had just read; by telling a story about an autobiographical memory of a pain experience of their own; or by telling a story about an experience of pain they recalled from a movie they had seen. The autobiographical memory condition corresponded with an increase in measured empathy; the other two conditions did not.

This seems to contradict the previous study, which said that recalling one's own similar experience led to decreased empathy. However, people in the first study were not asked to recall a previous experience; they were only asked to react to the vignette they read by answering some questions about it. The people in the second study were explicitly asked to "select" a story to tell in response to the vignette they read.

The act of choosing a story to tell is intensely social. It makes use of subtle cues that define the context of the conversation in which it takes place. It is important, for example, that in the second study the response stories were told orally, to an interviewer (I presume) who might have been seen as standing in for the original storyteller in the conversation. Thus responses were different than if the people had been asked to write down a story. Even the words used to ask participants to select and tell a story were important, because they expressed social norms.
Participants in both conditions [both the autobiographical storytelling and the retelling of the story they heard] were instructed to frame their recollection as a response to the person who wrote the pain narrative, and were told 'Tell your story as if the person whose pain story you read was sitting here in the room with us'.
The first study set up a situation of judgement without accountability, and the second study set up a situation of accountable normative social response. That's why their empathy results were so different. It might not have had anything to do with whether people had succeeded or failed in their struggle.

People who present research on stories, and people who evaluate such research, have a responsibility to pay adequate attention to context. When someone says a story had an effect on people, we need to ask: In what context was the story told? Who was present? What relationships and identities were salient at the time? What did people think was expected of them? How was the story told? How were people asked to respond? In other words, we can only understand what a storytelling event means when we understand the full story of the event. And we can't compare storytelling events whose contexts don't match. People reading written stories, watching movies, and exchanging stories are having such different experiences that it's impossible to lump them together into any single statement about what stories do or how they work.

In summary, I don't think anyone has sufficiently answered the question of whether stories increase or decrease empathy. I doubt there is one answer. Stories inspire and destroy, enlighten and confuse, bring people together and tear them apart. Stories are as complex as we are, and we are never going to understand them until we work with their complexity rather than denying it or ignoring it.

Towards Nonviolent Narrative Communication

Now let's move from theory to practice. At this point I think I can list some things people can do to share stories in a way that Marshall Rosenberg would find not only acceptable but worthy of being included in Nonviolent Communication.

My first thought for this section was to go through "the four-part NVC process," as people call it, and talk about how people can use healthy story sharing to (a) observe without evaluating, (b) explore feelings, (c) uncover needs, and (d) make and respond to requests.

But I couldn't do that because, well, those are all things we do naturally when we share stories with each other -- if we're listening and not trying to one-up each other or dominate the conversation. All of those things are built in to the process of sharing stories that we developed tens of thousands of years ago. If you sit in a room with a bunch of people sharing stories, and nobody's being a jerk, all of that stuff will happen. It might happen slowly, and it might be oblique and glancing and intermittent, and it might not be obvious, but it will happen. I've seen it happen many times, and maybe you have too.

What surprises me most about Nonviolent Communication is that I can see remarkable similarities between what it tells people to do and what people naturally do when they share stories. For example:
  • If you shared a personal story with me, would I call you an idiot in the middle of it? Of course not. When we tell stories we ask for the floor and the indulgence of the group to recount our experiences as we see them. It's common courtesy to let people explain how something seemed to them at the time without evaluating their statements harshly.
  • If I told you a personal story, would you be surprised if I told you how I felt as the events of my story unfolded? Of course not. That's an expected part of telling a story. When we petition a group for the right to tell a story, part of the permission they give us is permission to explore and express our feelings about what happened to us.
  • After I have told you a story about something I experienced, do you have a better sense of my needs than you did before you heard the story? Of course you do. We share stories with each other in part to communicate our needs. Most people are used to picking up on needs by listening to the stories people tell. They may not be able to articulate what they're doing, but that doesn't mean they aren't doing it. 
  • Have you ever listened to someone's personal story, then later realized that they told you the story because they wanted something but couldn't ask for it directly? Of course you have. People use stories to make requests of each other all the time.
It's almost like Marshall Rosenberg didn't find what he needed in story sharing, so he invented it; but he seems to have invented the same thing people were already doing when they shared stories -- though maybe story sharing was too meandering and unreliable for his goals. I can understand that. If you have a burning need to reach some goal, and people seem to be wandering around in a wasteland, you aren't going to be satisfied with them chancing onto useful things once in a while. But sometimes meandering and unreliable progress is the only kind of progress available, at least at first.

Story sharing is like an old banged-up off-road all-terrain vehicle. If you drive it on the road it'll be uselessly slow and hard to control, and you're better off driving a fast, powerful vehicle that can get you where you want to go faster and more efficiently. Nobody would drive an ATV from one city to another. But if you're trying to round up some smelly cows in a muddy field in the rain, a banged-up old ATV might be just what you need. I'm not saying NVC isn't needed -- far from it. I'm saying that NVC and story sharing are different versions of the same thing, and as such, they might be able to do more together than either can alone.

Still, I haven't addressed the issue of trimming out the bad parts of story sharing. I was thinking that I should write some advice on how to be a good story sharer, but I realized that the work had already been done thousands of years ago. Just follow the Golden Rule. You don't need anything else. Do you want to be heard? Listen. Do you want to be helped? Help. It's that simple. Do that, and story sharing will be healthy, and all the things it should do will happen.

But let's say that you want to follow the Golden Rule and don't know how. You're out of practice. We're all out of practice, because the TV doesn't care how we behave. What should a kind, thinking person do if they want to practice healthy story sharing as they go about their social life? Here is some advice. I've arranged these sections in order of importance: listener first, then teller, then facilitator.

When you are listening to a story

1. Enter into the story. Allow yourself to be emotionally transported. We've gotten used to the phrase "the suspension of disbelief" in reference to fiction, but it applies just as much when we are listening to each other. Suspend your disbelief that anyone could actually feel the way the person who is talking to you says they felt. If their emotional reactions seem ridiculous, suspend that disbelief and pretend you accept the way they say they saw things, just for a little while. If you can do this for a fictional character who means nothing to you, surely you can do it for people you care about. Right?

Entering into a story is a journey. You start out in your own world, in yourself. Then, as the person starts talking, if you're listening, you start walking. You walk past what you thought they would say, past what you want them to say, and past what they should say; and finally you get to what they are actually saying.

I always picture this journey like I'm walking through a series of rooms or spaces separated by doors. I open each door, stand on the threshold for a moment, and then pass on through to the next space. Usually I think each space I find myself in is the last space, only to discover that I'm still holding on to some type of evaluation, because I can still see another door in front of me. The very last door opens onto the story the person is actually telling, and that place is a whole new world.

I don't always make it to that last place. I can be a good story listener, but it's hard when I'm tired or nervous or frustrated. Sometimes I turn around after one or two doors and walk back. Sometimes I pretend I can't see the door in front of me because I'm tired or annoyed or whatever. I'm sure we all do that. But after practicing listening to stories for nearly two decades, I have become more aware of the spaces I'm in and the doors that stand in front of me. That at least keeps me from thinking I'm listening better than I am.

How can you become more aware of the spaces and doors of your story listening? Listen to yourself listening. Listen to your thoughts. If you think to yourself, "Of course he would say something like that," you're in the first space. If you think, "If she would only stop being so obsessed with the stupid (whatever)," you're in the second space. If you think, "What an idiot! Anyone can see he over-reacted," you're in the third space. If you think, "Oh, so that's how she felt; that's what that felt like to her," congratulations, because you have finally arrived in the wide-open space of another person's experience. Now you can listen.

If you haven't experienced this yet, go out and try it, because it's quite amazing when it works. I don't get all the way there very often, partly because the journey is hardest with the people we know best. Things like marriage and other sources of frustration make the doors harder to wrench open. But when I do manage to get all the doors open and complete the journey, I'm -- okay, a little proud of myself, but more importantly -- energized, enlightened, and grateful.

2.  Play with the storyteller. When you finally get to the wide-open space that is another person's experience, you'll find two things there: the storyteller, who has been waiting there for you, and their story. Now it's time to play. Notice that I didn't say "play with the story," because you don't get to do that. It's their story. But you can play with them as they play with their story.

How can you do that? Talk to them. It's not okay to interrupt a story in order to shut it down, but it's perfectly okay to interrupt a story with a playful question. But be careful. If you aren't in the wide-open space yet, you might not be able to come up with playful questions. You'll be more likely to ask judgmental questions, like, "Why can't you stop obsessing about the stupid (whatever)?" or "Don't you think you over-reacted?" Those questions slam doors shut.

A truly playful question gambols in the wide-open space like a ... pony or some other thing that gambols. People love playful questions about their stories. Playful questions show people that you've joined them in the wide-open space, which is a nice feeling to start with; and playful questions help people make sense of their stories, which is half of why we tell stories in the first place. A playful question might be something like, "If you could go back in time and tell yourself before the whole thing started what was going to happen, how do you think you would have responded?" Or, "To think that you only missed her by five minutes! What if you had met her then?" And so on.

How can you tell if a question you would like to ask is a playful question? I'd like to say "it's playful if it's gamboling," but I suppose some literal-minded people won't be able to do anything with that. How about this. A playful question is a gift. It gives the storyteller something they can use in their own sensemaking process about the story. A non-playful question is more like a demand. It gives them nothing and asks them for something.

Of course there are times when you need to ask a non-playful question to meet your own needs. Maybe you need to make sure your rights are being respected, or that you are not being lied to. That goes without saying. I'm talking about the kinds of non-playful questions that come out of the closed-in spaces we walk through before we get to the wide-open space. When someone is telling a story and you think of a question you want to ask, think: is this question a gift or a demand? Would I want it to be given to me if this was my story?

What if you don't want to ask questions? Can't you just listen politely? Sure you can. Playful questions don't have to be asked in words. They can arise from facial expressions or body language. Even laughing at one place and not another can cause a playful question to form in the storyteller's mind. Professional storytellers depend on the playful questions they see in their audiences. They go home after their performances and go over all the playful questions that emerged, and they play with their stories based on them. Regular people do that too, only in a milder and less conscious way. If you're listening to a story and you want the storyteller to know that you are in their world with them, send them some playful questions in any way you like.

You can experiment with this in everyday conversation. I do it all the time. In one conversation I might ask a literal playful question, but in another I might see what happens if I just raise my eyebrows or lean forward when I think the person might benefit from my reaction. In other words, if you play with asking playful questions, you can get better at it. I've come to enjoy coming up with playful questions while listening to stories, and I've come to enjoy the little bursts of gratitude people can't help showing when they recognize a playful question they can use. Does this sound like a game? That's exactly what it is. Story sharing is a game people have been playing for a very long time. It wouldn't have lasted this long if it wasn't fun.

I forgot to mention one other kind of question you can legitimately ask while someone is telling a story: a door-opening question. Sometimes, when you're trying to get out of one of your judgmental spaces on the way to someone's wide-open space, a clarifying question can help you keep moving. Door-opening questions ask people to help you make sense of how something appeared or felt to the storyteller. Some clarifying questions might be "Why did you think the police were after you?" or "When did you find out the dog was missing?" or "Did you know she thought you were cheating on her?" But be careful not to confuse clarifying questions with judgmental questions. Asking "What kind of an idiot thinks the police are after them?" will not open any doors, unless it's the doors back out of the story.

3. Stay awake on the journey back home. After you have finished listening to a person's story, and your playful questions have had their fun and settled down for a quiet nap in the wide-open space of the person's experience, what should you do now? How should you leave the story?

You cannot take one step from another person's wide-open experience back to your own world. That would be as ridiculous as watching a sci-fi movie in a theater, then walking out and looking for your spaceship. It's called the suspension of disbelief, not the abandonment of disbelief. You have to live in your own head; it's where you keep all your stuff. So when you leave another person's story, you have to walk back through all the rooms you walked through on the way in. You need to do this for your own narrative health. You don't want to lose yourself and become someone else, but you don't want to lose what the other person's story has taught you, either. To go through life without learning anything from anyone is to be trapped in the prison of your own mind.

As you walk back through your rooms of evaluation, pay attention to how they have changed. Does what you thought the person would say seem different now that you've fully entered into their story? Do you see what you want from them differently now? What about the Room of Shoulds? Is it different now? In your journey back, you are no longer playing with another person and their story. You are negotiating with yourself and with your own sense of reality. You can walk back with your eyes closed, whistling past the graveyard, so to speak, or you can walk back aware and alert.

As with the journey in, I can't say that I always make the journey back with my eyes open. Sometimes I'm tired, and I just want to lie down somewhere. Sometimes I find such a contrast between what I saw going in and what I see coming out that I don't want to face it. Sometimes I have to make the same journey many times before I can open my eyes on the way back. Everybody does that. We can be optimistic about what we are capable of while forgiving ourselves for not being able to rise to every occasion with equal courage and strength.

Of the three things I've mentioned that story listeners need to do for story sharing to be healthy, from what I've seen in the world, this last one is the hardest. It's not that hard to listen politely to a story, especially if the social cues that surround the storytelling remind us of where we are and what is expected of us there. We do it like we go to church or a community meeting or a family dinner. When it's over, we want to take off our nice clothes and forget all about what the minister said or what grandma lectured us about. That's a mistake, because the benefits of healthy story sharing only accrue when we are willing to be changed, a little, a negotiated little, by listening to stories. We don't have to be transformed by every story, but -- eventually -- we should get somewhere new. That's the challenge and the promise of story listening.

I would like to recall to your memory what proponents of Nonviolent Communication have said about people sharing a story in response to another person's told story. It's way up at the top of the essay, but don't you stir yourself; I've got the relevant sentence right here.
[S]haring an anecdote or comparing their situation to one of our own is unlikely to foster greater understanding or connection.
I hope you can see that this statement is indeed likely to be true if the person comparing situations has not entered fully into the first person's story.
  • If I've been listening to you from the room of what I think you are likely to say, I might tell a story in response that ignores your feelings or only superficially links to what you said. 
  • If I've been listening to you from the room of what I want you to say, I might tell a story that tries to manipulate you with guilt or obligation. (This is where the one-upping "You think you've seen suffering" stories come in.)
  • If I've been listening to you from the room of what you ought to say, I might tell a story that admonishes you or gives you "helpful" advice. (The "my dog died" story from above fits here, and maybe in the first spot as well.)
But: if I've been listening to you from the wide-open space of your own experience, the story I tell in response is likely to foster greater understanding and connection -- because I'll have been listening to what actually happened to you and how you actually felt about it.

What if you think of a story to tell in response and you aren't sure if it's the right story to tell? There's an easy test. Just like a playful question, a response story should be a gift, not a demand. After you've told your response story, the original storyteller should feel grateful, and you should be able to feel their gratitude. Picture yourself telling the story in response, and picture their response. If you can picture gratitude, it's probably a good story to tell.

Hold on, you say. This is pretty one-sided. What if I think of a story that I feel a need to tell? Are you saying I need to squelch that need? Of course not. Gifts don't have to be given to one person only. You can tell a response story that is a gift to the storyteller and to yourself. Sharing stories is only a zero-sum game if you make it into one.

A concrete example. I wanted to give you a realistic example of someone going all the way into someone else's story, so I looked back into my experience. I did think of several times when I've gone all the way into someone's story and back with life-changing results. But those stories are too personal to write about here. The one illustrative and available story I can think of (actually, it has been jumping up and down begging to be told) is the story about the construction guy.

This was when I was in college. My sister and I had a plan to meet a bunch of people at a place for a thing. I remember a cozy restaurant with dark wood and stained glass. Anyway, I got there first and joined the party, and I ended up sitting next to some random guy. We chatted for a few minutes, and I found out that he worked in construction. At the time I thought of myself as a lofty intellectual, and I couldn't think of a single question to ask the construction guy. We sat there playing with our drinks, and things got more and more awkward.

Then my sister showed up. She's what you'd call a people person. She bounced into the conversation and started peppering the construction guy with questions. In a few minutes she got it out of him that in his spare time he restored old player pianos, about which he had encyclopedic knowledge. He told us story after fascinating story about all the pianos he had restored, and what it was like in the days when player pianos were all the rage, and how player pianos were designed, and so on. It just so happened that I was heavily into playing the piano at that time (so I was not only a wannabe-intellectual snob, but a wannabe-pianist snob to boot). It turned out that the construction guy knew a lot more about pianos and piano playing than I did.

What an idiot. I heard "construction" and assumed that the construction guy and I would have nothing to say to each other. My sister heard the same thing and breezed past it to find out what the guy actually had to say. I sat there moping in the room of what-people-like-that-are-probably-going-to-say, while she ran through door after door, quickly arriving at the wide-open space of his actual experience. I always remember that story as being linked to the dark wood and stained glass of the restaurant we sat in. I focused on the dark, impenetrable wood, and she focused on the intricate, glowing patterns in the stained glass.

I followed my sister through the doors into the player-piano guy's experience, but I did a lot of thinking on my way back out. In the decades since, I have thought of that guy many times. Every time I sit down with a stranger to chat, he appears before my eyes as I prepare myself to be surprised by the real story of the person I'm talking to. And do you know what? I have never been disappointed. People are amazing. You just have to listen to what they actually have to say.

A summary. To sum up this section, here's a quick guide to healthy story listening. When you are listening to a story, listen past what you thought they were going to say, past what you want them to say, and past what they ought to say, until you get to what they are actually saying. If you need to, you can ask clarifying questions that help you open doors; but never ask questions that judge. Those move you back a space in the game. Once you get to their wide-open space, ask playful questions and tell connecting stories that are gifts, not demands. Afterwards, think about how what you heard changes what you think they will say next, what you want them to say next, and what they ought to say. As you go about your life, practice doing these things. Get better at them.

When you are telling a story

1. Enter into your own story. When you tell a story, allow yourself to be emotionally transported. Suspend your disbelief that anyone could actually feel the way the way you did. No, you haven't lost your place. The advice is the same whether you're listening or telling, because when you're telling you're listening. Just as we have to suspend disbelief when we listen to the stories of others, we have to suspend disbelief when we tell our own stories. We have to keep talking past what we usually say, past what we think our audience wants us to say, and past what we think we ought to say, to get to the wide-open space of exploring what actually happened to us and how it actually felt.

Some journeys through our own stories are easy and fun, and some are so difficult they take decades to complete. Sometimes we tell ourselves a story over and over again, but we tell it trapped in one of our rooms of judgement, unable to move fully into the experience. But then again, sometimes we will be telling ourselves the same story for the thousandth time, and a door will suddenly open and we will finally be in that wide-open space. I've had that happen, and I'm sure you have too. It's frightening, and it's exhilarating.

2. Let people play with you (but back out if they won't). Let's say you are telling me a story. Let's say you think you've been doing a pretty good job of entering into your story. You've walked through your rooms, and you seem to have reached the point of exploring and communicating what really happened to you and how it felt. Let's say I seem to have done my part too, and you think you can see me in your wide-open space.

Now let's say I ask you what I think is a playful question about your story. How should you respond? I can see three possibilities. I've run out of formatting ways to list things, so I'll just have to say first, second, and third. I'll bold them so you can find them if you're skimming.

The first possibility is that the question I've asked isn't actually playful. I just think it is. That's because I think I'm in your wide-open space, but I'm actually stuck in one of my rooms of judgement. My question is actually critical or blaming, or it shows that I haven't really been listening to you at all.

In that case, the best thing for you to do is to take the question as what it is: an indicator of where I am, which is not where you are. You can respond to my non-playful question by helping me pay more attention to what you are actually trying to say, perhaps by giving me more detail about some part of your story. Or, if perhaps you've already done that and I'm still not budging, you can just give up and walk away.

You have that right, you know. Everyone has the right to back out of any story, whether they are telling it or hearing it. I've seen lots of people do this. They start to tell a story, then realize that nobody is coming on the journey with them (or not going very far into it), then put away the story until another time when people have more energy or interest (or they find a better audience).

There is another thing you can do when someone asks you a non-playful question while you're telling a story. You can convert the question into a playful question, and then respond as if the listener had asked that question. This is not easy to do, and in some situations it may be impossible. But it's a good skill to develop if you like to tell stories.

The very worst thing you can do when you're telling a story and someone asks you a non-playful question, or indicates in some other way that they're not in the story with you, is to barge on and tell the story anyway. I've seen a lot of people do this. They have such a burning need to tell their story that they ignore the signals they're getting. Maybe they've already tried to tell the story to a few other people and they're getting desperate. Or maybe they aren't very good at judging where other people are listening from. Or maybe they've never experienced the gratitude that comes from being heard, so they don't realize they aren't getting it. For whatever reason, they put on their blinders and push on in hopes that eventually somebody will respond.

Do you remember that principal in Marshall Rosenberg's book who had a storytelling habit? This was his mistake, I think. Here's how Rosenberg tells the story:
Almost as soon as the meeting began, I saw what the staff had been telling me. No matter what was being discussed, the principal would interject, "This reminds me of the time ... " and then launch into a story about his childhood or war experience. I waited for the staff to voice their discomfort around the principal's behavior. However, instead of Nonviolent Communication, they applied nonverbal condemnation. Some rolled their eyes; others yawned pointedly; one stared at his watch. 
I endured this painful scenario until finally I asked, “Isn’t anyone going to say something?” An awkward silence ensued. The teacher who had spoken first at our meeting screwed up his courage, looked directly at the principal, and said, “Ed, you have a big mouth.”  
Poor Ed. I feel for him. I've done this myself, and I've seen other people do it too. Clearly this man had a deep need to tell his stories, probably because he hadn't yet managed to explore them as fully as he needed to. Maybe he had already burned through his relatives and friends, and he just couldn't stop himself from trying one more time to get some kind of connecting response from somebody. He was, as they say, looking for love in all the wrong places.

I find it sad that Marshall Rosenberg was so attuned to the needs of the other people in the group but was so disdainful of Ed's need to be heard. Ed's storytelling doesn't look like a bad habit to me; it looks more like an unmet need. If he didn't need to explore his stories, he still needed to learn how to back out of telling his stories to non-responsive audiences. Poor guy. I hope somebody listened to him eventually. Maybe if anyone in that group had actually listened to one of his stories he would have been able to stop telling them.

Okay, let's move on. A second possibility when I ask you a playful question is that it is actually playful, but you aren't ready for it. I thought you were in your wide-open space, and maybe you did too, but you were still trapped in a room of judgement, having failed to suspend disbelief in your own story. You can't handle the question, not yet.

All of us have been in this position: we are haltingly telling a story we are not yet ready to explore fully -- maybe it's a very private story, or deeply emotional, or maybe we haven't got very far into it ourselves. What should you do if you aren't ready to play with a story I'm asking you a playful question about? The kindest thing is to provide an indicator that you're not there yet. You can say exactly that: "I'm not there yet." But there are many other ways to communicate such a signal. You can say "That's interesting" or "I'll have to think about that" or "Food for thought" or just "Yeah." People who are listening well will pick up the not-yet signal and back off, maybe with an idea to ask you about the story another time. If people don't take the hint, you can just drop the storytelling entirely.

Sometimes people let other people drag them through their stories, out of passive aggression or a misplaced sense of obligation. Sometimes story listeners get so caught up in their identity as great helpers that they rush through their rooms and wait, panting, in the wide-open space for the storyteller to get there. They're so eager to hear about your experience that they don't notice you aren't there yet. Facilitators and therapists sometimes have this problem, because they get overly confident, or they feel obliged to show people results quickly, or they feel a need to see themselves as able to handle any kind of problem. I've been prone to this error myself. Surely I can help this person explore their story, because I'm an expert. Right? Well, not always. Sometimes people need time to work their way through their rooms of judgement on their own. If someone is dragging you through your own story, you can ask them to back off, or just walk away. If they know what they are doing, they will reflect on it and come back later to see if you are ready.

And finally, the third and happiest possibility is that I have asked you an actually playful question that you are ready to consider. You don't need advice for that situation, because that's the fun part of story sharing. When people come together and help each other explore their experiences, it's magic. I love the feeling I get from a resonant story session, whether it's in a professional setting or just hanging out with friends or family. It's why we tell stories.

3. Go back through your own rooms. Now let's say that you have told me your story, and I've asked you some playful questions about it, and we have explored the story together. Now I'm on my way back through my rooms of judgement. As the person who told the story, you also need to walk back through your rooms of judgement and return to disbelief about your own story (even if it really happened). In a sense, you need to tuck your story back into your memory and come back to the present time.

Why do you need to do this? Why can't you just stay in the experience? Because you also need to learn from your own storytelling, and you can only do that if you walk back from it. What have you learned about the stories you usually tell yourself and others? Do they seem different now? What about your perception of what I want? Has that changed? Have I surprised you? What about the story you ought to tell? Does that seem different now?

Sometimes, when the story we need to tell ourselves is too deep and too important, we can't make the journey into it and back again on our own. That's why we help each other on our journeys. I'm sure you can think of some people who have helped you on your own journeys into your stories. I know I can. Narrative therapists specialize in helping people come to the wide-open spaces of their experience and return from them safely. They do that in part by going along on the journey. But nobody can make someone else's journey for them.

That's why story work can be so frustrating and so apparently fruitless. You can't force it or plan it. You have to work with it: pick up on its subtle hints of progress, respect its uneven pace, respond when it calls, wait when it doesn't. I always call story work high input, high risk, and high output. It's not the right approach in all situations, but it can complement simpler and more direct approaches when the context is right.

Another concrete example. Let me see if I can come up with an example of the storyteller's journey. It would have to be the story of me telling my story to someone else and getting something out of it. Let me think.

Okay, here's one. One time in a social group, for reasons I have forgotten, the talk turned to eyeglasses. I mentioned that I first got bifocal glasses at the age of twenty, and that I was embarrassed for quite a while and insisted on wearing progressive lenses so that no one could see that I had bifocals at such a young age. One mother in the group quickly responded that her daughter had got her first bifocals at six years old. Obviously upset, she turned to her daughter, who was sitting next to her, and said, "Do you feel traumatized?" in a jeering sort of way. I of course immediately apologized and explained that I didn't know it was even possible to need bifocals at such a very young age. Then I quickly changed the subject.

In the days that followed that event, as I walked back through my rooms of judgement, I considered what I had learned. The experience taught me not to assume that I know enough about any medical issue to know what is normal and what is not. I don't want to marginalize anyone's experience by saying that mine is marginal. The funny thing is that since I was helped to that revelation, I've noticed people doing the same thing to me, for example saying how awful it is that they've had one migraine (when I've had thousands). But it doesn't upset me anymore, because I know how easy it is to do the same thing out of ignorance. My storytelling and the woman's response helped me to see my own experience in a new light.

That was not an example of a playful question, by the way. That mother was standing in the doorway between what she wanted me to say and what she thought I ought to say. I managed to convert her question into a playful one -- but later on, not while I was talking to her. I knew that if I responded right away I would respond angrily, and so would she, so I walked away from the storytelling. I knew I should walk away because I know what it's like when someone seems to trivialize a problem that is important to my kid. What we had in common helped me to understand her valid (if not well communicated) point -- after I got over my pride, that is. Saving face is a deeply important part of story sharing. Probably half of what goes wrong in story sharing goes wrong when people don't give each other the space they need to nurse their wounded pride. I didn't see that woman again, just because of shifting social occasions, but if I had known her better or seen her a bunch more times, I would have asked her about her daughter's bifocals so I could learn more about her experience. That's what people do. We come back when we are ready, when we can.

Another summary. Here's a quick guide to healthy storytelling. When you are telling a story, tell it past what you usually say, past what you think your audience wants you to say, and past what you think you ought to say, until you get to the point of exploring what really happened to you and how you really feel about it. Once you are there, if you receive any gifts in the form of playful questions and connecting stories, respond to them with the gratitude you feel. If you don't feel any gratitude, or if you don't receive playful questions or connecting stories, stop telling your story; this is not the right time or place for it. Afterwards, think about how what happened changes what you think about what you usually say, what your audience wants you to say, and what you ought to say. As you go about your life, practice doing these things. Get better at them.

When you are facilitating story sharing

This section is about what you should do if you want to help other people tell and listen to stories. How can you help people do the things I mentioned above?

1. Learn about stories and about story sharing. I always tell people who want to get started in story work to do four things:
  1. Read about conversational and community story sharing until you can explain to someone else how stories work.
  2. Sit in a cafe and listen to stories being told in conversation until you can pick them out and sense the social dynamics that surround them.
  3. Read folk tales until you can feel the bones of each story as you read it. (If you don't understand what that means, you haven't read enough folk tales yet.)
  4. Practice eliciting stories in conversation, asking questions about them, and responding to them until you can predictably discover little bursts of gratitude in the people you are listening to.
Of course you can hold narrative interviews and facilitate story sessions right away. You'll make mistakes and you'll learn from experience. That's fine. But you'll learn faster and do better if you do these things as well.

It's like riding a horse. You can just get on and start riding, but you can also spend a lot of time around horses, mucking out their stalls, feeding them apples, brushing them, looking soulfully into their eyes (well, one eye at a time), avoiding their stomping feet. The people who ride horses best get to know horses in every way they can. The people who do the best work with stories get to know stories in every way they can.

I've probably told a hundred people to do these things, and so far nobody has ever told me that they have done them. I'm not surprised. I didn't do any of them until after I made my first mistakes in story work. In fact, one of my biggest early mistakes was not realizing that these things could matter. But they do matter. They'll end up happening anyway if you do story work for a while -- opportunities will just come up -- but if you do them on purpose you'll get more out of them.

2. Translate knowledge to practice. Now let's say you've learned a lot about stories and story sharing. You feel totally prepared to get out there and do stuff with people and stories. You're finally in front of a room of people. What should you tell them?

That's the hardest part of story work. You can't tell them very much. In fact, the more you tell people about sharing stories the less well it works. You can seriously derail what would otherwise have been a great story session by giving people a lecture that transfers all the knowledge you have gained about stories to their brains. Why? Because it isn't a knowledge thing. It's a practice thing. It's like teaching someone to ride a horse. If you've spent decades around horses, you know that the things you know can't easily be explained. That's why people don't go to horse riding lectures; they take horse riding lessons. Likewise, you need to give people story sharing lessons.

The best thing to tell people about sharing stories is that everyone naturally does it, because that's true, and they will. Then you can watch them doing it. If you keep in mind all the things you've learned, you will notice things happening, and you can take tiny little actions to correct them. I remember taking a yoga class long ago and having the teacher come around and just nudge my arm to the left by one inch. It seemed like nothing, but it made a huge difference. That's the kind of thing you do when you facilitate story sharing. You nudge. (Sorry that's not a horsey example. I've never actually taken a horse riding lesson. I've been going off what I learned from a friend who has a horse. I'll bet horse riding trainers go around and nudge people who are riding horses. It's like that.)

What does it look like to nudge story sharing? Well, say someone tells a story, and somebody else asks them a non-playful, critical question in response. You can go over to the group and ask a question (possibly while pretending you didn't hear what came before) that converts the non-playful question to a playful question. Then the storyteller can respond to that.

Or let's say one person is telling story after story, and they don't realize that the other people in their group are not responding. You can wander over and ask the full-speed-ahead storyteller if you could have a quiet word with them. Once you are out of hearing, you can ask them for a private interview to explore some of the insights you've been hearing about. You've given them the promise of being truly heard (in a different context), met their unmet need, and freed them up to work more productively with the group they are actually in. Then you can go back to the group (to which the storyteller has returned) and come up with some excuse to remind them of the goal toward which they are working, or the rules about everyone getting a chance to talk.

One of the nicest things about working with stories is how often it works without any effort on your part. Sure, it does go badly once in a while. There are some conditions under which it is likely to go badly, but you can learn about these and avoid them. For example, it's best not to set up story sharing sessions with people whose positions of power are very different, like executives and staff members or doctors and patients. For such groups it's better to split people up at first, then see if you can help them negotiate a conversation later on, after people have shared stories in a place where they felt safe. That's something you learn as you go, like never walking behind a horse without making sure it knows you are there. Horses can kick, and stories can hurt. That's no reason to stay away from them entirely.

3. Respect the pace and process. The last thing you need to do when you facilitate story sharing (okay, the third thing, because I like putting things in threes) is to have patience and respect the process. As I already said, the obviously useful part of story sharing always takes place in the last quarter of the time. Before that happens, story sharing often looks useless -- that is, if you can't read the signs. It is your responsibility to learn to read the signs and develop your instincts through practice if you want to help people gain the benefits of story sharing.


At long last I have completed my argument. I believe that story work and Nonviolent Communication are not at odds but are related and complementary. More specifically, I believe that participatory narrative inquiry (PNI) and NVC could be used together to produce better results than either approach could alone. I don't know if I've convinced you of this, but if I have, the next question to ponder is: what would this marriage of methods look like in practice?

PNI is a grounding method. It helps people explore their experiences in order to draw out things they can use. I have long advocated the use of PNI as a precursor to a variety of methods which start by asking people to list or describe things -- feelings, forces, strengths, and so on. Any method that asks people to articulate anything through direct listing or questioning can be grounded by first asking people to explore their experiences, then drawing out what is needed from those experiences.

It's not hard to tell whether story-based grounding will improve a list-based method in any particular situation. Just ask people to make a list, then ask them to set aside the list and share a few stories from their experience. If the experiences match the list, you don't need any more grounding. But if the experiences you hear disagree with or add to the list, more grounding will probably improve your results.

The first part of NVC, making observations about what is going on, already connects to stories. Quite a few of the examples of observations given in Rosenberg's book are actually stories. For example:
Hank Smith has not scored a goal in twenty games. 
Whenever I have observed Jack on the phone, he has spoken for at least thirty minutes. 
Yesterday evening Nancy bit her fingernails while watching television.
Pam was first in line every day this week. 
So you could say that, in a way, NVC and PNI work in the same way, because they take an account of what has been happening (or is happening) and draw things out of it.

I know what you must be thinking right now: NVC helps people make observations free of evaluation, and telling a story doesn't, so you can't compare them. Yes, stories are chock-full of evaluation. In fact, models of conversational storytelling use that exact word to describe elements of opinion and belief embedded in stories. For example, if I'm telling a story and I say "you would not believe how hard we laughed," that's called an evaluation statement, because it doesn't strictly speaking describe anything that happened in the story.

A story is a container within which it is socially acceptable, even socially expected, to include evaluation with observation. That's partly why we tell stories: to have a way to say "this is what I believe, and could you please not attack it just yet?" Of course, this permission has limits -- even within a story the most egregious of statements will be attacked -- but for most of the things we want to say to each other, stories give us a way to express our feelings and beliefs in safety. You could say that a story is like an extended hand. It invites us to extend our own hand and engage in a shared ritual.

I wanted to find an example of a situation where someone said something that might be considered upsetting if it was said outside of a story, but inside the story it was okay. As before, I did think of several good examples, but they were all too personal. Maybe the best way to show you is to tell you a story.

Some time ago, the tiles started to fall off our bathroom wall. I got out my tools and tried to patch the hole, but as I found more and more tiles loose, it became apparent that I was not going to be able to handle this much water damage on my own. After working our way through four different home repair guys, each of whom said he would give us an estimate and never did (frustrating! "no job too small" indeed), my husband and I decided we'd have to do the job ourselves. We took out all the tiles, replaced the water-damaged wood, and put up new insulation, a new vapor barrier, and cement backingboard. All we had left to do was put up our new tub surround, which sounded like a breeze.

So on this one day, my son and I were trimming the tub surround by a few inches so it would fit into the bathroom. The instructions said to cut it with a jigsaw. I was a little nervous because one mistake would mean buying another $200 tub surround. We set the panel on some sawhorses and cut it, nice and straight. Imagine our surprise when nothing happened. The acrylic had healed right up again. You could barely see the place where the saw had gone through the plastic. We checked the tub surround instructions. They didn't say anything about it being impossible to cut acrylic with a jigsaw! You'd think they would have anticipated that. You know, cut this thing that you can't possibly cut.

So we tried a few different things. We tried a ceramic blade; that helped a little, but not much. We tried turning down the jigsaw speed; again, not much help. In the end we had to cut two inches, stop, hold the jigsaw blade on a freezer pack for a minute, then cut another two inches, all the way across the panel. It took forever to figure this all out, but we finally did it, no thanks to anyone.

Then it was time to put up the panels. The tub surround instructions said to use Liquid Nails. I wasn't sure, because (a) I was already a little wary of the instructions after the cut-this-impossible-to-cut-thing fiasco, and (b) what people said online varied from "you must use Liquid Nails" to "whatever you do, don't use Liquid Nails." But Liquid Nails was what my husband bought, so we used Liquid Nails. The panels fell right off the walls. We tried to brace them with wood and they still fell down. In a panic, we washed all the Liquid Nails back off the walls, and I sent my husband out to buy anything but Liquid Nails. He came back with Loctite Power Grab (the thing the "anything but Liquid Nails" people said to use). It smelled horrible -- I thought I was going to pass out -- but it stuck, and we were able to finish the job. Later on I talked to a construction guy who said he uses Liquid Nails all the time, but he braces it a lot more than we did, like with tons of wood everywhere. So why didn't the instructions say that? "Use Liquid Nails and brace it all over, or use Loctite and don't inhale"? Sigh. You live and learn.

Now let's say I've just told you that story. Say you're a person who knows a lot about fixing bathrooms. You might be a home repair person, or you might even be the person who wrote the instructions on the tub surround we bought. In that story I made several evaluative statements that, if I had made them to you baldly, without the protective covering of a story, you might not have wanted to hear. I said, in effect:
  • Home repair people cannot be trusted. They say "no job too small," but if you actually have a small job they will leave you in the lurch.
  • The people who write instructions for home repair things care nothing for the safety and peace of mind of the people who buy their products.
  • Regular people can do their own home repairs. They don't need to hire specialists (who are untrustworthy and don't care). It might take forever, and it might not be beautiful, but anyone can fix their own house. 
If I sat down with you and said those things straight out, you might think I was an opinionated jackass. You might be offended. You might argue with me or walk out. But because I framed the whole thing as a story, you would probably afford me a limited degree of freedom to speak without attack. Hearing "I needed help and didn't get it" is very different from hearing "You are a morally corrupt person." That's how story sharing works. It's not free of evaluation; it's not supposed to be. But to a story listener, the same statements of evaluation are not as threatening or insulting when they are situated in lived experience.

By the way, I had Marshall Rosenberg's book open to the "Observing Without Evaluating" chapter as I was writing this section, and my eyes fell onto an example that is serendipitously perfect:
NVC is a process language that discourages static generalizations. Instead, observations are to be made specific to time and context, for example, "Hank Smith has not scored a goal in twenty games," rather than "Hank Smith is a poor soccer player."
Do you see the difference? The first quote is a story and the second is not. Observations that are "specific to time and context" have a shorter name: stories. Rosenberg was essentially advocating story sharing; he just couldn't see it.

Okay, so the next thing NVC does is help people to explore their feelings. It seems that the common practice is to do this through a combination of coaching, questioning, and guessing. That is, again, a direct way to get at feelings. In PNI we take a less direct approach. We encourage people to tell the whole story of what happened to them, complete with any evaluation statements they feel the need to put into their story. Then we ask them to take that story and examine it as a construct. Because the story is not them but a thing they made, they can consider and discuss the feelings expressed in it without feeling attacked. In the same way that a child can tell you more about how their stuffed animal feels than about how they feel, people can often articulate their feelings better by examining a story they've just told than they can by directly accessing and describing those feelings.

I thought I should tell you a story about a time when I saw this happen, but actually I've seen it happen hundreds of times. In PNI we ask people questions about the stories they have just told. This can happen through answering questions on a story form or by working with stories in an exercise. I've watched lots of people answer questions about their stories in these ways, and I've talked to them afterwards. The two things I always hear from people are surprise ("I didn't realize I felt that way") and gratitude ("These questions helped me figure out how I was feeling"). Rarely does anyone say they found the questions tedious or worthless.

I attribute this surprise and gratitude to the decline in widespread skills in story sharing. I'll bet people used to be more comfortable exploring the feelings in their own stories. In fact, I'm sure of it, because I can remember my parents and older relatives doing exactly that when I was a child. Today a lot of people seem to be more comfortable exploring the feelings they find in the stories they buy. But I think people know deep down what they are missing, and they are grateful when they have a chance to work with their own stories. In every project we discover a hunger for sharing stories and making sense of stories together. Part of that has to be because sharing stories helps us to explore and articulate our feelings.

So I would say that NVC and PNI can help each other draw out feelings. PNI can ground explorations in lived experience. In turn NVC can help people distinguish between various statements about feelings. I love the sections of Rosenberg's book where he helps people understand the difference between statements such as "I feel you are an idiot" and "I feel that this is wrong" and "I feel sad." Those could be supremely useful in helping people to draw expressions of emotion out of their stories, and I'd like to use them in some workshops. There are definitely some places in which the language and direction of NVC can improve the way we help people work with their stories, and I'm excited to explore those.

Now let's see if we can go over the last two parts of NVC quickly, because you must be as tired of reading this essay as I am tired of writing it. Next NVC practitioners help people understand the needs behind their emotions. Again, that works well with stories. One of my favorite questions to ask about a story is this one:
What did the person in this story want or need most?
And then I have a list of things they might want, like help and trust and control, with an "other" choice to cover poor guesses. When I can, I like to follow up this question with some others:
  • Did they get what they wanted? How much of it did they get?
  • Who or what helped them to get what they wanted? Who or what hindered them?
  • Why do you think they wanted what they wanted?
  • What did they hope for? What would have made the story turn out better for them?
Those questions come from Greimas' actant theory of story roles, with its subject (who the story was about), object (what they wanted), helper (what helped them), opponent (what held them back), sender (why they wanted it), and receiver (what they hoped for). This is narrative structure, the form that shapes every story ever told. When people can examine their own stories, they can find the feelings and their needs they have placed there, even if those things are not readily available to them in a direct way.

This idea of finding your own feelings in a story you told reminds me of a story I told on this blog several years ago. Let me see if I can find it. Here it is:
I remember a time last summer when my son came up to me with a tool and asked what it did. I said, "Hand it to me and we'll find out." I didn't remember what the tool did, but once I had it in my hand, the tool and my hand told me the story of its use by the way they moved together; then I knew.
My hand knew what the tool did even though I didn't. In the same way, our stories know how we feel and what we need even when we don't.

Have you ever seen the lists of feelings and needs (called inventories) that people use in NVC? People use them to think about what they feel and need in a situation. Now imagine that instead of just reading such a list and picking out things that seem to match their current state, people start by sharing stories about their experiences, then use the same lists to draw feelings and needs out of their stories. The experience becomes less of a blind search for sensation and more of an expedition into a territory already mapped out by the story. I think doing this would enhance a NVC practice by helping people help themselves to discover feelings and needs they didn't know they had. (Of course, maybe somebody is already doing this. I couldn't find any mention of it, but that doesn't mean it's not happening.)

The last piece of the puzzle is about requests. NVC helps people come up with positive ways to request a needed change. The same thing happens in PNI, but it's not so much a request as it is an idea, a spark of what-could-happen. When people have been telling stories and working with their stories together, and it's a healthy, productive exchange, new ideas always emerge. They are never ideas anyone would have thought of before the story sharing started. You can tell this is happening when people start saying things like, "We just need to" and "All this time we've been" and "What if we" and so on.

These ideas can become requests and plans and programs, but they start out as stories. An idea of what-could-happen is a story about the future. This shouldn't surprise you. When you build with wood you get something made of wood, and when you build with stories you get something made of stories. You can translate what you get from stories to requests; in fact, that's often what happens at the end of sensemaking, the drawing up of lists: opportunities, discoveries, ideas, quandaries, assets. But we get there by staying in the world of stories as long as we can. The protective coating of stories keeps us in the place of play until we are ready to go back out into the world of facts and opinions again.

That brings us to the end of what has been a surprisingly long essay, even for me. I thought it was going to be one quarter as long as it turned out to be. I hope it has been helpful to someone. I needed to write it, apparently, and I've learned a lot in the process. I am eager to explore this topic further. If you have any opinions about (or corrections of) what I've written here, please let me know through email or in the comments. If you would like to talk about synergies between Nonviolent Communication and participatory narrative inquiry, please let me know. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

EDIT: I asked a correspondent who knows a lot about Nonviolent Communication to read this blog post. She sent me this response, which I thought was so helpful that I asked if I could include it. She said yes, so here it is:
As you describe your work and NVC work I see the shared goal being connection. I think there are many ways to connect with people and just as many ways to miss the opportunity to connect.

What I have learned from NVC is to be a deeper listener.  I get richer fuller stories when people talk to me. I am more able to connect to people and their story. I might not ask them what they are feeling or needing but rather be listening through their story for these things - why is this story important to them and why it is important for them to tell this story. Usually people aren’t sure, but a listener who really listens can help a storyteller deepen into their own story.

Have you ever been listening to someone and they keep saying the same thing over and over again? It starts to get confusing. You think you understood the first, second and third time. But the speaker doesn’t feel heard or understood and keeps repeating. So what am I missing? Or what does this person want to be heard about in this moment?

My goal when I am listening to the story is not to agree or disagree but rather to understand to the best of my ability what the speaker's experience and meaning might be for them - or to use words from the mediation community, “to stand in their shoes”.

I think your PNI work goes to the same place.

NVC can act as an internal lens for focus, a way to suspend judgement and find connection through universal human needs.

To my mind the two are not in any way mutually exclusive. Since schooling myself in NVC I think I am more able and capable of listening to stories and connecting to the heart of the story and the person’s experience or meaning.
I particularly like her elucidation of the difference between a listener thinking they have understood and a speaker thinking they've been heard. They aren't the same thing, are they?