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Stories and Communication

Stories and Communication

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that telling stories can be a very effective means of communicating complex messages.

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Video Transcription

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Everyone likes a good story, and we all tell stories. Human beings have been telling stories since the dawn of time. It's how we make sense of the world. Everyone has a story. You do. I do. And when we share our stories with one another, we connect to one another.

Storytelling is also a very powerful tool in the conflict resolution process. I'm Marlene, and I'd like to talk about that with you today. So think about the last time you heard this phrase, what's your story? It's a very common phrase. And we want to know what another person's story is so we can make sense of their actions, their behavior, what they've said, what makes them tick.

And in absence of hearing the story, if you don't know the other person's story, chances are you're going to make one up for them. This is what we do as human beings. We take the facts, what we observe, what we see, and we make up stories. And we hold these stories in our heads.

And they're based on our perceptions, our assumptions, our preconceived notions. And many times they may not be very flattering. They're never flattering when two parties are in conflict. So you have two parties in conflict, and they're holding stories about the other party in their heads, and they may or may not be accurate. They may or may not be true stories.

So in the conflict resolution process, there's an opportunity to replace a false story with the real story. So exactly what is story? I think we're all familiar with stories. You probably grew up with stories. You had parents reading you stories or relatives or friends. A story is a form of verbal communication depicting real or imagined events.

Narrative is just another term for story. Now, when people tell a story, when you hear a story, think about what happens to you. You hear someone tell a story, an experience they've had. Story is really the original virtual reality. We bring somebody into an experience through storytelling. So you step into the experience with the person who's telling the story.

You're there. You begin to experience what they're experiencing or what they did experience. How do you do that or how does that happen? Because the person telling the story is using multiple channels of communication. Not only are they speaking to you. Stories are oral. They're verbal when we share them with one another.

But we're using body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact. So it's a very rich medium in which to transmit a complex message. So we use multiple codes, and we've use this term before, code. A code is a set of symbols with consistent meanings used to hold and convey information. So stories evoke the imagination.

So in the conflict resolution process, they are a very powerful tool I think particularly of restorative justice where you bring victims and offenders together, and the offenders actually have an opportunity to hear the victim's story. And when they hear this story and step into that experience, the impact of what they have done, of their wrongdoing really comes home in a way that it doesn't typically in a courtroom. And there is opportunity for restitution.

This is also true in South Africa during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Mandela and Bishop Tutu. After apartheid, people were brought together, many of them victims of apartheid, to tell their story. And they were able to speak the truth and be heard, and it was healing. It was very healing.

Now, this same healing can happen in a conflict resolution process where you bring two parties together who are in conflict. Perhaps it's landlord and tenant. And rather than go to court, the landlord is sitting down with the tenant to work out the issue. As part of the process where each party has the opportunity to speak, tell their story, and listen, one of the parties may hear something about an extenuating circumstance that they did not know before.

And the process of hearing the other party actually tell the experience, tell the story in an environment, a safe, confidential environment, allows them the opportunity to step into that experience and understand the situation, understand the facts from a different point of view. This often will create an opportunity to work out an agreement that is different from originally what they may have come in thinking they had to have.

But it's agreement now that can take the mutual needs of both parties into consideration. I have seen this actually happen multiple times in a mediation. Two neighbors come in clashing, ready to perhaps call a restraining order or call the police. They sit down. Perhaps one party begins to tell a story that reveals complex extenuating circumstances to the other party that the other party did not know about, had no idea.

They now are able to replace the false story in their head with this new true story, and it opens up opportunities. I've actually seen neighbors go from clashing with one another to reaching out a helping hand. So that is the power of storytelling, particularly in a conflict resolution process. I've enjoyed being part of this tutorial, and before I leave, I want to say one last thing about stories.

And that is that not only do you get a chance to replace a false story, but there are multiple opportunities here to confirm what you've heard with the other party in the room. And we've talked about this before as a confirmation message. And a confirmation message is a message sent by sender to receiver indicating that a message has been received and indicating how the message has been interpreted.

So it's a chance to check out perceptions and assumptions. And simply telling the story opens the door for that to happen. So thank you for being part of the tutorial. I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know

A set of symbols with consistent meanings used to hold and convey information.

Confirmation Message

A message sent by receiver to sender indicating that a message has been received and indicating how the message has been interpreted.


Another term for story.


A form of verbal communication depicting real or imagined events.