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Stories and Communication

Stories and Communication

Author: Sophia Tutorial

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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What's Covered

In this lesson, we’ll discuss how telling stories can be an effective way to communicate complex messages.

In particular, we’ll look at:

  1. Stories as a means of communication
  2. Storytelling in conflict resolution


Human beings have been telling stories since the dawn of time; stories are how we make sense of the world. Everyone has a story, and when we share our stories with one another, we become connected.

A story can be defined as a form of verbal communication depicting real or imagined events; narrative is just another term for story.

Big Idea

Think about the last time you heard the phrase, “What's your story?” It's a very common phrase; we want to know what another person's story is so that we can make sense of his or her actions, behavior, and beliefs.

When you hear people tell a story about an experience they've had, you get brought into that experience. Storytelling is really the original virtual reality in that it gives us the ability to bring others into our story by communicating it to them.

We feel as if we are experiencing what the storyteller experienced because he or she is using multiple channels of communication.

The storyteller is not only speaking to us, but also using:

  • Body language
  • Facial expressions
  • Tone of voice
  • Eye contact

Thus storytelling is a very rich medium through which to transmit a complex message. Stories evoke the imagination through the use of multiple codes, or sets of symbols with consistent meanings used to hold and convey information.

Terms to Know

    • Story
    • A form of verbal communication depicting real or imagined events.
    • Narrative
    • Another term for story.
    • Code
    • A set of symbols with consistent meanings used to hold and convey information.


If you don’t know someone’s story, chances are you're going to make up a story for that person. This is what we do as human beings; we take the facts and what we observe, and we use them to make up stories that we hold in our heads

These made-up stories are based on our:

  • Perceptions
  • Assumptions
  • Preconceived notions

Sometimes these stories may not be very flattering, especially when two parties are in conflict. These parties are holding stories about each other in their heads, and these stories may or may not be accurate.

Storytelling is therefore a very powerful tool in the conflict resolution process because the process provides an opportunity to replace a false story with the real story.


Stories can be particularly useful in restorative justice, in which an offender actually has an opportunity to hear the victim's story. When the offender hears this story and steps into that experience, the impact of the offender’s wrongdoing really hits home in a way that it doesn't typically in a courtroom setting. There is then an opportunity for restitution.

This was 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 stories. They were able to speak the truth and be heard, and it was a very healing process.

This same healing can happen in any type conflict resolution process that involves bringing two disputing parties together.

Example Perhaps it's a landlord and a tenant. Rather than go to court, the landlord is sitting down with the tenant to work out the issue. As part of the process, both parties have the opportunity to tell their stories and listen to one another. Through this communication, one of the parties may hear something about an extenuating circumstance that he or she did not know before.

The process of hearing a party tell his or her story in a safe, confidential environment allows the other party to step into that experience and understand the situation from a different point of view.

This will often create an opportunity to work out an agreement that is different from what either party originally had in mind, as the agreement can now take the mutual needs of both parties into consideration. This is very common in the mediation process.

Example Two neighbors come in clashing, ready to perhaps file a restraining order or call the police. They sit down in a mediation, and one neighbor begins to tell a story that reveals complex extenuating circumstances about which the other neighbor had no idea. This neighbor can now replace the false story in his or her head with this new true story, opening up opportunities for reconciliation.

The conflict resolution process not only allows false stories to be corrected and replaced, but it also provides multiple opportunities for the parties to confirm what they have heard one another say during the process.

We’ve discussed this idea before as a confirmation message, or a message sent by sender to receiver indicating that a message has been received, and how the message has been interpreted.

This confirmation is a chance for the parties to check out their perceptions and assumptions; simply telling their stories to one another opens the door for that to happen.

Term to Know

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


In this lesson, you learned about stories as a means of communication that can provide context for a person’s thoughts and behavior. When we don’t know another person’s story, we have the tendency to create a (sometimes inaccurate) story for this person in our own heads.

You now understand that storytelling in the conflict resolution process allows opposing parties to share and listen to each other’s perspectives, thus providing an opportunity for the parties to correct the false stories they have internally constructed about one another.

Good luck!

Source: Adapted from Sophia tutorial by Marlene Johnson.

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.