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Are Storytellers in the Relationship Business?

by Doug Lipman

I failed recently as a coach. My assignment was to coach a group of public speakers on storytelling.

I always try to coach by discovering the goals of the teller, then helping the teller achieve them. With seven of the speakers in that group, I succeeded, sometimes spectacularly. With the eighth, who I'll call "Nathaniel," I did not.

What happened between me and Nathaniel? I began, as usual, by listening to his story, then offering him appreciations.

I went on to ask him what help he wanted. He said, "I feel confident with the rest of my speech, but not with the story part. Tell me what I can do to make my stories have a bigger impact on my audience."

For the next twenty minutes, Nathaniel and I struggled. I noticed his overly slick delivery, and tried some of my tried-and-true methods for helping him speak more authentically. I asked him to describe what it felt like to deliver the parts of his speeches he felt confident with. I explained some storytelling theory, gave him exercises to try out on the spot, and offered him images to help align him toward his listeners.

In the end, I had the feeling of someone who has just spent a day trying to tempt a turtle out of its shell. Every glimmer of progress resulted in retreat. I felt frustrated, and he just looked perplexed: what was I trying to get him to do? He just wanted more impact in his telling!

After more than two decades of coaching, I rarely fail so completely. That night, as I lay in bed, I pondered where I had gone wrong.

The next morning, I woke up with the answer: Nathaniel kept saying that he wanted "impact" on his audience. What he was studiously avoiding was a relationship with his listeners. And the storytelling portions of his speech were the most difficult to do without entering into a relationship!

In other words, Nathaniel had bought into one of the great, destructive fallacies of our times - the very one that makes storytelling more important, perhaps, than it has ever been.

Treating Each Other As Objects

Our society too often treats objects in the way we should really be treating people. And we tend to treat people the way we should be treating objects.

We think, for example, of our economy as being based on products and money, because our society hides the relationships that are the basis of any economy. We go to the supermarket and buy the raspberries in their plastic case and have no real awareness of all the people who are part of that transaction.

We're scarcely aware of the stock boy at the supermarket; we pay passing attention to the cashier. But what about the trucker, the grower, the people working for the grower? We have economic relationships with those people, but those relationships are disguised. Made invisible.

Storytelling is valuable, in large measure, because it can't be done well without overt relationships. It tends to make relationships visible. That's one of the reasons we love it, and one of the reasons we need it.

Stories themselves are certainly crucial to the success of storytelling. But they are not necessarily in short supply. We have enough stories to keep us busy for a lifetime, through television, newspapers, books, the internet, and all the other media. In spite of the presence of so many destructive stories amidst the growth-promoting ones, it's good that we have so many stories available. It's good that we can email a story to thousands of people at once.

But when we use those impersonal media, we don't have the sense of hearing the story from another human who is telling it to us in an act of relationship. That personal relationship is healing in a world where relationships are eroded by strong forces in our society.

The Constant Waves That Batter Us

Think of the endless commercial messages in our society. We can watch television, go out on the street and see billboards, and open magazines and read ads. We are constantly bombarded by enticements to consume. To buy. To own.

"Consume. Buy. Own." Those aren't the words that bring relationships. Those aren't the words that bring us close to people. Those words turn us into property owners rather than friends.

The great tragedy of a consumer society is that we end up feeling more and more alone.

("Alone" and "lack of connection," by the way, are different from solitude. Solitude is a good thing that we all need in some measure. Connection is a good thing we all need in some measure. Isolation is not something necessary.)

Relationships Are Us

We tell at our best when we don't try to have "impact" but rather try to love our listeners. We can love them by being playful or by being earnest, by being powerful or humble, with humor or pathos. We can offer ourselves eagerly or coyly.

But whatever we do, we must not hide. We must fight the temptation to withdraw into an "objective" stance toward our listeners.

I was just at the National Storytelling Festival, where many attendees were excited by Kathryn Windham's telling. What did they love? Her stories, of course. The way she talks. But what they really loved was just HER. Her offer of her genuine self. The stance she took toward us of independent, gentle, strong, tolerant wisdom.

To be communicated with from that place is a great treat. It's a moment of healing amidst the fractured, antagonistic, competitive, materialistic transactions that pass for ordinary and normal in our society.

Offering Ourselves

Howard Gardner says that great leaders convey "stories" that large groups of people can subscribe to. But there is more to it, he maintains. The effective leader's life must be consistent with the story. In other words, the leader must also live the story.

I would put it this way: the leader needs to offer herself or himself as part of the story. People decide to follow us because our story creates a relationship they can trust and draw hope from. Because they feel an important connection with us.

In performing, entering into a respectful, loving relationship is the key to success. In eliciting stories from others, too, our loving listening builds the needed relationship. In creating stories, the best stories are conceived as part of a loving intention toward imagined or actual listeners.

Equally, in spreading the word about storytelling - about our own services or about the art in general - the most powerful and rewarding results grow out of carefully nurtured relationships.

In other words, as storytellers, the critical part of our job is not creating, learning, or performing stories. It's employing storytelling as a vehicle for - and the result of - respectful relationships.

We storytellers are in the relationship business. That's the ultimate mark of our success and the most powerful tool that we have. That's what makes our work not just enjoyable and useful at the moment, but necessary to the future of our society.

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman