There is usually at least one person at each of my workshops who explains to the group that their personal story is so uninteresting that they see no reason to bore the other participants with it. They usually then modestly sit back and listen to the others share anecdotes, words of wisdom and stories taken from their various life experiences.
We work in pairs; teller and listener. The listener needs to listen really hard because it will be their job to retell the tale they’ve just heard, as accurately as possible.
As the stories are shared out loud, other members of the group acknowledge these treasured memories and add to them with their own. Faces light up, the tellers become animated and the listeners respond – with laughter, surprise and empathetic nods of understanding.
The stories are generally simple but heartfelt – situations and experiences which we can all identify with, but each story is important.
The teller doesn’t need to be an accomplished raconteur; the group supports each participant giving the teller the space to share in their own way.
Before we know it, the reluctant storyteller also has their own tale to tell.
So, what is it about the simple telling of a story that is so powerful?
Participants in our programme say that sharing their stories:
- validates their experiences
- demonstrates to their carers and their families that they are more than a patient
- is a vehicle to create a legacy
- can help correct misunderstandings
- reminds them of treasured memories.
Workshop observers have noted that patients visibly brighten and do not want to leave, they report enhanced feelings of wellbeing and a generally improved quality of life.
But it is not just the participants, their families and care network who recognise the power of biographical storytelling: the 2015 TED prize worth $1 million was awarded to Story Corps, providing funds to expand their storytelling platform, and BBC Radio 4’s Listening Project is a great example of the power of a simple conversation.
Hospice UK is supporting a programme to enable more hospices to benefit from the power of story sharing – throughout 2016 we will be running a series of regional ‘sharing stories’ workshops.