Listening to Stories: The Power of Story Circles

Story Circles build compassion and connection during challenging times.

Posted Aug 13, 2020

My blog has focused mostly on my research in The Family Narratives Lab on the power of family storytelling; families that share more elaborated, coherent stories across the generations, stories of both triumphs and tribulations, facilitate identity development and well-being in the younger generation. But, of course, we share stories with everyone, not just our families. And everyone includes our community and others’ communities. How does telling and listening to stories across different communities shape who we are? 

“Telling one’s story” has become a rallying cry. Everyone from high school teachers to executive headhunters to life coaches talks about the importance of being able to tell your story to accomplish myriad life goals: getting into college, getting a job, meeting a romantic partner, becoming an effective leader, and on and on. When we tell a coherent and compelling story we not only share something about ourselves with others, we also provide a way for them to identify and empathize with us.  

But, of course, to tell a compelling story, you must have someone to listen. Knowing how to listen to others’ stories is just as important as being able to tell your own story. When we listen, truly listen, to someone else’s story, we understand who they are in a new and different way, we hear their perspective, their interpretation, their understanding of the world and of themselves. Closely listening to others’ stories creates a shared moment of compassion. Learning how to tell you story is a critical social tool for individuals; listening to others’ stories builds community.  

At Emory University, where I am the director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts, we have developed programs to leverage the power of both telling and listening to stories to create and nurture community. My colleagues, Kim Loudermilk (also of the Institute for the Liberal Arts), Vialla Hartfield-Mendez (Director of Engaged Learning in the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence), Pamela Sculley (Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Affairs), and Jonathan Coulis (Director of the Emory Oral History Program) have formed ETHOS (Emory Telling and Hearing our Stories), a loose collaborative that launces multiple storytelling projects around campus, both in the classroom and connecting with the larger Emory community.  

One of our signature story events are Story Circles, adopted from Roadside Theater. The methodology of Story Circles is simple yet powerful. Groups of about 8 to 10 people gather, and participants each have two to three minutes to tell a personal story in response to a prompt. For example, when we held a Story Circle that included then Emory Professor Salman Rushdie to create community between students and faculty, the prompt was “Tell the story of a time when your life was changed by a liberal arts experience.” The prompt is created specifically for the goals of that particular Story Circle and is not provided in advance, lending spontaneity and immediacy to the storytelling activity. As you go around the circle, each participant tells their story; there are no interruptions or discussions in between stories, and all participants are asked to listen closely to each other’s’ stories, no judgments, no comments, no disruptions. The focus on listening is critical; it is precisely as we listen to others tell us about their experiences that we can begin to understand who they are, what their lives have been like, how we are the same and different, but ultimately all human.  

We have used Story Circles successfully to build a sense of community within a classroom, to reach out to alumni, to create connections between faculty and students; the list is endless. But now, we are in the midst of a pandemic that has interrupted our ability to connect in person. In response, ETHOS has created a way to continue to leverage the power of stories and Story Circles online, with Stories from the Pandemic. This website is aimed at the Emory community, to allow individuals to tell their story and to listen to others’ stories. But it also provides full instructions (and a sample online Story Circle) for organizing a Story Circle online that anyone can do. Story Circles are easy to implement, do not require many resources, are easily adaptable to multiple objectives, and create immediate connection.  

Telling your story is an important skill; listening to others’ stories is a lifelong process of understanding yourself and others. Perhaps especially at this turbulent time, sharing our stories helps us process and understand our experiences in new ways, and build new connections.