Storytelling at Work
September 19, 2020
The Art of Unpacking Stories

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Stories are gifts. When received, they animate, uplift, reveal, and inspire. Like any gift, however, stories need to be opened, not just received. Being given a gift is one thing. Fully enjoying the gift you've been given is something else -- and that requires removing the gift wrapping to see what's inside.

How do you remove the wrapping from a gift you've been given? How do you unpack the stories that are shared with you in order to discover what's contained within -- what most people refer to as the "moral" or the "message"?

There are many ways to do this. There is no one, "right" way.

Ultimately, it all depends on the setting, the timing, your interest, and how much permission the storyteller has granted you, as story listener. Nevertheless, there are some time-tested principles you may want to consider before responding to the stories you are told:

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1. Pause and reflect
2. Trust your first response
3. Get curious
4. Ask questions
5. Double click
6. Relate the story to your own life
7. Go beyond the urge to analyze and advise

A DEEPER DIVE INTO UNPACKING TECHNIQUES

1. Pause and Reflect: When somebody gives you a gift, your first response does not, necessarily, require words. It's perfectly fine to savor the feeling of having been given the gift. The same principle applies to the moment of just having listened to a story. Nowhere is it written that you must rush to respond. It's perfectly OK just to let the story in and feel it in your bones. While your mind may want to respond immediately, something else inside you is content to savor the moment and how the story makes you feel.

2. Trust Your First Response: As the Zen Masters like to say, "first thought, best thought." The same holds true for story listening. Your first thought or reaction to a story usually has a lot of mojo associated with it. It's a clue, a catalyst, and an indication that a connection has been made. Indeed, the first response that comes up for you upon listening to a story will likely be a very meaningful one -- and possibly, time allowing, worth sharing with the storyteller. Your choice.

3. Get Curious: After listening to a story, see if you can tune into what it is that fascinates you about it -- what piques your interest, what grabs your attention, what you find especially memorable about it. This rising curiosity will often inform what you choose to express to the storyteller and how you express it. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it won't kill you or the storyteller. Quite the opposite. It will open up a rich vein of exploration.

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4. Ask Questions: Take a cue from the Greek philosopher, Socrates -- he of the "Know Thyself" school of life. His approach to communication (i.e. the Socratic Method) has stood the test of time and is a powerful way to spark meaningful dialogue via the asking of provocative questions. If the story you have heard sparks a question in you, consider posing that question to the storyteller. Your asking not only builds rapport with the storyteller, it has the potential to spark a very nuanced response -- for both of you.

5. Double Click: If you have ever used a computer, you already understand the concept of "double clicking" -- the act of tapping on a folder or link to further explore your need for more information or knowledge. Similarly, you can double click after listening to a story. How? By requesting the storyteller to elaborate on a particular theme, character, image, obstacle, or plot point. Sometimes there is more to the story than the storyteller has let on. Double clicking is a gift you give the storyteller -- a way to further explore the meaning of what has just been shared with you.

6. Relate the Story to Your Own Life: Often, the stories we hear trigger memories, feelings, and past experiences from our own lives. The story we hear, in effect, becomes an alchemical catalyst to help us get in touch with aspects of ourselves that are begging for attention. Letting the storyteller know how their story affects you is a wonderful way to unpack the buried treasure of their story and, by so doing, facilitates a rich dialogue about what it means to be a self-aware, resilient, and open-minded human being.

7. Go Beyond the Urge to Analyze and Advise: It is not uncommon for people to ask an artist what their work of art "means". It is also not uncommon for the artist not to respond -- wanting their work of art to stand on its own, knowing, as they do, that "art appreciation" is a subjective experience and that overly explaining their creative expression can often leach the life right out of it.

It's the same with storytelling. Indeed, unpacking a story, for some people, feels wrong. They believe that a story, like any work of art, should stand on its own. And while there is something to be said for this approach, there is also something to be said for the process of unpacking a story -- as long as it's done with heart, skill, sensitivity, and presence. And please remember this: unpacking a story does not give you permission to analyze, therapize, advise, or "fix" the storyteller -- especially if the story told reveals some of their vulnerabilities, imperfections, or questionable choices. Your role, as a story listener, is simply to be fully present. The telling of the story, itself, and the non-judgmental dialog that follows will often be enough to facilitate whatever "healing" needs to happen.

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STORY UNPACKING SOUNDBYTES:

-- "I'd love to hear more about 'X'. Can you elaborate?"
-- "The image of 'Y' fascinated me. Can you say more about that?"
-- "If you were going to give your story a title, what would it be?"
-- "I can totally relate. Something like this once happened to me."
-- "Are there any parts of the story you chose to omit?"
-- "What do you think the message or moral of your story is?"
-- "How did the experience you referred to impact your life?"
-- "What fairy tale or myth does your story remind you of?"
-- "What did you learn about yourself or life from this experience?"
-- "What advice does the hero of your story have for the rest of us?"
-- "If there was buried wisdom in your story, what would it be?"

Storytelling for the Revolution
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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 09:51 AM | Comments (0)

September 16, 2020
There Is No Storytelling Without Story Listening

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When small children speak their first words, the reaction of their parents is fairly predictable. It begins with lavish praise, high fives, hugs all around, and the ritual calling of Grandma and Grandpa. Everyone is thrilled. The baby has spoken! But the first time the child listens? No response at all. Indeed, it's a rare set of parents who even notice when their child listens for the first time.

As a species, speaking is far more highly regarded than listening. The ability to express... to make one's case... to be heard is primary. Listening, it seems, is the booby prize -- only suitable for people who have nothing to say or nothing better to do than be on the receiving end of someone else's monologue.

In high school, you will find debate clubs, but no listening clubs. On the political circuit, "stump speeches" rule. It's the rare politician who goes out on a listening tour.

Bottom line, the people who make their case the strongest are the ones who rule the roost. And the people who are listening? Well, more often than not, they aren't. Yes, they may be hearing, but hearing is very different than listening. "Conversational endurance" is what mostly happens -- people striking the appearance of listening, but are merely waiting impatiently to get their turn to speak.

You know the expression "if a tree falls in a forest and there's no one around to hear, did it really make a sound?" The same holds true with storytelling. If a story is told, but no one is listening, is it really a story? I don't think so. Words may be uttered and words may be heard, but the actual story falls on deaf ears.

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Simply put, story-listening (or any kind of listening, for that matter) is in short supply these days. The reasons are many, but perhaps the biggest of them all is the exponential growth of technology and the undeniable fact that human attention, these days, is more fragmented than ever before. Besieged by an ever increasing amount input (emails, texts, tweets, robocalls, alerts, and advertising), most homo sapiens live in a state of total distraction.

Here's the only related factoid you need to know: Goldfish have a longer attention span than humans beings. The average goldfish can focus on something for nine seconds. The average human being? Eight seconds -- one second less than a goldfish.

Is there anything aspiring an aspiring storyteller can do to change the game? Most definitely. Here are five simple ways to increase the odds of the stories you tell actually being listened to.

1. Choose the time and place wisely: Instead of blurting out your story on-the-fly, be attentive to the readiness of your audience to listen. If the people you want to tell your story to are multi-tracking, distracted, or on-the-run, do not begin. Not only will your story fall on deaf ears, you will likely end up feeling diminished. Choose a different time and place. And if, in your intoxication to share your story, you notice your listeners are flaking out, say something like, "It seems this might not be a good time to share my story. Might there be a better time and place?"

2. Get permission: Instead of robotically launching into your story, ask for permission. "Mind if I share a two-minute story with you that relates to what we've just been talking about?" Once the person you want to tell a story to gives you permission, the odds of being listened to increase dramatically.

3. Preview your story: Before launching into your narrative, provide the listener with some context, a preview of what's to come. "This little story happened to me five years ago on a plane", you might say. Or "what I'm just about to share with you changed my life in just three minutes."

4. Stay connected to your audience: Sometimes, storytellers, intoxicated by their own narratives, end up in "air guitar" mode. Enamored by the sound of their own voice, they lose all connection to time and space. Fun for them, perhaps, but not for the listener. Stay connected to your audience! Tune in! Make eye contact. Notice their body language. Adapt and adjust your storytelling to the subtle cues and feedback you are getting.

5. Go beyond the words: Communication experts tell us that there are three elements to any communication: Body language, voice dynamics, and words. Of these three elements, body language is the most important. It accounts for 55% of the impact of what's said. Voice dynamics is the second most important aspect of communication and accounts for 38% of the impact. The words? Only 7%.

And so, if you want to increase the odds of people actually listening to your stories, be mindful of your body language and voice dynamics. Move around the room as you speak. Be animated. Make hand gestures. Modulate the sound of your voice.

Storytelling for the Revolution
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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 10:03 AM | Comments (0)

September 10, 2020
The Wordless Sermon

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As the story goes, 2,500 years ago, Buddha gave a wordless sermon to his disciples. All he did was hold up a single white flower -- a lotus. That's it. No words. Just a flower. All his disciples were mystified, except, that is, Mahakasyapa, a young monk who immediately smiled, signifying the direct transmission of wisdom from Master to student -- a moment referred to in Buddhist literature as "tathagata", the ineffable nature of suchness.

Something within Mahakasyapa instantly understood the non-verbal essence of what Buddha was communicating. He got it in a flash. No thought was necessary, no analysis, no intellectualization. It was, as if, a veil had lifted and he got to experience something profound that was previously inaccessible to him.

For want of a better phrase, let's call the young monk's recognition a "moment of truth".

The good news for the rest of us is that we don't need to be a monk in order to experience a moment of truth. Nor do all moments of truth need to be "spiritual", historically significant, or worthy of inclusion in future scriptures. Moments of truth are not only for everyone, but they come in all varieties -- small, medium, and large -- spontaneously occurring, unplanned happenings that have, embedded within them, the potential for great learning, insight, and wisdom. Simply put, a kind of Red Sea parts and a meaningful lesson is learned, even if no teacher is present. We all have them, though, like dreams, they are easy to forget, dismiss, or undervalue.

The catalyst for a moment of truth can be anything. For the young monk, it was a flower. For you, who knows? A chocolate bar? A glance from a beggar? Missing a train? A divorce? Getting lost? Being rescued? Almost dying? A blues song you hear on the radio? It really doesn't matter what it is, as long as it sparks an inner shift that moves you beyond old assumptions, habits of mind, and outdated beliefs so you can experience the magic of life in a fresh, new way.

If you deconstruct the stories we tell, you'll discover that most of them turn out to be our attempts to give shape to these moments of truth -- our verbal deciphering of a moment, in time (or outside of time) that had great significance for us, even if that moment was invisible to others.

Unspoken, these moments of truth remain hidden, buried inside us like treasure or unopened love letters. Expressed, especially in the form of STORY, they uplift, inspire, and empower, pollinating great fields of wisdom -- in yourself, the people you share them with, and the people they share them with. On and on and on it goes, countless moments of truth circulating the planet at the same time, opening minds, opening hearts, and helping awaken all of us to a richer, fuller, more enlightened life.

Storytelling for the Revolution
Photo: Eric Prouzet, Unsplash
Big thanks to Gammadian Freeman for picking up the typo!

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 04:53 AM | Comments (0)

September 09, 2020
Bring It Down to Here

Wonderful new song by Wooodstock's Tim Moore. Turn up the volume. Feel it.

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 06:46 AM | Comments (0)

September 03, 2020
Quarantining My Mind

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The practice of quarantine began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit, at anchor, for 40 days before landing. This word for this phenomenon harkens back to two Italian words, "quaranta giorni", which translate as "40 days".

OK. I get it. Quarantining makes sense. When someone or something is infected and contagious we remove it from society. We protect the whole, by isolating the parts.

But the body is not the only part of us that gets infected. So does our mind -- what the dictionary defines as "the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences -- the faculty of consciousness and thought."

On a good, uninfected day, our mind is a capable of many glorious things: wonder, imagination, gratitude, focus, clarity, creativity, compassion, appreciation, and wisdom, just to name a few. But when it gets infected, watch out, my friends, watch out. The game changes quickly. All hell breaks loose.

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The symptoms of the body's contagion are relatively easy to recognize, especially these days with all the coverage Covid-19 is getting: fever, chills, sneezing, coughing, body aches, and fatigue.

The symptoms of the mind's contagion? Not quite as easy to detect. Why not? Because, like pollution and hidden bank charges, we've become so accustomed to them, we barely notice anymore. But just because we don't, it doesn't mean the contagion isn't wreaking havoc. It most definitely is.

The symptoms of an infected mind? Take your pick: worry, doubt, fear, stress, anger, blame, confusion, panic, powerlessness, loneliness, hopelessness, irritation, frustration, hypochondria, lethargy, and overwhelm -- and that's just for starters.

Simply put our body gets physically infected and our mind gets metaphysically infected. And when it does, its contagion begins spreading exponentially. Other people are affected -- our families, our friends, and our communities.

These days, I have never been more aware of my mind's infection.

Living in semi-isolation as I am, 10,000 miles from home, more time on my frequently washed hands than usual, I am acutely aware of the condition I have. I've caught something. I have something. But the thing that I've caught and have doesn't need to catch and have me. It doesn't. Nope. No way. I'm in charge. Not it.

That's where choice enters the picture -- to quarantine the infected part of my mind before it gets out of hand.

What does this so-called quarantining look like? For me, it begins with a kind of peeing around my soul's territory and then choosing not to engage, not to react, not to fight back, and not to take a single bite from the seeming infinite supply of poisoned cookies my mind tosses my way.

Instead, I take a breath, return to the place of peace inside me, and send the feral monkeys of my mind back to their room for a long time out. And if they refuse my directive, as they often do, I simply turn and walk away, their nervous chattering now fading background noise in the soaring symphony of my life.

Does it always work? No. But sometimes it does. And the more I practice quarantining my mind, the flatter the curve.

Covid-19 is just a dress rehearsal, folks, an opportunity for each and every one of us to see through the illusory nature of the world and all we've constructed -- our identities, personas, possessions, accomplishments, systems, institutions, civilizations, and distractions. None of them are real. All of them come and go in the blink of an eye.

What remains when they skedaddle out of town? Now that's the 279 trillion dollar question, isn't it? What remains?

For now, let's keep it real simple. You and I and the other 7.7 billion people on planet Earth have a choice -- the choice to choose life over death, light over dark, love over hate, now over later, and presence over absence. And, perhaps above all else, the choice to pay attention to that which is truly worthy of our attention. You know what it is. I know you do. No matter what name you call it or how you invoke it, I invite you to pay more attention to that during these crazy Coronavirus days of change.

Photo: Courtesy of TimelessToday
The Two Wolves
Ending Violence with Chopsticks
Is That So?

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 04:14 AM | Comments (0)

ABOUT THE BLOG

Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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