Insight article

Empathy in Action: Narrative 4’s Story Exchange

On paper, the story exchange doesn’t look like much. Sit with a stranger. Tell your story. Listen to theirs. Take on their story as your own and tell it back to a group. Such simplicity, in this age of bio-hacks and cognitive reprogramming and empathy increasingly understood as a neurological response triggered in specific conditions, and increasingly not at all.

But with this simple technique, Narrative 4 – a not-for-profit founded by author Colum McCann – have led an empathy revolution through the world’s schools and conflicted communities; giving young people bridges to each other and repairing the wounds of religious division, gang violence, gun crime, racial and sexual violence. Their model is fearless hope through radical empathy. They ask you to ‘dwell in someone else’s body, dwell in someone else’s country, dwell in someone else’s skin and mind for a while’.

They do this because as an organisation, they believe that if we can see our own story as valuable, and we know that the story of the other person across the wall is valuable, then we can begin to put right the vast majority of ugly things in the world. At The Storytellers, we powerfully agree, and have long admired the work they do.

Because of this, I was thrilled to have the chance to take part in a (dramatically accelerated) story exchange at the Future of Storytelling festival. With only an hour, we were paired off and given seven minutes each to share a story about ourselves; an experience that is, in and of itself, worthy of reflection (where to begin? How to choose? What do your choices say about you?). But the important thing to note here is the immediate gravity of the experience. The knowledge that you will take responsibility for a stranger’s story weighs heavily. You listen harder than you’ve ever listened. You try to piece together the things your partner says and does not say, and understand the silences between them. You build a bond in seconds because you know you have entered into a pact, however momentary, to protect the story of them. And as you re-enter the room, and begin to hear the stories being shared, you feel this bond in the wider group. Everyone listens respectfully, quietly. And this is part of the Narrative 4’s expertise. They create the conditions for people to share in unguarded, unusual and unselfconscious ways by laying the ground rules of respect, privacy and equality. Everyone’s story matters, however small or banal; however heroic or cruel, remote, or emotional.

We all carry around an inner story: who you are, why you are, what you’ve done – all contained in the single story you’ve just told your partner, however inarticulately. This inner story is an expression, not of fact, but of belief: a castle we construct from the fragments of experience, interaction, and outcomes we accumulate as we move through life. We experience this narrative, consciously and sub-consciously, as the fact of who we are. And this narrative, in big and small ways, determines much of our lives: how we conduct ourselves in the world, what we have the courage to pursue, how we treat the people we love.

When we’re young, this story evolves as elastically as our neural pathways. We learn from our interactions and reshape our sense of self accordingly. By the time we’re 25, this story is synaptically engrained; it becomes our short-hand to the world around us, making it harder and harder for us to change as we get older. To listen to another person tell your story is to see the same ray of light refracting through different prisms. You realise, in the most literal way – and perhaps for the first time in many, many years – that the story of you may not be quite what you thought it was.

For some people in the room, the experience illuminated a new sense of cause and effect; a new linearity; a different emphasis that betrayed an undisclosed truth. A new clarity on an unsolved riddle of lost love; a new accountability for actions taken or not taken. Those who had their story retold said it felt like a very powerful form of therapy: like walking around themselves in the therapist’s chair.

But above all else, the story exchange is about empathy in action. And in the care of the retelling; in the kindness of the details; in the fluidity of the story arc, taken so deeply to heart; in the visible connection between partners, who flinch and smile and steady themselves in synchronicity, there is something undeniable and wordless and true. Every story matters. Every story is different. Every story is the same.

Maybe you can change the world in an hour.

Bex Felton

Senior Strategist and Writer