At The Sound we are obsessed with telling people’s stories and following narrative arcs through our written work and films. We keep bragging about how stories make insights actionable and connect people in an engaging way. But what exactly do stories do to us and why has the notion of storytelling become so fashionable?
While people in advertising and media have been running entire industries on appealing stories since their inception, some people are recent converts to the power of storytelling. In India, not only is there a renewed middle class curiosity in mythology and folk tales driven by a revival for ancient culture, but also an interest in new storytelling organizations running events for metro audiences.
To find out more about the old and new appeal of stories we spoke to story coach, storyteller, columnist, and published author, Anupa Mehta about her passion for narrative therapy and her belief in the power of storytelling as a means to self-transformation.
What drew you to storytelling and story-coaching as a profession?
I have worked in the art world for over three decades in various capacities. Art continues to be my day job, but I have always been interested in the complexities of human nature and writing, and so have been a columnist and published three books.
I love learning and transforming my experience and that of others with what I do. Due to the nature of my work I meet a lot of people, many of whom are very sensitive. People fascinate and intrigue me and therefore I have spent many years reading and finding out more about human psychology and behavior. In 2015, I trained with world-renowned Jungian storyteller, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who is the author of Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype.
The training was an eye opener and it inspired me to transform myself again. I thought why not combine all that I know about expression through art, writing and psychology into something that can help people to change in a positive way. I started developing a unique personal coaching system that uses personal storytelling as a tool for self-transformation. After a few successes with individual clients a friend asked me if I could conduct sessions for his company. The team he was working in was going through some restructuring and synergies had been lost. The series of workshops took off and I began offering personal storytelling sessions to families, companies, doctors and public groups.
Can you explain what you do?
Stories are the best way to create empathy between human beings, especially in an era where more and more people interact online and communication is restricted to only a couple of senses. Stories become a strong medium for bringing people to life even when they are not present, and for imagining what others feel.
I use various exercises and mediums that differ from person to person and group to group. Before the sessions I find out about the people I am going to work with and prepare techniques that might engage them best. Often things suddenly pop up during the session and therefore I keep the flow flexible. After all, people are not as predictable as we think they are and many hidden emotions start surfacing when we least expect them.
Writing a personal story can bring out the underlying cause of someone’s extreme behavior within minutes. One can be 20 years in therapy, talk about things and not come to a conclusion, but when one is asked to write a simple 100 word story suddenly the issue shows up and becomes very clear in the mind of the person.
There are certain guidelines when writing: the story needs to be short, written in the present, in the first person and should be handwritten. This combination of rules subconsciously sets one to be in the moment and crystallizes their experience on paper.
If I know that someone expresses themselves well visually, then I ask them to use drawings to tell their story. If the goal is to find rhythm in a team I use sound. Once I tested team harmony through a session with a small hand clapping exercise drawn from Flamenco, where the clap or call is an expression of one’s voice. Initially the team was unsynced but by the end of the day everyone was clapping together and felt accomplishment and unity. The key is to let people feel, experience and express their emotions.
Why is all this important for individuals and companies?
Catharsis and clarified vision are the biggest takeaways. They are what make this process useful for individuals and companies. Things often become stagnant for an individual, a team or a company. You tend to look at issues through the ‘script’ you have written for yourself or for the company. Nothing seems to be moving and many friends, counselors, pandits and astrologers, as well as consultancies and experts, have been engaged in solving the problem – a business one in the case of companies.
Catharsis is achieved by going through individual and/or group stories. It is a revelation to oneself, or to the group. It is about discovering the hidden aspects which lead to self sabotage. The personal, or group, story brings things into light and creates shifts based on a ‘here and now’ story.
For instance, let’s say you had a group that is in transition and is looking to align teams on the company goals. Old employees have their own version of the organization and come to work with a ‘good old days’ script. They see the new employees as intruders who are trying to change things. Both teams know each other but might not mix at an interpersonal level. There might be hierarchical rules and structures in place and the HR team is too busy executing transition. The new employees feel that the old people are very territorial and unhelpful, that they come to work with a ‘there is no room for change in this organization’ script and feel disheartened. HR tries to run team bonding exercises, organize trips to exciting destinations but somehow the two sides are not connecting.
Try mixing the group up and let them read out short stories about themselves and magic happens! They discover that they share common experiences in the moment, or from the past. The exercise breaks barriers, changes people’s perceptions within minutes and the group starts integrating. The process not only resolves conflict and builds team spirit but also individually empowers people.
What are successful examples of your work?
Knowing that something has shifted in a person is a success for me. An example of this is some work I conducted to help patients with intellectual disabilities get better at a homeopathic clinic. The team included psychotherapists and homeopaths who felt that it was hard to make a breakthrough with the patients through verbal interactions. Because of this, the doctors were able to diagnose people only based on their judgment and not feedback. I designed various exercises including one where patients, doctors, and therapists could choose each other’s roles and a painting exercise to express their stories. Most patients preferred staying patients and drew as themselves.
There was a man who was silent for most of the day. The homeopaths found it very difficult to understand where his healing was at because he would never speak during consultation. When he started painting his personal story he made a dark kind of tunnel and through it a ray of light coming out. When he gave it to his therapist we understood that he wanted to communicate that the treatment was making a difference in his life. This was a very powerful experience for the group. The therapist later told me that it was a real breakthrough for her because she thought she was failing miserably with him. Moral of the story is that everyone wants to tell a story and communicate, it is human nature. We just have to find the right medium and the compassion to listen.
What are some of the challenges you face?
Challenges are related to resistance to change, trust issues and fear. People are generally skeptical because it is a new process. They really need to trust. People in companies ask me about tangible results to be achieved in the workshop and I want to tell them that you can’t measure human experience with a tangible takeaway. You can only measure human experience in terms of behavior and if you can see a shift in somebody’s behavior or thinking pattern after an eight hour workshop then that’s a big achievement.
People are also often scared of opening up but once they experience the shift they keep on coming back. Individuals tend to look for instant results for problems they have been dealing with for decades. It is not possible to predict when a crucial shift related to a particular problem will happen in these cases. There is always movement but it might not be the one you desperately want.
Where do you see yourself going in the next few years, with respect to this profession?
I want to work more with leaders and influencers. The impact will be greater and widen the scope of my reach. The world needs more people skilled in conflict resolution and less people who manufacture weapons and propagate hatred. Media plays a very important role in creating global stories and it is now crazy to think that there was a time when media didn’t exist and people told stories themselves. Today we have to question and not accept everything that is put in front of us but it would be nice if we were all aligned into making the world a better place with empathy and compassion.