The Healing Power of Story
A colleague of mine sent me a really interesting article from the NYT other other day, about the importance of ‘shared narrative’ in making people emotionally healthy. About 20 years ago, some researchers noted that kids who knew a lot about their own families tended to do better in challenging situations. They then created something they called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children 20 questions, such as, “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know the story of your birth?”
It turned out that the “Do You Know?” questionnaire was an astonishingly accurate predictor. The article goes on to say, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
This reinforced a deep personal intuition I’ve always had as a parent: when my kids were small, we spent time talking about my parents and siblings; the experiences I’d had growing up; how their dad and I met; what we did in the world of work. We also talked about what they had been like as babies and small children, how they were alike and different from other members of the family. Finally, we told them about difficult things that had happened, and trials and tribulations overcome. Somehow I knew this was an important conversation for them to be a part of – and I was often surprised and saddened by how little the kids’ friends knew about their families: they often didn’t even know what their parents did for a living. We’re continuing that into the next generation, telling our granddaughter stories about ourselves and those who came before.
But it also reinforces something I’ve observed as a business consultant for the last thirty years: companies and teams that have a strong, mainly positive shared narrative about themselves also tend to be healthier, more flexible and more resilient in response to difficulty. For example, we worked with someone last year to help us further clarify our Proteus brand. She interviewed a number of staff members and consultants to find out about our current understanding of our own brand. And one thing she found is that each of us said very much thing same thing about what it was like working as part of our team, how we treat each other and our clients, what’s important to us. In other words, even though we needed to get crisper about our brand communication (we did), we had a really strong, consistent shared narrative about Proteus and ourselves as “Proteans.” I feel the power of that every day: it draws us together and helps us overcome the challenges of distance, the inevitable misunderstandings and disappointments of human interaction, and the ups and downs of growing a business.
We’ve been gathering around the campfire to share our stories since time immemorial…and it sounds like we need to keep doing it.