Storytelling For A More Empathic World (part 1)
Storytelling In a Digital World
Storytelling holds the potential to scale empathy in our age of automation and digital distraction. Why is this important or even desirable? While technology is enabling humans to innovate in ways that we could only imagine a few decades ago, new technologies are slowly fragmenting the way humans connect and engage with each other. Today, our natural propensity for telling stories is slowly being drowned out by a growing addiction to technology.
A client recently described the atmosphere during lunch in the large food canteen at his company. He observed how many people had their eyes glued to technology and were mostly disconnected and disengaged from each other. Even when people were engaging, he observed, their cell phones were close by. If you walked into such a canteen 20 years ago, however, you would have seen and heard people talking and chatting, laughing and listening to each other and responding with presence. In those days, there were no cell phones or internet connectivity to interrupt these moments of human connection.
The same can be said of contexts beyond canteens. How often do you check your phone when you are out for dinner with friends? The next time you are in a public place such as a restaurant or cafe, observe a little more closely and notice the amount of attention our technology demands of us. We are, of course, not completely disconnected from each other, yet we have allowed the quality of our interactions to deteriorate. The communal hum of storytelling has largely been replaced with the hushed clicks of cellphones, laptop keys and social media buttons.
Keeping Your Use in Check?
I recently saw a clever cartoon depicting two mothers sitting next to their little daughter on a park bench. One mother and daughter are both reading a book, and the other mother and daughter are both clicking away on their cell phones. The mother with the cell phone, looking across at the mother and daughter who are reading books, says to the mother, “How do you get your child to read books?“
Unchecked use of digital technology may very slowly steal away our humanity, until, like the mother on her cell phone, we live more and more without it. The more we disconnect, the less empathy nurture.
The response should not be to reject technology, but quite the opposite. The challenge and opportunity is to embrace innovation and technology and all it offers, but from a position of richer understanding and connectivity with our fellow human beings. In this way, the emerging world becomes more human-centred and more empathic. Futuristic aspirations should be grounded in humanistic principles.
While technology continues to creep into every aspect of our lives, you may choose to make small, creative choices around keeping this in check. For example, we have a ‘no-technology’ policy at our house between 7pm and 8pm every night. We use the time to connect without any interruptions from technology; we talk about our day, express our dreams for the future or simply play games. Essentially, we tell each other stories. Sometimes we even turn off all the lights and light candles. An hour might seem insignificant, but this little family habit has become a welcomed retreat from the constant distraction of gadgets.
Another common idea is to place all cell phones in the centre of the dinner table when eating out with friends. The first person to pick up their phone pays for dinner!
What are you doing, even in small ways, to check your addiction to technology?
Stories Are Performed Empathy
Albert Einstein once said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” That was over 70 years ago, and his assertion resonates with our current condition even more. In a world where technology easily grabs our attention, we may choose to seek a renewed balance between technological progress and, as the famous Polish theatre maker Grotowski once described it, ‘…the closeness of the living organism.’
The reference to theatre above is apt because, not only do we tell our stories, we perform them. We bring our physicality into the act of telling a story. Even a written story requires someone to input the content and a pair of eyes to read them. We are protagonists in the communal theatre of our unfolding lives. Humans live in story. This is one reason stories can help generate empathy; everyone has a story to tell.
We Are Our Stories
Possibly, the ability to engage in storytelling is one primary distinction between humans and technology in all its forms. It is through human creativity that we tell stories and also innovate new technologies. It might be that in the distant future, robots and machines will be able to sit around a fire, cell phone in hand, and tell a good story. For now, however, the ability to share information, connect emotionally and communicate through story remains the creative domain of humanity. Certainly we can, and should, use technology to help tell our stories. There are many technological tools that enable more creative storytelling. Social media, as one example, are digital and social platforms for sharing our stories. The technology itself is not the story, however, but merely the vehicle of delivery. The storyteller is essentially always a human, and the content of the stories we tell stem from our life experiences.
Tell More Stories
Ira Glass said, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” Our personal experiences are a treasure trove of story material, and in learning to harvest the stories that we own - the stories that ‘happen’ to us personally – we can begin to make meaningful connections and gain insights from the stories of others. Expand your curiosity and become both an anthropologist (story- gatherer) and a conscious performer of the stories you encounter. Tell more stories. Humanise. Help others humanise too by being fully available to listen to their stories. This requires your presence. It is not possible to be fully present with a person and check social media at the same time. When we are attentive to others, we become more receptive to the accumulating narratives we encounter in our lives.
As you become more comfortable and familiar with intentional storytelling and story-gathering, begin to use these skills strategically in your professional environments. Increase your curiosity. Take the creative risk to tell more stories and grow your capacity for empathy. Story is all around us and is a vital key to unlock a more empathic world.
What is your story?
About the Author: Colin Skelton is a creativity facilitator, design thinker, theatre-maker and storyteller. His facilitation work and style includes a range of complementary, proactive methodologies and innovation tools that follow a ‘learn by doing’ approach to team development, communication and collaboration.