Creating an Atmosphere of Wisdom
By Diane Wyzga1
Being homo narans: a storyteller
The Inuit word for ‘storyteller’ is: "Person who creates the atmosphere where wisdom reveals itself."
In 1994 I found a book of best-loved stories told at the 20th Jonesborough, Tennessee, story festival. I read a story. I said, “I can do this!” At the time I had no clue how I would use storytelling; I only knew I was a storyteller.
Storytelling is a natural, instinctual process. We are wired to grasp narrative. We believe what we understand. We understand stories that mimic our life experiences, our world views. We intuitively use narrative to explain and define universal concepts and unique experiences. From birth on, stories engage our imagination, focus our attention on behaviors, help us understand those behaviors, and make sense of our world experiences.
Stories build bridges; connect the Us with the Them; demonstrate that there is really no “Other” except the one we create; are inclusive and not exclusive; they are natural aids to problem-solving. They build models for understanding, empathy and communication because we are using a universally understood, recognized and natural vehicle.
I joined organizations, traveled to conferences, workshops and festivals. I learned stories and found venues to tell them. I taught college level storytelling. Two of my students were long-time practicing lawyers who came to enhance their advocacy and presentation skills. I became a trial consultant focused on storytelling.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” [Albert Einstein]
“Storytelling thrives on imagination. Images touch the heart and become sensations, sensations trigger memories, memories create meaning, and meaning leads to listener action.” [Diane Wyzga]
For centuries people told each other stories to convey information, record events, settle disputes, teach the young ones, explain events, heal, and so on. (Doesn’t this sound like much of the work of lawyers?) As such they had to rely on imagination to create the virtual reality of the world in which the story took place. Einstein was right.
A story is heard individually and collectively. The more clearly we comprehend the universal story which embodies universal truths, the better able we are to see and hear and tell the story of our own life and, in turn, the lives of others. If you were to ask each person what story they heard they would tell you a version of the story that was parallel to their particular world view. Yet, when you were done polling all the listeners you would discover a universal story that all the listeners could agree upon. And, profoundly, their universally accepted story would be grounded in values that acted as a moral underpinning to what they heard.
Joseph Campbell delved into the stories that have been told over millennia. He is especially well known for deciphering the “Hero’s Journey” story construct. Generally, the Hero’s Journey is made up of seven elements:
the hero is living a life and then encounters some upset
which turns his life upside down forcing him to go on a journey
to figure out how to right his life and along the way he meets allies
who will show him the way to the ‘truth’ he needs to discover
when he has discovered the truth he must return to his community to share his particular truth so the entire community is improved.
Listening the Story Out of Our Clients
Stories are personal. A lawyer has the opportunity to hold the space for the safe telling of the client’s story. People want and need to speak their story and their truth. When we tell a story to a therapist, a lawyer, a spouse, a friend, we are telling our story. Our responsibility as lawyers is to first listen the story out of the client and only then tell it accurately so that we help lift the burden of carrying the untold story. Clients look to the lawyer to hear it, to understand it and retell it accurately. In this role the lawyer becomes a counselor, coach and mid-wife.
The role of counselor in this setting is a three-fold process: listening the story out of the client/teller, hearing that story accurately and then retelling it truthfully to someone who needs to act on the story. That process takes the exquisite ear of listening.
When we speak to each other we are looking for answers to the three universal questions: (1) Can I trust you? (2) Are you committed to me in this process? (3) And do you appreciate me for me not just the skills I have? This is no more true than in the attorney-client relationship.
Until the lawyer has done an archeological dig on herself and come to terms with her own stories, only then can she listen the stories out of others. It takes courage and willingness to examine what you are hearing with a critical - not criticizing - ear and then discovering how to tell that story using language and images with power, passion and precision.
Telling the Client’s Story
“The stranger who tells our stories when we cannot speak not only awakens our spirits and hearts but also shows our humanity -- which others want to forget -- and in doing so becomes family.” [Mende Proverb. Sierra Leone]
"There is no greater burden than carrying an untold story." Zora Neale Hurston
All trial lawyers want to know: How do I persuade, educate, inform, inspire, motivate, and ultimately lead a juror to action? The answer is in front of you: tell the story. One over-arching task of a lawyer is to speak for those who cannot. Even when the client loses the case, I believe that the saving grace is this: the lawyer has given the client the opportunity to tell their story and be heard.
Legal stories, like fairy tales and myths and legends, create images, sensations, and memories that compel the listener to act. Law school discourages imagination. The skillful trial lawyer needs to overcome law school’s linear analytical training that says he who dies with the most facts, wins.
In front of a jury, the better story wins. Each side has basically the same set of facts to work with. The difference is in how the story is told. The ‘better story’ is the one that is compelling and persuasive because it is emotionally meaningful. Facts do not engage. Facts cannot engage. The better story is grounded in values to which the listener can relate. The story that is emotionally meaningful to the listener will be persuasive and compelling. It will make sense to them. They will relate to it as being consistent with their story, their world view and their experience of world order. The listeners to the legal story are seeking their universal experience in the story of the client. When they hear that story, the attorney and decision-maker become one: working in concert in a cooperative enterprise considering options, possibilities and outcomes.
Support your listeners with a heartfelt story artfully told and they will support you.The personal, emotional and conflicting aspects of the case create create different stories from the same set of facts. Context gives the facts meaning and relationship to the decision-maker’s world view.
Stories Provide Space for Healing
How do lawyers use stories as tools for healing rather than winning? Another way of asking this question is, “Who am I as a human being? And how do I practice my humanity in the legal profession?”
I have worked for the past few years with a Canadian lawyer who has been helping members of the First Nations tribes recall and recount their stories of abuse to perhaps claim some form of restitution from the Canadian government. These residential school abuses are horrific. Imagine what it took to return to those times, to revisit the abuses, to tell those shameful and secret stories to a lawyer.
Again, this is an opportunity to make use of the world of stories. There are myths and legends and tales that mimic a current event or situation. Using a story as a symbol the client/teller can relate the story of the abuse as if he or she was a character in the story. And because our stories and movies follow the Hero’s Journey format, the teller can begin the healing process in the careful hands of the listening lawyer. Now the lawyer fits her role as a true counselor-at-law.
“We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the Listener to say - and to feel - ‘Yes! that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it. You are not as alone as you thought.’” [John Steinbeck]
1. The Hero’s Journey - Joseph Campbell. New World Library. 1990
2. The Power of Personal Storytelling - Jack Maguire. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam. 1998
3. The Healing Heart - Communities - Edited by Allison M. Cox and David H. Albert. New Society Publishers. 2003
4. The Healing Heart - Families - Edited by Allison M. Cox and David H. Albert. 2003
5. Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories - Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis. August House. 2001
Diane F. Wyzga, RN, JD, Trial Consultant
LIGHTNING ROD COMMUNICATIONS
"Translating Images Into Action"
Member: American Society of Trial Consultants