Story Listening as a Transformative Process



Story Listening as a Transformative Process

© Doug Lipman 2013

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force… When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”—Brenda Ueland 1

“When we tell and listen to stories, we can almost feel our souls breathing fully and deeply. Our capacity to see options, to visualize possibilities, to imagine, expands and we are somehow more alive.”—Michael Parent 2

Listening is a huge force in human life. Ignoring it is like ignoring the force of love or the power of language. Yet our society manages to not notice listening in general and story listening in particular.

Part of the reason we ignore listening is our society’s orientation toward active roles rather than receptive roles.

Imagine taking someone to a large storytelling festival, standing outside a tent filled with 1000 people while a performance is in progress, and asking, “What is happening there?”

Almost anyone you know will say, “Someone is telling a story.”

But no one is likely to say, “Nine hundred ninety-nine people are listening.”

The receptive nature of listening is part of how listening works its magic, but it also contributes to how we undervalue listening. Then, because we fail to notice the transformative power of listening, we fail to devote time to becoming more masterful listeners.

To make all this concrete, let’s begin with a story.

The Shortest Way
This is my rewriting of a story about a real rabbi. I don’t know when he lived, so I can only guess about the details of the social and historical context. As far as I can tell, this story involves very observant Jews, perhaps Hasidic Jews, likely in Eastern Europe:

Two villagers came to a rabbi with a dispute. When the rabbi invited them to sit down and talk about it, they glowered at each other as though to say, “If you sit down at this table, then I won’t!” At last, they sat at the rabbi’s table with arms folded, casting angry glances at each other.

Illustration by Eugene Ivanov

Then the rabbi said, “Do you have anything more to say, Shlomo?” Yes, Shlomo asserted, he had more to say. The rabbi kept listening to Shlomo’s answers and asking him questions about them until at last Shlomo said, more calmly, “No. I have nothing more to say.”

Next, the rabbi turned toward the other villager, Moshe, and asked, “What happened?” The rabbi listened to him and asked him questions until he, too, said, “I have nothing more to say.”

The rabbi rose from the table to leave the room, saying, “I will deliberate on this and come back with a decision.”

Less than a minute later, the rabbi returned, sat back down at the table, and said, “I have reached my verdict.” The rabbi described the verdict to them. Shlomo and Moshe looked at each other and each said, “All right. That solves it.” They shook hands and left.

Another man had been in the room and had watched all this. He said to the rabbi, “You found the solution in just a minute. Why did you let them talk so long, when you knew the answer right away?”

The rabbi said, “If I had not listened to each one’s full story, each would have resented my decision. It wasn’t my judgment that solved the problem. What solved it was listening to their entire stories.” 3

This story has four characters. Two villagers, Shlomo and Moshe, come to the rabbi for help. The rabbi assists them through various forms of listening. At the end, the rabbi explains his method to the fourth character, a neutral observer. Between them, the actions of these four characters help exemplify the major ways that story listening can be a healing force.

Stories and Imagining
Please notice that, while reading or listening to a story, you imagine it. That is, you create “images” in your mind that correspond to the characters, objects, actions and places mentioned in the story.

In our society, we talk as though the word “imagine” is an exact synonym for “visualize.” That is, we assume that all imagining is visual. Actually, we can imagine in any sensory mode: we can imagine sights, sounds, internal body sensations, tastes, smells, touch sensations, and more. We can even imagine emotions and words. In short, anything that we can experience, we can imagine.

To make it easier to talk about all these forms of imagination, I use “imagine” to refer to imagining in any sensory mode. I use “image” to apply to our actual mental imaginings, regardless of sensory mode. When needed for clarity, I might specify a “visual image,” an “auditory image,” a “kinesthetic image,” etc.


“Momo could listen in such a way that worried and indecisive people knew their own minds from one moment to the next, or shy people felt suddenly confident and at ease, or downhearted people felt happy and hopeful.

“If someone felt that his life had been an utter failure, and that he himself was only one among millions of wholly unimportant people who could be replaced as easily as broken windowpanes, he would go and pour out his heart to Momo. And, even as he spoke, he would come to realize by some mysterious means that he was absolutely wrong: that there was only one person like himself in the whole world, and that, consequently, he mattered to the world in his own particular way.”—Michael Ende 4

In “The Shortest Way,” the two villagers, Moshe and Shlomo, begin by bringing their disagreement to the rabbi. The rabbi uses several techniques to help. First, the rabbi elicits their stories, one at a time.


Let’s start with the rabbi’s listening. In my mind, the rabbi listened attentively. He was not staring out the window or picking his fingernails while first Moshe and then Shlomo talked. Instead, he devoted his full attention to them, and his attention was visible in his posture and on his face.

I also imagine that, when the rabbi asks questions, his tone is kind and gentle rather than harsh and accusatory. Questioning in a harsh tone becomes an inquisition, but a kind tone suggests a sincere desire to learn about the teller.

So much for the “how” of the rabbi’s listening. The “what,” his overt behavior, includes:

a. Asking them each “what happened”;
b. Listening to what each says;
c. Asking questions about what each had said;
d. Asking whether there is more to be said;
e. Persisting until each teller has nothing more to say.

The rabbi’s primary action is attentive listening. He also uses questions to encourage the villagers to:

• Tell their stories,
• Fill in gaps in their stories,
• Continue telling, and
• Decide when their stories are finished.

The rabbi’s questions, in my mind, are not asked for the sake of his curiosity. Neither are they attempts to discredit a story or suggest his opinions of the story. Instead, he asks questions in order to hear all the important episodes and details in a story.

In short, we can see the rabbi’s questions as a simple extension of his desire to listen.


How do the rabbi’s actions bring the villagers from disagreement and hostility to agreement and relative harmony? According to what the rabbi says at the end of the story, the key ingredient was allowing them to be fully heard.

There is a great power in being heard, fully, by another human. It makes us feel known and valued. In this regard, wanting to know my story is equivalent to wanting to know me.

As for Moshe and Shlomo, they enter the rabbi’s study full of their anger, their loss, and their sense of having been treated unfairly by each other. The rabbi’s listening—his gift of attention, concern, and respect—begins to shift them away from their preoccupation with not being respected. This makes it more possible, in time, for them to view each other as allies rather than enemies.

The more Moshe and Shlomo begin to feel like valued human beings again, the more likely they are to trust the rabbi’s advice. After all, isn’t the rabbi interested in their deepest needs and feelings? Doesn’t he appear to have their well being in mind?

In this way, the rabbi’s listening is a key part of overcoming their dispute—even of the healing of their relationship.


One substantial benefit to telling your story to a caring listener is that being listened to can change the story you tell:

“While we can listen to the stories of others, and they can listen to ours, perhaps the most healing feature is that we, the storyteller, get to hear our own story. While we may have an idea about what the story is whenever we tell it, it usually comes out different from what we thought.” —Charles L. Whitfield 5

In our society, we tend to assume that the story of “what happened” is a fixed story. If Moshe’s calf broke through the fence and ate much of Shlomo’s crop, we think that’s the story. In effect, we believe that this story exists in Shlomo’s mind the moment it happens.

But story is not born in an instant, fully formed like the goddess Athena. Rather, story grows and develops over time, like a blossom unfolding in the sun.

What causes a story to develop? One important process, of course, is thinking about the story. Perhaps Shlomo has been brooding over the damage to his crop for days, building his argument in his mind that the cause is Moshe letting his calf loose and the effect is the loss of Shlomo’s crop. Thus, even before Shlomo opens his mouth, he has built a moral of his story and at least a bare bones sequence of events to support it.

But a second important process is imagining the story as you tell it. It is powerful to imagine the story’s events on your own. But the act of telling focuses you more on the images. What you see, hear, feel, etc., in your mind as you tell may be more vivid or just plain different. Most experienced storytellers have noticed moments when, in the heat of telling, the table shifted from wood to stone, for example, or a villager, instead of smashing his fist on the table, stood up and paced the floor as he spoke. The mutual attention of the teller and the listeners can create a heat of the imagination that transmutes a story’s setting, actions, or characters.

Suppose, for instance, that as Shlomo begins to tell his side of the story to the rabbi, it pops into Shlomo’s mind that Moshe had asked Shlomo some time ago to repair the fence between their properties. If Shlomo now speaks what he is thinking, his story will become a bit less one-sided. His perception of events—and of his role in them—may also begin to shift.

Third, consider the process of putting story images into words. (Please remember: for me, the word “image” includes imaginings in any sensory mode.) In conversational storytelling, certainly, the teller searches anew at each telling for the language in which to communicate the images. (Under “language” I include words, gestures, tone of voice, posture, etc.) After numerous tellings of a story, the language may start to coalesce. But new ways of expression can show up in even the most oft-told tale, sometimes with surprising effect. For example, a character’s words might change, in the moment of telling, from how the teller had previously imagined them.

The fourth process is responding to a listener’s non-verbal reactions. Perhaps Shlomo, telling how easily Moshe’s calf broke through Shlomo’s fence, sees a puzzled look on the rabbi’s face. In response, Shlomo might elaborate about the weakness of the fence at that place, about how Moshe’s calf had crossed there several times before. Seeing the rabbi’s new look of comprehension, Shlomo is likely to make the description of the calf’s previous sins and the fence’s weakness a permanent part of the story in his mind.

Fifth, the rabbi, as we know, didn’t only listen to Shlomo’s story. He also asked sympathetic questions about it. Shlomo’s answers to those questions may also grow to become “part of the story.”

For example, suppose the rabbi asks, “Did Moshe’s calf ever cross into your field before?” Shlomo might go on to elaborate the several times the calf entered his field. But then the rabbi might ask, “Did you tell Moshe about those incidents when they happened?”

If Shlomo suddenly can’t remember having told Moshe about the previous incursions at the time they happened, he’ll likely realize that his story has a hole in it. After all, his message of “Moshe’s persistent lack of tying up his calf led to the damage to my crops” isn’t so compelling if Moshe didn’t even know about the problem. So now Shlomo may tell why he didn’t bother to mention it to Moshe: Moshe keeps a fierce, unchained dog, making Shlomo afraid to approach Moshe in his house. If this detail becomes necessary to the cohesion of Shlomo’s story, he will likely include it in all future versions of the story.


Now we can see that a story unfolds through:

1. Thinking through the story in advance;
2. Imagining the story at the moment of telling it;
3. Putting language to the story as you tell it;
4. Responding to a listener’s non-verbal reactions;
5. Responding to a listener’s questions or comments.

Any of the processes listed above can change what episodes Shlomo includes in his story the next time he tells it. But this same set of processes can also lead to changes in the story’s meaning for the teller.

For example, after responding to the rabbi’s questions and admitting he had not informed Moshe of the problem, Shlomo may have come to realize that his own story is less compelling than he had previously thought. Shlomo’s story may then change, in his mind, from a story about how “Moshe neglected to restrain his calf” to one about how “Moshe makes it impossible to tell him when there’s a problem.”


There are other benefits for Moshe and Shlomo as they tell their stories, though. In particular, the process of telling to a receptive listener assists their ability to understand their own needs and desires:

“The receptive listener allows us to express what we think and feel. Being heard and acknowledged helps us clarify both the thoughts and the feelings, in the process firming our sense of ourselves”— Michael P. Nichols 6

During the telling of their stories, for example, Shlomo may become more aware of some of his previous, unresolved upsets that have become attached to the current problem. Perhaps Shlomo thinks, “That Moshe! He is so quick to blame other people. If he’d spend less time complaining and more time working on that fence, none of this would ever have happened!”

When, at the rabbi’s prodding, he reveals such thoughts as part of his “story,” these thoughts become available for healing and negotiation. Shlomo may even come to realize on his own that it isn’t fair to tar Moshe with so big a brush. Or perhaps the rabbi’s questions may lead him in that direction, without necessarily accusing him of unfairness. Or Moshe, later on, may be able to provide counter-examples that help Shlomo correct his distorted view.

In any event, listening sometimes brings such unseen stumbling blocks out into the light. Once noticed, they can often be dealt with in a way that contributes substantially to solving the initial problem.


Stories are our ways of understanding ourselves and our roles in the world.7 They are like “theories” of the causes and effects in our lives, and they change as we gather new experiences. And these stories are formed, in part, through telling them to others.

Instead of assuming that any story is static and complete, I suggest we treat stories as works in progress that get formed, dinged, and polished in the process of telling.

Many of us have had the experience of hearing parts of a story come out of our mouth that we never thought of before, but that we instantly recognize as true.

Said differently, the listener holds the soil in which our story-seeds can sprout. And the best story listeners excel at helping those proto-stories to emerge.


“Each listener, as well as each teller, actually composes a unique set of story images derived from meanings associated with words, gestures, and sounds. The experience can be profound, exercising the thinking and touching emotions of both teller and listener.” – The National Council of Teachers of English 8

“Concrete and vivid stories exert extraordinary influence because they transport people out of the role of critic and into the role of participant.” – Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler 9

“Storytelling … It’s the currency of human contact.” – Robert McKee 10

To understand how listening helps the listener, let’s focus first on the most basic aspect of listening to a story. As an example, we’ll use the story you read earlier, “The Shortest Way.”


Please go back in your mind to the rabbi’s table, where the rabbi and the two villagers sat and talked – the table Shlomo slammed with his fist. In your mind, what color was the table? If you didn’t imagine a color, did you imagine the table’s shape? What was it made of?

If you didn’t imagine the table, did you imagine the rabbi? What was the rabbi wearing? Did the rabbi have any facial hair? A hat? What was the rabbi’s face like?

If you didn’t imagine the rabbi at all, did you imagine Shlomo or Moshe? Their faces? Their bodies? The way they sat?

If you didn’t imagine any of the above, did you see anything else about the story? The rabbi’s study, perhaps? Or did you hear any sounds in your mind or imagine any sensations in your body?

The Central Action of Storytelling
In all likelihood, you imagined one or more parts of the above story as you read it. The images you created were unique to you, based on your own unique experiences and predilections.

This is the central action of storytelling: At the moment of hearing a story, each listener creates images.

All the benefits to the story listener begin with this act.

Seven Benefits to You, the Story Listener
Listening to a story helps you in seven ways.

First, your attention is directed toward the sensory and concrete. This creative act draws you into the world of the story and out of the mundane:

“I used to be a chaplain in the largest men’s prison in Maryland… and I would tell the men stories. And they would say that for that time they were not in prison.”—Geraldine Buckley 11

Second, you and the storyteller are engaged in a cooperative act: the storyteller stimulates you to imagine; in response, you imagine. This interaction helps you feel more connected, less isolated.

Third, when listening in person, you send messages (usually non-verbal) back to the storyteller as you imagine. The storyteller then responds to your responses as the story continues. This cycle of adjustment to each other strengthens rapport between you, contributing further to your sense of connection.

Fourth, your act of creative imagination changes your attitude, because acts of creation make us all more open and generous than acts of evaluation or calculation. 12

Fifth, since your images are based on your experience and predilections, this act of image creation allows you to furnish the story with images customized to suit your own life and personality. For example, if you think of rabbis primarily in the present world in the U.S., you might imagine a modern plastic-laminate conference table. On the other hand, if you think of them in the Eastern-European past, you might imagine a table hand-built from wood. As a result, story listening engages you in an interpersonal experience that simultaneously honors your individuality. You get to be fully yourself even as you share this experience with others.

Sixth, you create unique meanings for the image sequences you have created in your mind. This act of meaning-making further engages you. You experience connection without giving up your individual point of view, your sense of how the world works.

Finally, you imagine the emotions of characters in the story. As a story listener, you are put in a position to empathetically follow a character’s plight and actions. This may give you insight into the points of view of others, even those whom you might usually ignore, revile or fear. In short, you broaden your circles of empathy.

Notice that, in “The Shortest Way,” Moshe and Shlomo each listen to the other’s story. As much as they benefit from telling their own stories, they also stand to gain benefits as they listen. They engage in a creative, cooperative process that allows them to empathize with each other as they hear each other’s stories.


The consequences of the central act of storytelling contain the seeds of nearly all of story listening’s transformational effects. Notice that, though the teller has an important role in this collaboration, the listener’s key act of creative imagining is the source of the magic.

In other words, we may not notice the role of the listeners in a storytelling tent, but it is in their minds that the transformative fire of storytelling roars to life.

“Love listens. It is its first task to listen.”—Paul Tillich 13

“Telling a story is offering an expression of love.” – Jack Maguire 14

If storytelling can be helpful to the teller and also helpful to the listener, who is doing the helping? And by what actions? The rabbi helps Moshe and Shlomo by listening to them, but he also helps the observer at the end of the story by speaking to him.

It turns out that there is a simple way to clarify what we mean by “helper.” Such clarity actually improves our efforts to apply the healing power of story listening.


Let’s think about the paired concepts of “helper” and “beneficiary.”

The beneficiary is the one for whom the listening takes place. When the rabbi listened to Shlomo tell his story, for example, Shlomo (the speaker) was the beneficiary. The rabbi (the listener) was in the role of helper:

Situation Speaker Listener
Shlomo tells to the rabbi Beneficiary Helper

Notice, though, that, after Moshe and Shlomo leave, the rabbi explains his actions to the man who had observed everything happen. In this part of the story, the rabbi (the speaker) helps the man by speaking to him. This means that, in some situations, the speaker can be the helper. In that case, the listener will be the beneficiary:

Situation Speaker Listener
Rabbi explains to observer Helper Beneficiary

What exactly do I mean by “helper”? I suggest this:

The helper agrees, for the duration of the period in question, to put the needs of the beneficiary first. Of course, the helper might receive benefits from helping. But if at any point the needs of the beneficiary conflict with the needs of the helper, the helper will put the beneficiary’s needs first. 15

Notice that being the “helper” is a temporary role, not a permanent characteristic of a person. As your coach on Monday, I listen to you in the role of the helper. But on Friday, if I come to hear you tell stories for my own pleasure, then, for that period of time, you act as my helper. On Monday I listen for your sake; on Friday, I listen for my sake.

The person for whom the event is being held is in what I call the “beneficiary” role. On that Monday I mentioned, you are the beneficiary of the coaching session. On that Friday, I, along with each of the others in your audience, am a beneficiary of the performance.

Notice that, most often, the roles of “helper” and “beneficiary” are not assigned explicitly, but are assigned by mutual, unspoken agreement. When Moshe and Shlomo go to the rabbi, for example, all three expect the rabbi to be helper and Moshe and Shlomo to be beneficiaries. Yet no one mentions this shared expectation; indeed, unless they have conflicting expectations, they don’t need to.


If several people are involved in a situation, the helper and beneficiary roles among them often nest within each other. While Moshe is telling his story to the rabbi, for instance, Shlomo may be both helper (with regard to Moshe) and beneficiary (with regard to the rabbi).

So it would be inappropriate for Shlomo to act purely like the beneficiary when Moshe tells his story; Moshe is not telling primarily for Shlomo’s sake. Shlomo should put Moshe’s needs to speak above his own needs during that time, but he is still not Moshe’s primary helper. Here’s a summary:

a. The rabbi is the primary helper of Moshe and Shlomo at all times;
b. Moshe is the primary beneficiary while he tells his story to the rabbi;
c. While Moshe speaks, Shlomo is in a (secondary) helper relationship to Moshe, but still in a beneficiary relationship to the rabbi.

This nested relationship is especially rich because, as in most “relationship sessions,” the rabbi doubtless expects Shlomo to benefit from hearing Moshe’s story, even while Shlomo, at that moment, is a helper relative to Moshe.


Part of listening’s power comes from clarity in these roles of helper and beneficiary. All parties need to agree to their roles. Without such clarity and agreement, the full benefits of listening may not be achieved.

For example, if you expect me to listen as your helper but I haven’t given consent to be your helper, I will be, at best, a half-hearted listener, and you will be only half listened to. Conversely, if you expect to be my helper but I haven’t agreed to be helped, neither of us is likely to be happy with our interaction, either.

Both parties must also give their consent to their roles as speaker and listener. For instance, if you ask for my help with developing your story and expect me to listen to you think aloud about it, you will be frustrated if I, having agreed to help you, nonetheless assume that “help” means to talk to you about the story. The reverse is generally true, as well: if you want information from me and I insist on listening but not talking, you might not find our interaction beneficial.


The agreement on the roles of helper and beneficiary can be implicit, as in the case of Shlomo, Moshe and the rabbi. Just by being “on duty” in his study and not stating otherwise, the rabbi implicitly accepts the role of helper and gives permission to others to be the beneficiaries.

To be sure, the rabbi’s implicit acceptance of the helper role does not apply to everyone at all times. If the rabbi’s assistant enters the room to inform the rabbi that someone is waiting outside, the rabbi would not expect to become the assistant’s helper just then. If the assistant begins to talk about a personal problem, the rabbi might explicitly clarify their roles at the moment, saying something like, “Thank you for the information. I need to talk to Moshe and Shlomo now.”

Alternatively, the rabbi can renegotiate, saying, “I’d love to hear about that at another time. Could you tell me more later, perhaps after dinner?”


In addition to his implied role as helper, the rabbi in a traditional Jewish community also has a great deal of implicit authority, which will further influence the forms his help can take.

For example, in our story, the rabbi likely uses his implicit power to prevent each villager from interrupting the other. In my mind, he can do this without stating his wishes explicitly. A warning look from the rabbi, for example, would likely be enough to discourage Moshe from interrupting Shlomo. If the rabbi did have to state explicitly that he wanted Moshe to be quiet while Shlomo talked, no further remonstrances to either of them would likely be needed.

In a peer helping relationship (for example, “coaching buddies” who take turns coaching each other), the helper’s authority is governed by the agreement between helper and listener. Such relationships can be governed by either informal or formal agreements. 16

Because of the issues of role acceptance and authority, therefore, the potential benefits of listening may vary depending on the contextual relationship of the speaker and listener. In general, the best results occur when:

1. Both parties agree to their roles (helper/beneficiary and speaker/listener);
2. The beneficiary agrees to ask for what she or he wants, as explicitly as needed; and
3. The beneficiary gives the benefit of the doubt to the helper about how that help is given. For example, the beneficiary, while retaining the power to accept or reject suggestions by the helper, might nonetheless agree to try whatever the helper suggests for at least a short time before deciding it isn’t helpful.

In “The Shortest Way,” for example, the rabbi’s efforts would have been hampered if, say, Moshe, as one of the beneficiaries, had little respect for the rabbi and refused to listen while the rabbi elicited Shlomo’s story.

From the above, we see that the authority of the helper can be an implicit part of the context (as in the case of the rabbi) or can be part of a more formal agreement between helper and beneficiary. In the absence of contextual (cultural) authority, the same benefits can be achieved through explicit agreements about the roles.

Often, if listening is not having the expected effect, the situation can be improved by reviewing the agreements in place, whether implicit or explicit, and either re-negotiating or re-affirming them.


“In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.” – Walter Cronkite 17

“Without our stories, how will we know it’s us? Without the stories of others, how will we know who they are?” – Dudley Cocke 18

“Broken stories can be healed. Diseased stories can be replaced by healthy ones. We are free to change the stories by which we live.” – Daniel Taylor 19

Up to now, we’ve separated the benefits to the teller from the benefits to the listener. But in any kind of conflict resolution or relationship-coaching work, there is the potential for yet another kind of benefit that combines the roles of teller and listener: two or more beneficiaries can, in effect, modify their stories to form a third story that resolves the conflicts between their individual stories.

In “The Shortest Way,” this “merging” of two stories begins when the rabbi has Shlomo and Moshe listen to each other’s stories. It ends when the two villagers accept the rabbi’s decision.


In all likelihood, the two villagers begin the process with different stories of their disagreement. For instance, Moshe’s story may include episodes absent from Shlomo’s story. After listening to Moshe, Shlomo may change his story to make it more compatible with Moshe’s, perhaps by integrating Moshe’s additional episodes into his own story.

Suppose, for example, that the disagreement is, in fact, about Moshe’s calf, which crossed into Shlomo’s field and ate a substantial portion of Shlomo’s crop. Shlomo insists that Moshe should pay for the crop, but Moshe refuses.

When Moshe tells his story, on the other hand, he explains that, though this is the first time Shlomo’s crop has been seriously damaged, this isn’t the first time one of his calves has broken through the fence – in the same spot. In fact, Moshe has asked Shlomo many times to reinforce the fence there, but Shlomo has refused.

Thus, for Shlomo, the story has, up until now, begun with the recent incursion by Moshe’s calf. But for Moshe, the story begins earlier, with Moshe’s unsuccessful requests to Shlomo. For Moshe, Shlomo’s refusal to fix the fence makes the damage Shlomo’s fault, so Shlomo shouldn’t expect Moshe to pay.

Hearing Moshe’s story, Shlomo is faced with a narrative problem: his story isn’t big enough to include the episodes that Moshe mentions. How can the two stories be reconciled?

One option is for either Shlomo or Moshe to deny the other’s additions to the story. For instance, this denial might have occurred in the case of Shlomo’s earlier addition to his story, when he claimed that Moshe’s dog is the reason Shlomo didn’t tell Moshe about the incursion. Moshe, when it was his turn to speak, might have said:

“Shlomo, what are you talking about? First of all, we see each other every week in the market, so you can always talk to me there. Second, you certainly did tell me about every time my calf crossed over into your field. Don’t you remember?”

In this case, Shlomo might have simply discarded that part of his story, saying, “You’re right, Moshe. I don’t know what I was thinking. But for a moment, I couldn’t remember telling you about those earlier times. Still, you let your calf through the fence again and again!” At that point, things would have been back to where they were before Shlomo added the parts about not telling Moshe of the calf’s incursion and about Moshe’s dog.

But let’s get back to Moshe’s claim that he asked Shlomo many times to fix the broken fence. If the rabbi’s listening has made Shlomo open enough to accept this part of Moshe’s story, Shlomo may also accept the challenge of enlarging his own story to include these additional episodes.

The rabbi, of course, understands that this enlargement will ultimately be helpful for both Shlomo and Moshe, because no story that excludes episodes important to either of them can ever lead to peace between the two neighbors.


Of course, Shlomo may already have a story at hand that includes Moshe’s requests to fix the fence. When it’s Shlomo’s turn to tell his story to the rabbi, for example, Shlomo may readily acknowledge that Moshe asked him to reinforce the fence. But Shlomo may go on to explain that the weakness of that part of the fence has actually been caused by how muddy the ground there has become – and that the mud was caused by a stream that Moshe had diverted in order to plant a new garden. On multiple occasions, Shlomo had asked Moshe to prevent the water from weakening the fence, but Moshe had taken no action. So Shlomo feels that Moshe himself is responsible for the fence’s weakness, and therefore should pay for the consequences.

In this case, of course, Moshe may now need to expand his version of the story to include the matter of the stream.

The rabbi’s goal, in any case, is to help Moshe and Shlomo accept (or even construct together) an expanded story that takes both parties’ stories into account – and that has an implied “happy ending” in which both party’s needs are met.

The power of story to create empathy is vital to this process. Unless Moshe and Shlomo can each picture themselves in the other person’s situation, it is unlikely that either will be satisfied with the resulting story. Fortunately, this rabbi is wise enough not to suggest a solution until both feel legitimately heard by the other.


“Storytelling is by its nature communal, common and inclusive… No one – old or young, rich or poor, female or male, ox or donkey, dark or light, ember or ashes, angel or human, monster or beauty, tree or stone, cloud or mountain – is left out. In the beginning there are listeners and the storyteller; in the end there is the Story.”— Gioia Timpanelli 20

“Storytelling is the thread which is woven deep in our lives, our consciousness, our humanity. It has the power to bring understanding amongst the peoples of the world.”—Antonio Rocha 21

We’ve looked at the process the rabbi used. It includes these elements:

1. Listening lovingly and well to both Moshe and Shlomo;
2. Encouraging each to tell (and thereby develop) their full stories;
3. Giving them each the opportunity to hear the stories of the other; and
4. Offering a “solution story” that incorporates the essentials of each of their stories.

This is certainly not the only process that can be effective in problem solving or in the healing of relationships. Nonetheless, this process is widely applicable, for at least three major reasons:

1. Storytelling is a structure of discourse22 that even children respond to well. In most cases, it requires no specialized skills (beyond language acquisition). Each participant can participate in a way that meets his or her needs and utilizes his or her abilities. It is universal among human societies.

2. Storytelling fits a wide range of situations, from pillow talk to employee supervision, leadership planning, and international diplomacy.

3. Telling and listening to these kinds of stories works on many levels, including the cognitive, the symbolic, the emotional, and the interpersonal. As a result, this story-work may help solve difficulties arising from a variety of causes. It helps to clarify thoughts and to meet our core emotional needs of inclusion, respect, connection and expression.

Thus, this single structure heals, clarifies, encourages empathy, and builds connection. The rabbi’s example shows that story listening is a holy, healing, deeply human, deeply helpful way of responding.

When we understand this about listening, we can more easily decide that it’s worth our while to figure out how to do it even better. Who knows? Maybe we’ll live to see a generation of people who, seeing the performance tent, notice first the nine hundred ninety-nine people fruitfully engaged in transformation.

DOUG LIPMAN, a foremost storytelling coach in the United States, is popular there and abroad as a performer, coach, author, and teacher. Doug’s storytelling grew out of his work as a pre-school and music teacher in the 1970’s. He has been teaching and coaching storytellers since 1979 and, since 1998, has worked extensively in the corporate sector. In addition to his workshops and classes on all aspects of storytelling, Doug has published numerous books and released instructional videos, audiocassettes, and multi-media courses.



1. Brenda Uehland, “Tell Me More: On The Fine Art of Listening.” In Strength to My Sword Arm. Holy Cow Press: Minneapolis, MN, 1996 (1941).

2. Michael Parent. Displayed in the “Wall of Quotes” in the International Storytelling Center, Jonesborough, TN.

3. I adapted and added to this story from Shmuel Himelstein, A Touch of Wisdom, A Touch of Wit (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1991), where it is told about Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak of Karlitch. I know nothing further about this rabbi, but would welcome information. A shorter version is also posted here: Accessed May 10, 2013.

4. Michael Ende, Momo. Translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn. Doubleday 1985 New York: Doubleday, 1985. pp. 10-12.

5. Charles L. Whitfield, Healing the Child Within. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 1987. p.97.

6. Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, Second Edition. New York: The Guilford Press, 2009. p.23.

7. Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993.

8. National Council of Teachers of English. “Guideline on Teaching Storytelling.” Accessed May 14, 2013.

9. Kerry Patterson, et al, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. p. 61.

10. Robert McKee. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting. New York: Harper-Collins, 1997. p. 27.

11. Geraldine Buckley. Quoted in Joe Dashiell, “Storytelling Festival continues to grow in Botetourt County,” Accessed May 10, 2013.

12. Deborah A. Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic, “Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: 102 (2007) 143–153.

13. Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. p.84.

14. Jack Maguire. Quoted at Accessed May 10, 2013.

15. For more on this concept, see Doug Lipman, Improving Your Storytelling. Little Rock, AR: August House Publishers, 1999. pp. 113ff.

16. For an example of a formal coaching agreement, see Doug Lipman, The Storytelling Coach: How to Listen, Praise, and Bring Out People’s Best. Little Rock, AR: August House Publishers, 1995. p.225.

17. Walter Cronkite. Phone interview with Jimmy Hoffa. Accessed May 10, 2013.

18. Dudley Cocke. Displayed in the “Wall of Quotes” in the International Storytelling Center, Jonesborough, TN.

19. Daniel Taylor, The Healing Power of Stories. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

20. Gioia Timpanelli. Displayed in the “Wall of Quotes” in the International Storytelling Center, Jonesborough, TN.

21. Antonio Rocha. Displayed in the “Wall of Quotes” in the International Storytelling Center, Jonesborough, TN.

22. Richard Bauman, Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative. New York: Cam

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