It came to me in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago, four words that could change the world:
Tell me your story.
These four words could have an impact on everything from global conflict to personal well-being. All we have to do is ask others to tell us their stories and then be quiet. Oh, one other thing: While you are listening, try to imagine what it would be like – and how you would feel – if it were your story. That’s called empathy.
So just ask people for their stories, listen, imagine, and feel – sounds naive, doesn’t it? Stick with me here.
First, saying these words will change you. Listening to others is an act of emotional generosity, and there is ample evidence that generosity stimulates the brain’s endorphins – natural antidepressants.
In addition, a recent article in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease showed that feeling empathy toward another helps increase one’s sense of connection. The more people we feel connected with, the more secure we feel. Plus, when we listen deeply to another person’s experience something gets very quiet and peaceful inside. That’s because we are thinking not about ourselves but about the other person. Most psychotherapists experience this in our daily work.
Second, this little exercise will change the person whose story you’ve asked for. Socrates may have overstated the issue a bit when he said, in modern translation, “an unexamined life is not worth living,” but we humans do have a fundamental need to be understood for who we are. Think of how full we feel when someone looks in our eyes and says she wants to know how we experience our lives.
In today’s world, social networks are shrinking. The number of people who report having no intimate friends is increasing. Simple eye contact, along with a caring “tell me your story,” can go a long way toward diminishing someone’s feelings of alienation and aloneness. I’ve spoken those words to kids of all ages in all kinds of neighborhoods. Most thank me for asking – and say that no one has ever done so before.
Third, beyond diminishing alienation and increasing a sense of connection, these four words can have a biological effect on both parties. According to Herbert Adler, a psychiatrist at Jefferson, compassion in the doctor-patient relationship actually changes each person’s biological healing system. And if that happens in those relationships, it happens in other relationships. It literally promotes healing.
Imagine an Israeli soldier and a fighter from Hamas sitting together in a room, not trying to kill each other or even change an attitude but saying those four words and then listening to the answer. Imagine yourself saying them to anyone you’ve judged harshly. Or having someone say he would like to hear your story and get to understand you better. Try it with a neighbor you don’t know very well, a relative with whom you’ve had a misunderstanding. Try it with a street person and see what happens to both of you.
Just four words. We could start a movement. As a matter of fact, my daughter gave me 250 Tell Me Your Story bumper stickers for Father’s Day. So the first 249 people who send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope can join me in starting the movement!