In our ongoing partnership with churches in our 4th-Soil Parenting Project—a three-year experiment with parents to plant new ways to “infect” their children with an abiding faith—we have learned much from counselor Adam Young’s insights into attachment theory and storytelling. Simply, Young makes a compelling case for telling the unvarnished stories of our growing-up experiences with our parents. When we do, we prompt healing from the attachment wounds we experience as children, and open a conduit for intimacy with Jesus that was blocked before. And when this happens, parents magnify their “viral” impact on their kids’ faith.
In Young’s theological and psychological framework, it’s paramount that the church learns how to seed its congregational cultures with “normative” storytelling and storylistening (see Dr. Nancy Going’s new Vibrant Faith Catalyst post “What We’re Learning: The Power of Storytelling”). From Young, we’re learning that engaging another person’s story is part art, part science – it can be learned. And we can “catch” how to do this by practicing Young’s guidelines for engaging stories, and by watching other people do it. As we lean into these experiments in storytelling and storylistening, I’ve condensed and adapted Young’s insights into seven guidelines that our participating church project teams will be using to train parents…
- Attuning to the storyteller is more important than engaging their story brilliantly. This means that the most powerful tool in your toolbox is simply your intentional presence. As you pay “ridiculous attention” to people, thoughtfully and purposefully present to their whole person, not just their words, you “unlock” them. People aren’t used to others paying real attention to them—so prove that you are paying attention with your body language, feedback, and follow-up questions.
- Kindness will take you further than skill and giftedness. As you lean into your encounter with a primary goal of kindness, the storyteller will feel progressively more safe. Kindness communicates safety, prompting more openness as the person sees more and more proof that you have genuine kindness toward them. Remember that kindness is not the same as niceness. People don’t need merely a listening ear, they need someone with the courage to risk naming truth in their story that they may not see yet.
- Use the exquisite instrument that is your body. Your body language communicates everything. Are you using your body to communicate compassion, openness, attention, and invitation? It’s soft eye contact, facial expressions, head nods, leaning in, and conveying emotions that prove you understand and honor the impact of their story on the person.
- Always monitor the storyteller’s affect—from numb and shut down all the way up to panic, rage, or terror. What are you learning about the person from how you are experiencing their emotional presence? How are their emotional responses, or continuing affect, at odds with their words? What words would you choose to describe the person’s whole “vibe” as they tell their story—and what can you learn about them from understanding that vibe?
- Your right brain matters way more than your left brain when you’re engaging someone’s story. You have two brains—they do very different things. The words you speak to the storyteller come from your Left Brain. Your tone of voice and facial expression comes from your Right Brain. Verbal vs. Non-Verbal communication. The storyteller is more interested in your non-verbal communication than your words. What are you communicating with your face and your tone? So, why is this true? Non-verbal communication is non-voluntary and unedited—you can’t hide how you really feel about what you’re hearing, so the storyteller processes that as more true than your words.
- There’s always a reason for human behavior. Whenever there are characters in someone’s story, these are human beings with intentionality. They are creators of purpose and will. Any time a person is in someone’s story they’re acting with agency. Suppose the storyteller believes that the meaning of his story is that his Dad neglected him—almost always not a sufficient explanation. The question: Why did my dad not pay attention to me, when he did pay attention to my sister? Our task is to make an incoherent narrative more coherent. To make a confusing story more understandable.
- Repairing rupture is more important than engaging their story perfectly. There will be times when you miss the storyteller. People go to places you don’t expect. It’s not a big deal as long as it’s repaired. It means to acknowledge that you missed them, or stopped tracking with them. Admit your misstep—frequently check in with the storyteller to surface what they’re feeling or experiencing internally. When you lose the track of the story, will you go back to recover it? We are afraid of saying the wrong thing, or saying something hurtful—but we are allowed to screw this up. We don’t keep the prospect of pursuing someone imperfectly to keep us from pursuing. Just repair anything you need to repair.
Along the way Dr. Going and I will continue to update you on what we’re learning, and how it can impact your ministry…
Important Announcement: I’m inviting you to join me for our next FREE Vibrant Faith Webinar – targeting the results from the ongoing multi-million-dollar EPIC study that researchers with the Hartford Institute for Religion Research are conducting. We’ll explore those results with the Co-Investigator of the study, Dr. Alison Norton. The date is May 18th, Noon (Eastern Time) on Zoom. When you sign up, you’ll receive an email with a Zoom link the week of the seminar. REGISTER HERE!
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.