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The Practice of Story Stewardship

Adapted from Atlas of the Heart

I’m going to start by acknowledging that I’ve been wrong about something for years. For two decades, I’ve said, “We need to understand emotion so we can recognize it in ourselves and others.” Without exaggeration, I’ve said this thousands of times, and I’ve heard it from other researchers at least that much. Well, let me go on the record right now: I no longer believe that we can recognize emotion in other people, regardless of how well we understand human emotion and experience or how much language we have.

Why have I stopped believing that we can recognize emotion in other people? Two reasons:

  • Too many emotions and experiences present the exact same way. There’s no way to know through observation if your tears come from grief, despair, hopelessness, or resentment, just to name a few. Absolutely no way.
  • While research shows that there are some universal facial expressions for a small number of emotions, how we express what we’re feeling and experiencing can be as unique as we are.

So how do we know what other people are feeling? We ask them. It’s only then that we are able to connect with the grounded confidence to engage and the courage to walk alongside. When they tell us what they’re feeling, what happened, what they fear or desire, we listen and we become trusted stewards of their stories.

Story stewardship means honoring the sacred nature of story—the ones we share and the ones we hear—and knowing that we’ve been entrusted with something valuable or that we have something valuable that we should treat with respect and care. We are good stewards of the stories we tell by trusting them to people who have earned the right to hear them, and telling them only when we are ready. We are good stewards of the stories we hear by listening, being curious, affirming, and believing people when they tell us how they experienced something.

This is a good moment to pause and introduce the Buddhist concept of the near enemy. University of Texas researcher Kristin Neff writes that the concept refers to “a state of mind that appears similar to the desired state—hence it is ‘near’—but actually undermines it, which is why it’s an enemy.” “Far enemies,” on the other hand, are the opposite of emotions or experiences. What’s interesting is that near enemies are often greater threats than far enemies because they’re more difficult to recognize.

The near enemy of practicing story stewardship is performing connection while driving disconnection. Performative connection means that we’re acting interested or invested, but there’s more going on under the surface that’s really driving disconnection and separation. The issues that most of us struggle with are being the knower, advice-giving, and problem-solving. Problem-solving is tough because some people do want help. The best story stewardship in these moments is just to say, “I’m grateful that you’re sharing this with me. What does support look like? I can listen and be with you, I can help problem-solve, or whatever else you need. You tell me.”

The greatest threats to story stewardship are the two near enemies of building narrative trust: narrative tap-out and narrative takeover. Rather than building trust by acknowledging, affirming, and believing, we shut people down when we experience discomfort or disinterest, or when we take over the narrative and make it about us or our perception of what happened.

Narrative tap-outs can range from subtle disinterest to complete shutdowns. If we had thought bubbles, they’d say, “This is too uncomfortable,” or “I don’t care enough about you to care about this,” or “I can’t take this on right now.” If the reason we’re tapping out is the latter, it’s so much better to say that than to diminish someone’s story.

It sounds weird, but we can tap out of sharing our own stories too. Often this is about a lack of grounded confidence that our stories matter or a lack of self-trust about when and how we share them. Tapping out of stewarding someone’s story can feel like betrayal, and tapping out of sharing our own story feels like betraying ourselves.

Narrative takeover is a huge problem in our world. It impacts one-on-one conversations and cultural conversations. Rather than being good stewards of a story, we hijack the story and center ourselves. That centering takes many different shapes, including shifting the focus to us, questioning or not believing what someone is sharing because it’s different than our lived experience, or diminishing the importance of an experience because it makes us feel uncomfortable or, worse, complicit.

When we reject the truth of someone’s story—the ultimate failure of story stewardship—it’s often because we’ve stealthily centered ourselves in their story, and the narrative takeover is about protecting our ego, behavior, or privilege. The less diverse our lived experiences, the more likely we are to find ourselves struggling with narrative takeover or narrative tap-out.

A cultural example of narrative takeover is the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a life-affirming accountability movement to call attention to the violence being perpetrated against Black people. But rather than listening, learning, and believing the stories of injustice, systemic racism, and pain, groups of white people centered themselves with “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter.” There was never a narrative of “white lives and police lives don’t matter” in this movement. This was an attempt to, once again, decenter Black lives and take over the narrative.

Like empathy, story stewardship is not walking in someone else’s shoes, it’s being curious and building narrative trust as they tell you about the experience of being in their own shoes. It’s about believing people when they tell you what an experience meant to them. The far enemy of narrative trust is fueling narrative distrust and diminishing the humanity of others and ourselves. Why ourselves? Because when we are reckless with people’s stories, we diminish our own humanity.

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