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Interviews and other interesting materials :: Telling a personal story is an effective way of communicating an idea or a message

Telling a personal story is an effective way of communicating an idea or a message

Sofia, December 2018 

It is through stories that people can relate to one another as fellow human beings
                                                                    Paul Browde, MD, psychiatrist and storyteller

Listening shapes telling. We have to want to understand people and listen openly without prejudgments and assumptions
                                                                                                                                   Murray Nossel, PhD, psychologist and story teller

Recently by invitation of BFPA in the frame of our project “Changing the narrative. The story tellers” Paul and Murray were in Bulgaria and conducted training on listening and storytelling. For all participants meeting them both was extremely useful not only from professional point of view, but also in personal perspective. These three days were a life changing experience that unlocked new senses and changed our sensibility and worldview. Via this interview we want to give you an opportunity to have a glimpse at their way of thinking and to feel them as people.

Murray Nossel


Murray Nossel, PhD, is the founder and director of Narativ, a company with offices in New York and London that specializes in storytelling training. Originally a clinical psychologist, Murray is an Academy Award® nominated filmmaker, trainer, and motivational speaker. Murray is on the teaching faculty of the Program of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. He is the founder of the World Mother Storytelling Project.

 Paul Browde


Paul Browde, MD is a psychiatrist, storyteller and couples’guide, trained as an actor at the Drama Studio London. He has led several projects, teaching listening and storytelling for advocacy purposes in Africa and Eastern Europe. He has taught in the Columbia University Narrative Medicine Masters' Program.


If you have to present yourself in one sentence or in 3 words, by choice, how would it sound?
Paul: A spirit, a human being, with a story.
Murray: I am a listener and storyteller.

You are conducting trainings and work in different parts of the world, touching different cultures. Are there differences in the way people are telling stories and communicating and to what degree they understand each other?
Paul: People have very different ideas and beliefs about the world. People also have many different opinions about the way things should be. However, once people are able to tell a story, without commentary or adding their opinion, then stories are stories, and people connect to one another. It is through stories that people can relate to one another as fellow human beings.
Murray: Only on the most superficial level, people’s stories have different content. Some live in hot places, others cold, some are rich, others are poor, some are educated, others are not. People have different positions on the axes of power, education, wealth, health etc. In my work I encounter people who have lives of comfort and apparent ease. Others are subjected to wars, natural disasters, epidemics, extreme poverty   and serious illness. 
I am not minimizing these differences, but underneath it all, we are all the same. We all want the same thing – to be happy – and our lives are governed by the same themes: Love, rage, valor, compassion …. We all have the same destiny – we are born and we are going to die. No being can escape this inevitable fate.
I define story as an account of what happened.  When people simply give a sensory account of their experience, i.e. what they have seen, smelled, tasted, touched, they are able to cut across divides. We have even been able to teach our method to people across the world, in multiple languages, even those with intellectual disabilities.

Two men talkingHave you tried to tell a story without words? Why?
Paul: I have had to tell stories without words when communicating with people with whom I don’t share a language. Also in working with people with intellectual disabilities, the stories are sometimes told with dance, or song.
Murray: Yes. Fifteen years ago Paul Browde and I began to work with the director Dan Milne, on performing Two Men Talking in theaters. Dan observed that while we were very comfortable talking to one another, we were unaware of our bodies in space. Personal stories are embodied. Our memories live in our bodies. Now when I teach to tell their stories, I always begin with the body, the breath. This is the primary connection. Once our feet are firmly rooted on the ground, and we are directing our spines to lengthen upward towards the sky, then we are ready to connect to the stories that live in our bodies as sense memories. And that we share with our listeners.  

Everyone listens, hears and understands in different way the telling and stories of his/her interlocutors. This at a high degree is due to the gained personal experience, knowledge, attitudes and often emotional state. Misunderstandings often happen between people. It happens friends are offended just because they didn’t understand each other properly in a situation. How could we improve the talking to each other to avoid or at least to reduce possible mistakes and misunderstandings to minimum?
Paul: This requires both people’s willingness to truly listen to one another. It’s simple but not easy. Simply, if two people sit with one another, one speaks and the other listens. The speaker speaks in simple language. The listener practices what I call “deep listening”. This means that the listener puts aside her or his assumptions, judgments, opinions, or desire to help, and listens with “new ears”. The listener has to keep letting go of what she or he thinks the truth is, and be willing to hear the story from the other person’s perspective. They then change roles.
Murray: The first thing to understand, and this is the basis of narativ’s method, is that there is a reciprocal relationship between listening and telling. Listening is like a bowl; and telling like a liquid. Just as the bowl gives the liquid its shape, so does listening shape telling. When two or more people are communicating there is always a back and forth of listening and telling.
None of us can ever know exactly what is the experience of another or what is in their mind and heart.
We rely on language – both spoken language and body language – to convey who we are to another. The first step towards mutual understanding is to have that intention or aspiration. We have to want to understand the other. And we have to be willing to listen openly without prejudgments and assumptions. This takes a great deal of introspection and self awareness – to be willing to examine what is in the background of our own listening.

How to listen so that to understand better? What are the obstacles regarding listening and what are the most frequent reasons for not understandable, unclear and not interesting telling?
Paul: There are many things that can get in the way of listening. Listening takes focus and commitment. Distractions such as being tired or worrying about something one has to do can get in the way. Also one’s own beliefs or attitudes can interfere with really hearing another’s point of view.
As a teller, it is important to speak clearly and simply, and to use a tone of voice that is easy to listen to.
Murray: Please consult my book “Powered by storytelling” pages 51-57. 

SessionWhat is important for a good presenting of a cause or problem in front of people who are not aware at all of and what is relevant if you are in front of audience knowing the story up to the moment?
Paul: Telling a personal story that has a message is a very effective way of communicating an idea or opinion, in fact, stories cannot be argued with in the same way that a statement of belief or opinion can be.
Murray: Firstly let me be clear that my expertise is in storytelling, so I’m assuming your question is about how do you tell a story to people in order to present your cause or problem. 
An old Tibetan Buddhist lesson tells us that If you throw a ball to a dog, the dog will follow the ball. But if you throw a ball to a lion, it keeps its gaze on you.  The lion’s gaze is all about unwavering focus. 
For every storyteller, your lion’s gaze has to be on your listeners, ie the audience. The reason for presenting is to connect to the audience, then your job is to make certain they understand you.  Of course, a story is the most powerful tool we have in presenting human experience. My definition of a story is “giving a sensory account of what happened” We can all relate to sensory experience. Its universal. No matter who your audience is, my rule of thumb is to keep it simple. Don’t clutter up your communication with unnecessary details.

It often happens doctors and patients not understanding each other completely and thus having poor results concerning improvement of the patients’ condition and curing him/her. Is there a way to improve the communication between both sides? What could doctors do?
Murray: I think it is best for Paul to address that question.
Paul: Doctors can listen, and rather than starting a clinical interview with a list of questions, asking an open ended question such as “tell me your story” or “what brings you to me today” is a better way to start. Research has shown that if you leave a patient to speak at the beginning of a clinical encounter, they will generally stop speaking after about 45 seconds. Most doctors interrupt the patient at around 30 seconds. So, for 15 seconds one can give the patient the experience of being listened to. This creates a foundation of trust and then allows the doctor to ask more questions, and a patient to feel more comfortable in the role of listener.

Sense or sensibility? What is the magic recipe, the dose on balancing emotions/ratio?
Paul: I don’t think there’s a scientific formula for this. I think it’s important to have an open heart when talking or telling a story. This means that emotion gets communicated in the voice, the timbre and the tone of the speaking, but not necessarily through the description of emotions. I think people are afraid of emotions, particularly in the workplace. Both men and women are afraid that showing emotions makes them look weak and that they will be taken less seriously. This is sometimes true, but I believe that if people do not judge their own expression of emotion, without trying to hide how they feel, they will not be dismissed in the way they would be if they try to hide the emotions. I have had many women tell me that they cry when they are angry, and that they are then taken less seriously by men. I think in those circumstances it would be helpful for a woman to say “I am crying because I am angry.”
Murray: What makes stories so powerful is that they appeal to our rational minds as well as our heart minds.
In fact a story well told is the perfect balance of rationality and heart. We rely on the logic of language to communicate – so what then creates the heart sensibility? When you observe yourself, the people and world around you with an open mind, you will become aware of the mystery of life.  William Blake wrote: To see the world in a grain of sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour” This keen observation of life opens our hearts and allows us to see what I call the poetry of everyday life. 

To what a degree the grammar construction of sentences is important while talking? If we want to talk interesting so that to have the attention of our listeners – how should we structure our story?
Paul: Story structure is important. People need to be able to follow a narrative with a beginning a middle and an end. One ending his helpful and too many detours on the journey of  a story can be distracting and confusing.
Murray: A basic story has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning of a story is like a plane taking off into the sky. It needs a lot of power and thrust. The end is a landing, a resolution. For a story to be effective, especially for beginners, it needs to have an emotional turning point. This is something that happens to the protagonist that needs to be resolved.

We people love to put labels on everything. What would you say about the terms ‘normal’ and 'insane/crazy'? Is there a definite border between them, what defines them?
Paul: I am a psychiatrist and you may be surprised to know that I hate the terms insane or crazy. I think people are all different and if you spend enough time trying to understand someone you can always understand why they are the way they are. If you had lived what that person had lived you would also do the things they have done. That being said, mental illness is real. Depression, anxiety, and psychosis are conditions that cause tremendous pain and interfere with people’s lives. The terms “crazy” or “insane” are judgments that interfere with people getting the help that they need. Sometimes there are people who do things that are dangerous or hurtful to themselves or others. Rather than judging, it is important to find a way of helping these people, and protecting them. This does not mean, what it seems to mean in most countries, which is locking them in horrible institutions that are frightening and more like jails than hospitals.
Murray: The words or concepts ‘normal’ and ‘crazy’ have no place in narativ’s listening and storytelling method. These are vague, general terms which mean something different to every person that uses them. Furthermore, they are based on evaluations, judgments and opinions. They lack precision and specificity. If you say someone is crazy, I would want you to tell me exactly what you mean, by referring to direct empirical experience. Tell me what happened.

BreakThere have always been difference in the way of thinking of the different generations, but today a large gap is forming between us and our children, due to the super dynamic developing of the new technologies and the possibilities given by them to the humankind. What we could and should do so that to communicate with those following us?
Paul: We need to keep listening. Rather than trying to change the younger generation, we need to put our own cellphones down, and listen. We demonstrate by listening the importance of their experiences, and we learn from them. Keeping an open mind, and an attitude of learning is a way of staying in touch with the younger generations.
Murray: No matter how sophisticated the technology becomes, we will never be able to replace the timeless and universal role of storytelling in human culture. Where technology poses the greatest challenges is that it provides constant stimulation for our brains. So instead of tuning in to one another we are constantly on our devices or checking our devices. In narativ’s method, we need to carve out sacred times and spaces in our lives where no technology is allowed. These spaces are devoted to practicing listening and storytelling

What is your biggest achievement, what is the thing you are proud of mostly?
Paul: I am most proud of loving my life and having been courageous in telling my personal story as a gay man who is HIV positive in order to positively impact the lives of others.
Murray: When my partner David and I celebrated 20 years together, we had a big party. Friends and family came in from all over the world. My mother gave a speech. She listed all my achievements. I wanted to crawl under the table with embarrassment. But her final point was “Murray’s greatest achievement is his relationship with David”. I agree with my mother. I am also proud of my daily meditation practice and that I’m able to work as an artist.

What do you like to do mostly? What are you dreaming for?
Paul: I enjoy spending time in interesting conversation, in walking my dog in the park and feeling the spiritual connection to all of creation, including people, animals and nature.
Murray: I love to make things. Movies, art, music, performance, cooking and gardening. I’m dreaming of a big artist’s studio where I can make and show really big work and show the work of others as well.

Everyone wants to be happy, but how is happiness happening? What should people know so that to live happier?
Paul: Remembering that life is precious is the way to happiness, even when life is hard. I think having an awareness of death is a good reminder that life ends and that today is precious. Life is an adventure and a mystery and I think it’s really helpful to try new things. I also find that remembering that we are not only human beings but that we are also spirits on a journey called “life” and that every moment of life is a moment for learning and growing. This attitude really helps one to be happy.
Murray: Happiness is an inside job. Anyone who thinks that the external or material world can create happiness is in for a big shock. You get a new car and for a few days you are very happy and then someone bangs into it and you are unhappy. And so it goes. We find happiness within ourselves by opening our hearts to ourselves and others, by connecting with others, wishing for the happiness of others and their freedom from suffering. Telling and listening to life stories is a wonderful access to feeling alive. And that’s what we all want: the bliss of feeling alive. 

This is your first visit in our country. What did you catch from Sofia, from people you are in contact with?
Paul: I had the most wonderful time in Sofia. I found people to be generous and interested. The people I met were grateful and open minded. I know that this is not true about everybody in any place, but I feel privileged to have been so lucky in meeting the people that I did. I am very grateful to keep learning about the Roma and the rich heritage and stories that Roma people bring to our workshops.
Murray: I enjoyed every moment in Sofia. The people I had contact with at the workshop were enthusiastic, open minded, hungry to learn, and had a positive outlook. During my time there, I felt that anything was possible; that the work we were doing had energy and power and that it truly had the capacity to transform the society. Before going, I knew almost nothing about Bulgaria and Sofia. I loved walking in the old city, and seeing people outdoors, enjoying the fall air. I love that a man had set up a telescope in the park, to see the night sky. I loved walking around the city, seeing the churches, particularly the church of the Rotunda St George, where I imagined how the ceiling panels may once have looked.

Questions by Dr. Radosveta Stamenkova and Ralitza Zgalevska



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Interviews and other interesting materials :: Telling a personal story is an effective way of communicating an idea or a message