A Story About the Power of Stories

The power of stories is well-described in the business literature.  Some of the most famous are stories about story-telling: 1001 Arabian Nights, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and its American version, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The why of stories is also well-explained. One author suggests that stories are powerful because they plow common ground, create meaning, build community, and are memorable.
There is, however, another reason why story-telling is so powerful. Let me illustrate by, of course, a story (thanks to Charlie Ortman).
A man was shipwrecked on a desert island. Years went by. A decade. Then another. 

One day a rescue ship arrived. The rescuers found the man healthy and happy. “Is this your house?” they asked, pointing to a comfortable dwelling the man had constructed. “Yes,” he said.

“And this lovely hut over here?” 
“That’s my church,” the man said.
“And what’s this?” the rescuers asked, pointing to a somewhat disheveled, faded hut.
“Ah,” said the man drily, “that’s the church I used to attend.” 

I’ll resist the temptation to say what my interpretation was. Later, I realized it could have been interpreted in another way–at least one other way.

Stories Permit Influence without Rejection

It’s my observation that generally the worst way to get someone to do something is to tell them that they should do it—and then try to justify the advice. There is a human built-in resistance to taking advice, unless accompanied by a serious attempt to first hear out the advisee.

Stories provide a powerful supplement to the critical role of listening in this reciprocal dance.

There is something Teflon- and Rorschach-like about stories. In their telling, the fingerprints of the story teller are removed. The listener hears largely what (s)he wants to hear, without the usual baggage of resistance against the advisor. This is often true even when the teller’s intended meaning is clear. 

Consider the story of the shipwrecked man. 
What meaning do you hear in that story? 
Please add your comment below—so we can all see how our own meanings differ.   
 
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