Last September, I joined Narrative 4. It’s an international organization that builds communities by establishing empathy and compassion through the exchange of personal narratives. The process of exchanging stories is designed to build a mutual trust that divests from typical narratives of cynicism and prejudice. By bringing people together through storytelling, we create communities where opposing sides to conflict better understand and even empathize with each other and thereby safe spaces and peace are established. The mission of Narrative 4 is for change, fearless hope, and radical empathy.
The methodology of these story exchanges consists of participants pairing up and sharing their stories. Generally, there is a prompt to guide the focus of these stories if the participants are meeting for a specific purpose. For example, a story exchange taking place on Martin Luther King Day would have a prompt like “Highlight a time when you have experienced discrimination due to your race, ethnicity, gender, sex, disability, political viewpoint, etc.” After each person shares their story with the other, there is a reflection period where one thinks about and holds onto their partner’s story. The goal is that holding onto the partner’s story will encourage connection with it and responsibility over it. There is the sense of responsibility because when all the participants regroup, each person will retell their partner’s story in first person, as if it happened to them. Then participants will see the world through each other’s eyes, thus creating compassion and empathy not only for one’s partner, but for all the participants in the story exchange.
During my first story exchange, I was not sure what to expect. I knew the process obviously, but I did not know who my partner would be. I did not know what story they would tell. If they told a fairly lighthearted and funny story, should I do the same even though the story I had chosen to share is much more personal? As it turned out, the story my partner told was an experience of a time during his career. This was significant because, by pure coincidence, my partner was someone who not only could understand my story, but empathize with it due to their career choice and personal experience.
I am being intentionally vague about his story because I still hold it within me. I am still responsible for it, and I always will be. What I mean is that my partner shared a personal experience that impacted their life and trusted me to retell it meaningfully as if it happened to me. As if my life had been impacted in that way. With that trust, comes the responsibility of not sharing it with others, outside the large group story exchanges, unless otherwise given permission to do so by my partner.
Meeting him, and exchanging stories with him, impacted my life like I had never experienced before. It was like he understood my experience from a perspective I had not encountered or considered. My entire life, I had the love and support of my family, I had the understanding of therapists, but I never had understanding of a lawyer. Furthermore, a lawyer who had had similar experiences as well. Throughout my childhood, all I wanted was to be able to testify in court to demonstrate that my voice mattered. That I should have a say in any decision regarding my life. Sometimes I would stay up late at night preparing speeches and imagining myself giving them in court. I never got that opportunity though. Then suddenly, I meet this person—this lawyer—and I could finally tell my story to someone who could understand from a lawyer’s perspective. It was a weight lifted off me that I did not know I had been carrying. I will never forget that experience.
My story exchange experience demonstrates that the Narrative 4 approach works. Upon meeting new people, you suddenly know things about them that they might not have shared with anyone else before. By retelling your partner’s story, you see the world through their eyes in that moment. You become connected to your partner, and the other participants, in a unique and profound way. If you ever get the chance to participate in a Narrative 4 story exchange, do it. I promise you, you won’t regret it.