Everywhere we look, it seems too many people insist on having the last word—on TV (the election campaigns, the pundits and experts), on Facebook, at our office meetings, at our kitchen tables. We all know how it feels to be trying to tell our story, but some “listeners” must have the last word. Those last-word conversationalists take our message and turn it into theirs. They usurp the meaning of our message before we can even finish our story. We not only feel unheard and unvalued, but downright robbed. We may have cynically concluded we’re living in a last-word culture, so we’re forced to be last-word conversationalists ourselves to survive these days.
This last-word problem has been bugging me, particularly this election year. But thankfully, contributing to Health Story Collaborative has become a way to proclaim the sanctity of telling our stories and having fruitful conversations-- free from last-word conversationalists. Through Health Story Collaborative, I’m fired up about the transformative connection between storyteller and story listener when we go beyond having the last word.
To add a fresh perspective on the topic of going beyond the last word, we’ve invited Lani Peterson to weigh in on how sharing each other’s stories—the telling and the listening-- creates meaning for our lives. We are pleased she could join us.
Lani is a psychologist, professional storyteller and coach who specializes in the use of story as a healing art and powerful medium for personal growth, connection and change. Drawing on her broad and varied experience with individuals, teams and organizations in the profit and nonprofit worlds, Lani brings a unique combination of personal stories, knowledge of the theory behind stories, and vast experience helping people use stories to transform their understanding of themselves and others.
Lani is currently the director of City Mission’s Public Voice, currently working with Boston’s homeless to tell their stories for healing and social change.
Lani's professional training includes a Doctorate in Psychology from William James University, and a Masters in Counseling Psychology from Lesley University. She is a member of the National Speakers Association, the National Storytelling Network, and serves on the Executive Committee of the Healing Story Alliance, which she recently chaired for five years.
Perched on a green velvet sofa in Lani's sunny living room in Cambridge, I enjoyed our lively, two-hour conversation chock-full of aha!-moments and astute observations. My mug of coffee was left untouched on her table, as her stories and insights so intrigued me.
I’d like to share the highlights of the experiences that have transformed Lani’s life as well as the lives of the many people she has touched through her work. To do justice to her wisdom, I’m presenting her “answers” to my questions as inspired stories in their own right.
When did you know in your bones that your calling was storytelling?
Lani: Living in Philadelphia in the 90s, I was a psychologist as well as the mother of four young children under the age of six, two of whom were adopted. Trying to balance both my career and family, I worked for a time as a community outreach worker presenting talks on parenting to a wide variety of groups. Although I had completed my doctorate in psychology and was licensed to practice therapy in three states, I had put my private practice on hold. I had worked with clients for nearly ten years, but still wrestled with doubts about whether I had enough knowledge, training or skill to truly help another heal. Self-doubt caused me to relentlessly pursue more reading, training and learning about what practices led to healing, but ironically, the more I learned, the more I doubted my own skill as a healer. Teaching (while simultaneously learning!) parenting skills seemed like the perfect safe road to follow while figuring out what I wanted to do when both my children and I grew up.
One evening, I was invited to speak to an audience of 300 parents on the topic, “Children and Self-Esteem.” So there I was in front of this huge room full of people, telling parents about how to foster self-esteem in their children, all the while not clear in my own gut that I had the right stuff myself.
I plowed through my prepared material anyway, and as I concluded my lecture, I invited the audience to ask questions. After many practical questions about child discipline, one woman bravely spoke up and shared some of her story before asking a question. She had come to the US from India after her husband died, hoping to give her son a better life. But sadly, her son was being bullied at school, and she felt helpless to do anything about this. “Do I stay here, or should I go back to India?” she implored. It seemed the whole room felt her confusion and despair.
I knew I had to say something, offer something to her, but none of the theory or literature I had on the subject felt relevant. Somehow, a story came to mind from a much younger time in my own life. Before I started, I let her know, “I don’t know yet why I need to tell you this story, so do with it what you will.” I told her about a time when I was a student at Smith College, and asked to fill in at the last minute to do an interview with the famous poet, Maya Angelou. My roommate, who was scheduled to do the interview, had come down with the flu and asked me to step in in her place. She handed me a list of questions to ask and sent me off. After hearing Maya Angelou speak and share her poetry, all the questions I had with me felt meaningless. So when I finally sat down with Maya Angelou after her performance to interview her, I spoke instead about my own feelings of being lost and confused, seeking out whatever comfort and wisdom she might offer me. Maya took my hand, and said, “Let me tell you right now, dear, there isn’t one right path. It’s all about how you walk on the path you’re on. So, if you fall into a hole, let yourself grieve and cry, and when you climb back out—and you will—you can find your way to dance again.”
As I told my own story of being lost and confused to this woman standing alone in the audience, it felt like we were in a trance, in a deep, one-to-one connection, although the room was filled with 300 people. When finished speaking, I simply uttered, “That’s all I know.” The woman, appearing moved by Maya Angelou’s message, simply said, “Thank you. It is enough.” I watched as the woman left the auditorium that night surrounded by a group of other audience members who appeared to be reaching out to her. I realized that something profound had happened. I realized the act of telling one’s story as well as the act of listening to stories was indeed more than enough to support one on the healing journey. That moment of profound connection between teller and listener provided a revelation for me both professionally and personally: Through stories we can courageously share our vulnerabilities, understand the truth of our experiences, and create new meanings for those experiences. It was a new way of understanding how insight, understanding, and healing could occur.
For me, it was also the moment when I discovered my calling.
What a moment that was, Lani, a moment of truth if there ever was one. And now, as the person interviewing you, your story about interviewing Maya Angelou certainly speaks to me. There are so many layers to any story, and each time we share it with a different person or group, we find a different meaning or takeaway from it. This leads me to ask you, on a deeper level, what happens between the storyteller and the story listener?
Lani: First of all, we’re all story listeners, even when we hear our own stories. When we speak out loud, our words enter a different part of our brain, the auditory part of our brain, the part of our brain that listens, so we are hearing ourselves in a very different way than when we think only to ourselves. We become a listener to our own story, enabling us to take a different perspective, gain insight and perhaps discover new meaning in what we have said.
That’s so true, Lani. Maybe that’s why I talk to myself so much when I’m alone! And as a writer, I can see why reading my stuff out loud helps me make sense out of all those words.
Lani: Yes, we can get perspective on the stories we are creating in our heads when we say them out loud, and even more so when we hear other people’s reactions to them. People can get stuck in the stories that they keep locked inside their heads, plus they convince themselves that there is only one particular meaning to their story. Life is far too complex for anyone’s story to be held hostage to only one meaning.
And because we’re all both storytellers and story listeners, we have the potential and ability to free each other from being limited to any one meaning, especially if it is a meaning that brings us pain, limits our potential or keeps us distant from those we love.
Furthermore, when we are able to find new meanings in our stories, we are using additional neural pathways in our brains. In short, by finding alternative meanings in our stories, we can continuously revise and increase our neural paths. Ultimately, healing comes from expanding our relationships to our stories, seeing how our own judgment and self-concept contained in stuck stories might have been holding us back.