Strangers: Good Listeners for Life Storytelling

May 30, 2018 Deborah Wilbrink

“I’ve never told anyone this before,” is something I have heard many times. Why confide in me, a perfect stranger? I have cultivated good listening skills to aid my personal history profession. A personal historian researches, coaches, writes, but most of all, listens to the true story being told and the one behind the scenes. Strangers, I’m told by family members, make good listeners for life storytelling.

Michael T. McRay

Michael McRay is a master of oral storytelling. He uses true story to connect people, and has used it in building peace during conflict. We are lucky to have his themed events for sharing stories here in Nashville monthly, Tenx9. Michael stages opportunities for deep storytelling and listening in the Nashville area and beyond. Michael has granted reprint permission to Perfect Memoirs for his recent blog:

The Story We’re All Yearning to Tell

On Tuesday, I drove down to Chattanooga from Nashville with my friend Claire Brown to facilitate a Narrative 4 story-exchange between various professionals in the community. (Thanks to Susan Lambert for organizing!)

Ten people sat in a circle while I introduced Narrative 4’s story to them. Then I paired them up—many didn’t know each other—and they went off in twos to find a quiet place where they could tell each other a true story from their life, based on one of a series of prompts. Their task? Listen so deeply to one another that you can retell your partner’s story. After this exchange of stories, everyone reconvened in the circle. One by one, they told their partner’s stories. Here’s the kicker—they did it first-person pronouns, as if the story they were telling were actually their own, and not one they had only just heard from their partner. It’s a remarkable methodology—one that surprises, overwhelms, inspires, and uplifts people everywhere in the world. I’m grateful to be one of Narrative 4’s Master Practitioners.

Before the circle had reconvened, as pairs were returning to the space and getting coffee and snacks, one of the participants said to me, “I’m really surprised at the story I ended up telling my partner. It was really vulnerable. I hadn’t intended to tell that one.” Someone else said, “Literally, as I was walking with my partner to find a place to sit to tell each other our stories, I had no idea what story to tell. Even as I began speaking, I didn’t know what story to tell. I figured I’d just start talking and see what happened.” And what happened was this person told their partner—someone they’d never met—one of the most precious, painful, and personal stories they have.

I have been part of or facilitated story-exchanges in Ireland, New York, Virginia, Los Angeles, across all kinds of communities in Nashville, and now in Chattanooga, and I’ve heard this same sentiment everywhere. Many people enter a story-exchange nervous, unsure of what to say. Then, often enough, they surprise themselves by suddenly pouring forth deeply personal stories that reveal vulnerabilities they’ve often hidden from the world. In Chattanooga, I overheard one person begin her story to her partner—again, someone she’d never met—with, “I haven’t told this story in over 20 years.”

I think part of what this reveals is that we are all moving through life yearning to be true, authentic, and vulnerable with each other. We want desperately to show our true selves to each other. To have our pain and our pride, our vulnerability and our victories, seen and heard—even by total strangers. We have stories we don’t want to keep inside.

But there are few spaces left it seems for these stories to be told. I suspect I speak for many of us when I say that many of our days pass with minimal genuine human connection. We just stay on the surface because the speed at which we move doesn’t allow for depth, like a stone skipping across the water. Being vulnerable with people who only have a moment of attention to give is risky. It’s uncomfortable, even hurtful, to tell our stories to people who are distracted and seem disinterested. So we close up and shield our sacred stories from the pain of being spoken to someone who wasn’t ready to receive their significance.

And then, a space is created—like through Narrative 4. Good questions are asked or prompts given, and you are presented with someone, even someone you’ve never met, who says, “I’ll sit here, undistracted, uninterested in anything else but your story. And I will listen to you so carefully that I will be able to retell this story as if it were my own.” And when this happens, our stories pour from us. All we needed was a question and another person who wants to listen. Not in order to respond or challenge. They listen simply to hear and learn.

I wonder, what would the world be like if we all took it upon ourselves to be that safe space for story every day, even if only for one person?

Michael Signature

Michael T. McRay is an author, educator, and facilitator living in Nashville, TN. He runs Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling and facilitates story-exchanges with Narrative 4. You can follow him on his blog at or @michaeltmcray on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The next public storytelling event features stories about Parents, of interest to many – details below.

What happened was this person told their partner—someone they’d never met—one of the most precious, painful, and personal stories they have.

Tenx9 Nashville
Stories about “Parents”
Monday, June 25, 7:30pm, Douglas Corner Cafe
2106 8th Ave S, Nashville, TN (map)

Best Book Ever, my blog, is dedicated to exploring memoir and family history story, for “Every life is important.” I’m reminded of this every day as history goes on around us: the big story of politics, wars, weather, the economy, persecutions…But when I listen to the individual’s story, suddenly it is humanity at the forefront. When people tell their life stories, I see the threads of the canvas of history covered with the images of the unique life, the one family, and its myriad connections. It was a first-told story that inspired me to write the song Time to Tell, and then the book by the same name.

If you are not telling or writing your story today, take time to listen to another’s. Strangers make good listeners, too, provided you are sure of a safe environment. Storytelling strengthens our humanity and compassion.

Best Book Ever
Best Book Ever - Brentwood Library
“The Best Book is Your Own Story.”
Deborah Wilbrink

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