The Healing Power of Storytelling - Are You Listening?

This post is part of an ongoing series on ministering to people in pain. Click here to see all the posts in this series.

I remember the moments when they told me their stories. Eyes diverted, pooled with quiet tears, hands gripping the mug of coffee. Words typed and left for me to find on my laptop, so it needn’t be told in person. Voice cool and measured, relating the facts with detached precision. Face unseen, insulating darkness giving courage to speech. 

In every case, I was entrusted with something precious: a story. It was a story of pain, which spoke of shattered dreams, insecurities, rejection, abuse, betrayal. I was entrusted with the broken pieces of life’s heartache and shame and permitted into the inner sanctum of pain still unresolved, questions still unanswered. I was allowed into the story still in process.

As their voices trailed off, vulnerability’s comfortable discomfort hung between us. We sat in that nearly sacred space in which our stories have been heard. That simple strange miracle of being known, of pulling our nightmares out into the light of day—and finding someone who doesn’t shrink away in fear. In that place, we become a little less afraid, a little less lonely. In that place, a small part of our hearts is healed.

“What happens to us is not finished until the story is told.” - Gay Hubbard

Story-telling doesn’t instantly eliminate our pain. It doesn’t shortcut the journey pain requires of us. But it does ease the burden. It does help us to make sense of where we’ve been, to see more clearly where we are. 

We need our stories to be heard. We need people to listen.

As we minister to people in pain, one of our most crucial jobs is the role of listener. As we listen, we offer a place for stories to be shared. 

Guidelines for Good Active Listening

While eventually a response might be appropriate (more on that below), we must make sure that first we actually listen to what’s being said and hear the story correctly. This requires good active listening. Being an active listener may require practice, as it can be a challenge.

  • Resist the distraction of trying to figure out what to say next. Listen fully to what’s being said. It’s okay if there’s a bit of silence. In fact, I have found if you wait a bit, the story often continues. 
  • Listen carefully to their story and perspective. Don’t rush to giving your own opinion.
  • Remember you are a care-giver, not a cure-giver. Don’t rush to a solution.
  • Reflect back what they’re saying and check-in to make sure you’re understanding, instead of trying to be a mind reader. For example: “Can you explain that?” “What do you mean?” “What I’m hearing you say is . . . , is that correct?”
  • Resist judgments and rebuttals as you hear their story for what it is. Avoid statements that begin with “Yes, but…”
  • Be aware of your own filters, which make you hear something not actually said. This can be combated by reflecting, as I described earlier. It is also helpful to know who you are, what triggers you, and what filters you might bring to a situation. 
  • Have patience in the telling and realize that some stories are too traumatic or difficult to tell at once. I think of my friends who have experienced abuse—their stories didn’t come all at once, but in piecemeal, slow pieces of vulnerable self-revelation. 

After the Story Has Been Told

What do we do after a friend has shared her story? 

Sometimes the best thing to do is simply to say, “Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I’m sorry you’re hurting.” This is infinitely better than dismissing the story, giving an “at least…” statement, or offering a painful Christian platitude. 

We can affirm the validity of our friend’s pain (fear, anger, etc.) and agree with him the pain he’s experienced isn’t “okay.” It is important, particularly in situations of trauma, for the story to be heard and believed.

We can also hold up a mirror to the story and point out what they might not see. We can point out bravery and resilience in the face of difficult circumstances. We can point to a will to survive and carry on as a victorious feat of strength. We can affirm the steps they have (and are) taking to manage pain well and seek healing. As appropriate, we can graciously point to the glimmers we see of God’s faithfulness in their story and to how he may be miraculously redeeming pain and working it for good. 

Those stories I was entrusted with? Saying they are stories of great pain is only half the truth. They are also stories of great beauty, courage, and strength. In spite of the pain, through the pain, they are some of the loudest testaments I know of God’s faithfulness, sustaining grace, and raw surprising joy. I only know because I heard the story.

You can also find this post linked up on Holley Gerth's Coffee For Your Heart Link-Up Party.