Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bridging Differences through Storytelling

Bridge over Jordan River
Gesher, Israel
Photo by David L. Baird
Used with permission.
Beyond Labels: Bridging Differences through Storytelling
by Noa Baum
© 2012

Growing up in Israel I have been surrounded by conflict and fear most of my life. Today I use storytelling as a tool for building bridges across differences both in performance and in interfaith workshops and other business and community settings. Here are some thoughts on why storytelling, as an interactive, in-person, event in time, is a powerful tool for change.

In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach, PhD, talks about the challenges of seeing another person as real. The more different someone seems from us, the more unreal they may feel to us, making it easy to label them and shut them out.

She explains that this stems from our own complex and largely unconscious system of classifying and labeling others, with immediate responses of attraction or aversion, interest or inattention. It’s part of our biological programming for survival that alerts us to whether or not someone is from our tribe.

We seek the familiar and gravitate towards those who tend to think like us and have our preferences and values. Our cognitive constructs of the world help us navigate our life and feel secure, so we become attached to our way of thinking.

However, in an increasingly polarized and violent world, as our communities and workplaces become more diverse, our "biological programming for survival" no longer serves us. New ways are needed to deal with the challenges of working and living together.

There are visible and invisible ways in which our diversity is manifested. There are our cultural traditions, family values, personal preferences and the individual ways we think. When our way of thinking is challenged, we often feel threatened. We react by either argument - “I'm right and you're wrong,” or disengagement - “I can't deal with this person!”

Is there a way to respond to differences not as a threat but as an opportunity?

What if we invite people to listen to experiences and not to opinions or concepts?

Storytelling is about sharing experience. It’s a powerful tool to bridge differences, because using Storytelling strategically, i.e. in workshops or training, creates a shift in:

1.   The emotional connection - A sense of trust and intimacy are achieved in a very short time, not because of the content of the story but due to the process of sharing the space, listening and being listened to.

A participant in an interfaith workshop I led wrote: “I can't believe how close I felt to someone after listening to a 3-minute story. I feel like I know this man and it's the first time in my life I got to sit and talk, heart to heart with an Islamic person and it changed my life.”

2.   The cognitive connection - Unlike debate, where accepting another opinion means giving up mine, listening to a story uses the imagination - a virtual experience - temporarily adding the experience of another person, so there is no need to become defensive.
A workshop participant in a Mormon community, after listening to a story of someone who had an abortion, said:

“For the first time in my life I was able to consider something that contradicted everything I believe in because I was listening to her story. I found myself being able to accept that abortion could be a valid option and even essential for someone else.”

Storytelling allows us to suspend judgment and expand our ability to hold multiple or contradicting points of view

This is not about changing someone's opinions but about changing our response to differences. By adding another way of looking at the world we get to expand our ability to work with differences.

Author Maxine Hong Kingston writes, “I learn to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”*

When we make room for paradoxes we make room for change.

Using Storytelling in workplaces and communities can increase trust, change attitudes and make room for paradoxes so we can move beyond labels to accept “the other” as real and work with our differences.

*Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Random, 1989

Storytelling is where Noa Baum’s work as a performance artist, educator, and diversity specialist intersects. Born and raised in Jerusalem, trained in theatre and education, she offers a unique combination of performances and practical workshops focusing on the power of narrative to heal across the divides of identity.

Her story A Land Twice Promised relives her heartfelt dialogue with a Palestinian woman, illuminating the complex history and emotions surrounding Jerusalem for Israelis and Palestinians. Noa’s performance highlights include:  The World Bank; Mayo Clinic; US Defense Department; Fabula Festival, Sweden; GWU Law School, DC; Hebrew University and The Kennedy Center. She can be reached at


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