Understanding their narratives–listening to stories from ‘the other side’

We’re not the only ones with stories.

The thing is, though, that even we social workers–with our “I messages” and everything–are often guilty of ‘otherizing’ (that really SHOULD be a word) the ‘other side’.

As though, just because they disagree with us, their narratives are less poignant.

But that’s a mistake, because we can’t hope to understand where they’re coming from if we don’t listen to their stories.

Their facts may be incorrectly analyzed, or their conclusions may be erroneous, or they may be operating only from their perspective and failing to craft policy alternatives that meet the needs of our constituents.

All quite possibly true.

But the stories about why they pursue a certain change, or, conversely, why they cling to a failed status quo…those stories are important. To them, and, if we hope to be able to counter their arguments, to us, too.

Living Proof has helped me with this, because it breaks stories down into a sort of formula: what is the arc of what was then and what is now, and where are they pulling out the pieces that are most integral within that larger story?

When people (not think tanks, and not politicians) talk about resisting government takeover of their health care, what story are they really telling, about fearing that what they precariously cling to may be eroded somehow?

When people complain about having to ‘press 1 for English’, what are they really saying about what they remember of the United States, and about the changes they wish they could prevent?

When someone berates people receiving public assistance as lazy dependents, what story are they telling about their own identity, and about their fears for their future?

To me, this isn’t about trying to psychologize (again, should TOTALLY be a word!) our opposition, or, especially, about ascribing motives to them that may not, at all, motivate their positions or their actions.

It’s really just about recognizing that they do have a story, just like we do, even if theirs is different than the one we tell.

It’s about honoring that story, as authentic to them, just as we would not try to oppose someone else’s ‘I statement’. It is theirs.

And, maybe, that can give us a starting point, to share a story of our own, and to see if we can’t find some common themes–and maybe even some common values–in the stories that have shaped each of us.

What is your ‘other side’ saying, when you stop to listen?

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