Last year, I received one of those dreaded calls that quite literally changed my world. My mom was in the ER because she had suffered a stroke that left her mostly paralyzed and unable to speak. Up until that point, my daughters and I would spend several hours each week with my mom, swimming in the indoor pool at her senior living facility. She was starting to have memory problems, but she still had so many stories to tell about her childhood. The years faded away, and my daughters would become completely absorbed in her stories about growing up in small-town Indiana. Sometimes the stories were the same stories she had told before, but we didn’t mind. She was so animated and excited to share them, and the repeated telling made it much more likely we would remember the stories.
Good thing, because she can’t tell stories any more.
The stroke robbed my mom of her ability to speak coherently and further exacerbated her memory problems. I still go visit my mom often, but up until recently, the storytelling had stopped.
Then, when my daughter and I were leaving her room one day, my daughter wistfully said, “I still love visiting Muner, but I miss her stories. Why don’t we tell her the stories she told us the next time we visit?” I was stunned. Sometimes the wisdom of my daughter makes me so proud. I was embarrassed I had not thought of that myself.
I teach classes about how important storytelling is in business, but I had been so focused on everything that I had lost with my mom’s stroke and worrying about her day-to-day care, it didn’t occur to me that I should tell her the stories she had been telling me all my life. What a gift that has been. When I visit and tell her stories, I can see the recognition in her eyes. I see the pain ease a bit and she smiles and even laughs. I know she is remembering with me, and it makes us both feel connected once again.
Since the day my daughter made her comment, I have put a lot of thought into the importance of stories in our day-to-day lives. According to brain research, when we hear a story our brain begins to synchronize with the brain of the storyteller. This is called neural coupling – our brain neurons literally mirror the neurons of the storyteller. The listener’s brain then responds as if it is experiencing what the storyteller experienced. This builds a connection between the listener and the storyteller, increasing empathy and making it more likely the listener will remember what was shared. I have been advocating storytelling as an important business communication tool for years. It genuinely never occurred to me that sharing stories with my daughters also creates strong connections.
I have told my daughters plenty of stories in the past 15 years, but lately I made an extra effort to share stories about how I met their dad, and how a trip to Germany made us decide to have kids. My daughter has started learning to drive, so I have been sharing stories of my driving misadventures. I have made a point to share the stories behind the family photos we have. I have to remind myself to make time to tell these stories, because I am more inclined to talk about the logistics of who has to be where and when, or to try to get information from my kids about what they did that day at school. What I have found is that when I share a story, they start to share their own stories and a magical connection starts to happen. I am not trying to pull information out of them, but they willingly share it!
There is also research that says we are happiest when we spend money on experiences, rather than on things. Knowing how stories help us connect with each other, this makes complete sense. Those experiences are what give us great stories.
So, as you plan your summer, be sure to make time to share your stories and also plan some great experiences that will give you even more stories to tell later!