The Story Collecting Experiment

bonfire and storytelling

Could it be that unity in a nation of diverse beliefs, values, and political positions depends upon our capacity to share and listen to the stories of others? How about a simple experiment to explore possible answers to that question? Learning to listen to the stories of others is an act of respect, recognition, and humility.

When my children were little, they loved to hear stories, not only stories from books. They loved any stories. They wanted to know stories about my childhood, stories about the world, stories about family and friends, stories about almost anything. It was as if they were born craving stories as much as the craved food.

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.

Philip Pullman

While many think of stories as the pastime of children, stories continue to play a critical role throughout life. They contain meaning and purpose. They connect us with other people. They cultivate empathy and understanding. They help us to see and think beyond our own lived experiences.

Stories are different from declarations. They provided context. They invite us to imagine, explore, listen, and consider the possibilities. As such, and especially as we seek to learn, live with, and honor people different from ourselves, perhaps it is time to cultivate more of that child-like yearning for more and diverse stories. With that in mind, here is the experiment.

  1. This is a 5-day or 10-day challenge, depending upon what you are ready to embrace at this time. Begin by choosing and blocking off the days that you are willing to commit to this challenge.
  2. Each day, your charge is to go on a storytelling scavenger hunt. Find at least one person who is willing to tell you a story about their life, something that you’ve never heard from them. Throughout the experiment, you are going to focus upon gathering and learning from people’s stories related to a consistent question. As you ask the question, you can ask them to answer it in the form of a story from their life. Choose any question that you want, but here are four possibilities:
    1. What is one of the best things that ever happened to you?
    2. What is one of the best things that happened to you, but at the time, you didn’t think it was very good at all?
    3. What is one of the most meaningful items in your possession and why? What is the story behind it?
    4. What is one of the funniest things that you’ve done or that happened to you?
  3. Make your entire focus upon listening, learning, and understanding. This is not a time to respond with your own stories, make judgmental comments, offer advice, or even ask comments cloaked in questions. Make it all about them and you simply hearing, really hearing their story.
  4. This might feel awkward, so you can use the experiment as an excuse. Explain that you are trying to reconnect with the power of listening to and learning from the stories of people in your life, and you are wondering if they are willing to participate by simply sharing a story from their lives about [fill in the question of choice].
  5. As they tell their story, try to bracket your opinions, set aside judgement and evaluation. Your charge is to be fully present and strive to be as curious as possible. Ask follow up questions when/if appropriate. Make eye contact. Be there.
  6. As their story finishes, thank them for the willingness to share this story with you. Show gratitude.
  7. Later, but not too much later, record some of your thoughts, questions, and observations. What did you learn about them, about yourself? How does hearing their story give you greater insight, understanding, or empathy?
  8. Dedicate extra time at the end of the experiment for more reflection. How might you continue your search for and openness to hearing the stories from others?


  • While it might be comfortable to start with close friends and family, consider stretching yourself to reach out to and learn from others, perhaps people who might have very different life journeys, perspectives, and experiences.
  • Of course, respect people’s privacy, and don’t take a “no” personally. This might be a bit odd for some, or beyond their comfort zone.
  • Be cautious about what is appropriate in a given context or circumstance (like what is or is not appropriate in a work environment).
  • Keep the story between you and that person. Or, before you would share the story, ask if they are okay with that. Even if they are, ask whether they prefer for their name to be attached to the story.
  • As you go through this, some might want to hear your story as well. Go for it, but make sure that you keep that separate. In other words, when they are telling their story, listen and be fully present.
  • If you are a person with strong beliefs and convictions, and those clash in some way with what you hear in a story, this is not the time to bring that up. Your mission is to respect, listen, and learn.

“We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.”

Jimmy Neal Smith

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