Story Circles

"Listen with attention, speak with intention, and tend to the wellbeing of the whole."

"Orality knits persons, individuals into community."

The Problem

The world is fractured and in pain. People are living lives increasing dominated by forces outside their control. The result is a technological, economic, and psychological dissolution of human dignity, health, and wellness. 

People have more options, but feel less whole. People have more resources, but even in the most fortunate portions of society are feeling empty and disconnected. Mental illness is flourishing, but we are not talking about it together.

Look to the 'selfie' culture on social sites such as Instagram. Rather than reduce suffering, build community, deepen relationships, or bring people to a fuller understanding of themselves and the world, social media is rife with self-promotion, false presentation, pretense, and artifice. We are not bringing our true selves online; we are bringing manufactured versions--a fictitious figment of our real identity.

At the same time, feelings of social isolation have grown--alongside a worsening epidemic of anxiety, depression, depersonalization, and outright suicide. The web is not making us more well. 

Bastions of purported freedom of expression such as Twitter, Facebook, and 4chan are vectors for habitual addiction, harassment, outrage, and division. This is a bleak realization of the values of the open web that were dreamed up nearly 50 years ago when the first packets were sent across networks. This is the continuation of stigma and suffering.

The Goal

I want to do something radical and difficult: change the mindsets and culture around technology to prioritize human wellness and mental health. I want to encourage the acceptance of individual and neurological diversity, honor the varied and complex journeys people take in their lives, and build true connection between people, groups, societies, and regions of the globe.

I want people to find open spaces of mutual understanding where they can co-create meaning and begin to heal.

There are influential change-makers working to develop technology as lone builders, small start-ups and multinational companies. These makers need to find a way to nurture themselves and their connection to others--to share their struggles, and to eventually shift the fundamental direction of their products and organizations.

There is a multitude of online users and consumers. These people from different cultures--trying to make sense of an increasingly complex and alienating world--need to have a way to heal gaps between their lives, and grow something positive with the intersecting journeys of others.

Key to this shift in mindset and understanding is reducing stigma around mental illness through the concept of psychological safety. We find psychological safety in small, trusting, supportive groups. Psychological safety is something all humans need to grow: it is a condition of both having voice, and also having the ability to take risks without fear of failure and rebuke.

The Challenge

What has stopped us from reaching this state? Stigma. Fear of vulnerability. A deficit of trust. Obsession with profit. Denial of the pernicious impacts of technology. A paucity of opportunities, training, products, and platforms that are designed to engage people in a quest for personal growth and mental health through transformative common experience.

The web was premised on the idea that free exchange of ideas would lead to shared truth, cross-cultural understanding, innovation, and the arrival of human self-actualization. What we have seen instead is a web that puts a value on individuals as sources of data and targets of advertising. Simply put, the web was never optimized for wellness.

At the same time, western-originating (and now globally-dominating) notions of psychological health have been founded on atomized, individualized, and internalized self-reflection. Mental health has grown into just another form of isolated self-care.

While useful for sole minds, psychological treatment has not been implemented to forge connection. It happens so often between a single person on a couch talking to another person in a chair; whereas fundamental change in society needs to happen in small groups where trust can be built, earned, and shared.

There has been a lack of imagination that both the use of technology and the pursuit of self-healing, could yield transformative, motivating experiences for changing lives, shifting culture, and fulfilling human potential at scale.

The Solution

The solution to this thorny and elusive problem is simple yet profound: get people to sit down and talk to each other in a safe environment.

For centuries before people moved their lives to the digital sphere, there was a powerful practice of story circles. A story circle is a remarkably straightforward yet immensely potent tool. People gather, remove all distractions, commit to listening, and share the path that brought them to where they are today.

If you have never experienced a story circle, it may sound trite or banal. The results of this process, however, are rich and offer both great personal relief and compelling social engagement.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

If you would like to try story circles at your organization or conference, please contact me for more information.