Everybody loves a good story, right? Hearing, reading, or watching a story unfold on a screen can quickly transport us mentally and emotionally, speeding our heart rate, making us gasp, smile, cry, or laugh out loud. We’ve all been there. Humans are wired for story.
From the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian heroic tale “Epic of Gilgamesh” to today’s blockbuster screenplays and 5-minutes-ago TikTok posts, stories connect the listener to the teller. And there is power in those connections.
And yet, in the proximity of our everyday lives and our communities, obstacles often keep us from sharing our stories. Maybe we just don’t want to give up the time it takes to get to know someone at a personal level, preferring to keep our interactions transactional, simple, and superficial. Maybe we’re too inhibited to open up our lives to another person, uncertain of how it might change their opinion of us. Or we’re uncomfortable with the possibility of involvement in the messiness of someone else’s life. Or maybe we’ve allowed the stereotypes of things such as politics, social class, and race to take over, adhering to the mistaken belief that those things are all we need to know about another person instead of listening to the reality of their lives and who they are.
Could sharing our personal truth with others be a catalyst to building empathy, trust, and understanding? Could these ingredients lead to real change for a problem as tenacious as race relations? Could “story” be that powerful?
Those were among the provocative reflections that inspired the team at Heartlines Center for Values Promotion in Johannesburg, South Africa, to formulate a program that encourages people to share personal reflections and stories and, in so doing, could promote understanding, empathy, and trust. The team was inspired in part by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who in his work with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission once remarked, “I was amazed at how powerful an instrument it is, being able to tell your story. You could see in a number of people who, for so long, had been sort of just anonymous, faceless non-entities. Just being given the opportunity [to tell their stories] did something to rehabilitate them.”
“Exploring this interesting possibility — that something so simple as sharing our stories with one another could heal mistrust and division — really drew me in,” recalls Garth Japhet, founder and CEO of Heartlines. “It’s so simple and so accessible. We saw a lot of potential in creating an organized and safe way for people to tell each other about themselves in the form of story.”
Building on a solid track record of achievement in promoting positive social change – notable programs, workshops, four feature films, and other educational resources – and supported with funding from Templeton Religion Trust, Heartlines began developing and rolling out a new storytelling campaign, beginning in several church communities and expanding the scope from there. Simply titled “What’s Your Story?,” its aim is to explore two powerful possibilities:
By training hundreds of facilitators and providing step-by-step instructions via downloadable toolkits — including video and audio resources — Heartlines has successfully scaled the program to include several thousand churches across South Africa. A workplace edition was also implemented in nearly 50 companies, and programs for schools and families have been recently developed.
“Simplicity and accessibility became key elements of the success of ‘What’s Your Story?’” explains Japhet. “The requirements of participants are that they need simply to be curious, willing to listen and ask questions in a formalized or informal way, and to share their own story.”
In keeping with Heartlines’ longstanding commitment to implementing best practices and measuring impact, the team collaborated early on with international experts on empathy to help create, and later improve, the methodology. They also engaged an independent evaluation team to measure the impact of the program.
Results confirmed that “What’s Your Story?” is indeed a powerful tool that can be effectively used to change society. Qualitative reports from church and workplace settings confirmed improvements in interpersonal relationships leading to less judgmental behaviors, more empathetic attitudes and behaviors, more curiosity, and increased cohesion within the group.
Feedback from participants was also overwhelmingly positive, including comments such as:
“It helped to resolve negative emotions and improve relationships at work. I have now learned how to open up and talk about myself.”
“When I look in the mirror, I only see myself, but ‘What’s Your Story’ makes you think about others. … to put yourself in others’ shoes.”
“The format was reassuring, and it brought humanity and valuing of people. We shared joys and challenges and shared genuine relationships.”
In a world that’s more globally connected than ever, it often seems that people are also more polarized and farther apart. “We probably know more about each other’s geopolitics than we know about our hearts,” observes Japhet.
One story at a time, “What’s Your Story?” is tackling that unsettling reality at scale. One unanticipated outcome has been the interest shown from organizations outside of South Africa. For instance, a highly respected, United-States-based corporate leadership organization recently reached out to request training. In response, Heartlines hosted a three-day event for some of their staff from the U.S. and Singapore and is now in discussion about ways to incorporate the methodology into their work.
Clearly, “What’s Your Story?” is proving to be a concept worth spreading, a hopeful sign that perhaps by sharing the narratives of who we are, it’s possible to cross barriers and transform the world into what we so often say we want it to be. Or, at least, to come a lot closer.