In our society, “influencing values” brings up images of someone lecturing children on abstract concepts (e.g., “honesty,” “perseverance,” etc.).
It turns out, though, that we learn values from our own experience. In workshops I do with organizations, I often ask, “Choose a value that is important to your work. How did you learn the importance of that value?”
In response, people almost always have at least one story of something that happened to them. Having told it, they continue, “After that happened, I realized that…” Rough examples of their stories might be:
- The time my family cooperated to get something done, taught me the value of cooperation;
- The time I lied taught me the value of honesty;
- The time someone else was disrespectful to me, I learned the value of treating people with respect.
Prompting Value Changes
As we’ve seen, values grow out of specific experiences. We don’t learn them by prescription, but by construction: we build our values over time. If you want someone to change their values, then, you probably shouldn’t begin by arguing with them about why their values are wrong. Instead, you need to make sure that they have experiences – first-hand or vicarious – in which they are practicing those values and then, as a consequence, experiencing success.
Having had those experiences, they can realize at some point, “Yes, when I acted that way, things went better than when I didn’t. And, yes, that was an example of this value.” Initially, they may not realize it consciously, but in time they will begin to regard acting in accordance with that value as good, right, or worth the cost.
Storytelling gives people imagined experiences. When I listen to your story of how treating someone disrespectfully caused painful results, I imagine a version of your experience. I see and hear things similar to what you saw and heard. I feel emotions similar to those that you felt.
If I tell a story that is about living out a value (or failing to live that value) then people imagine my experience, thus replicating that experience in their minds.
Of course, the idea of telling stories about values is not, by any means, a new idea. Anyone who has thought seriously about language arts has probably realized that stories, songs, poems and more can reinforce certain values.
But have you considered this idea: The very process of telling stories reinforces certain values! In fact, the very process of participating in many language arts can do the same.
In a society where we see political debates in which people call each other names and shout each other down (only listening long enough to form a rejoinder) the value of open, delighted listening seems foreign and impractical, like some ideal from the distant past or from an impossible future.
But storytelling, for example, already gives people the experience of open, delighted listening! In every culture, people learn unconsciously to listen to stories differently from how they listen to explanations or exhortations. You might readily interrupt someone, for example, who is telling you their opinion about a political race. But if they are telling a story about their own experience, the unconscious rules of conversation change: you are expected to wait for the story to be over. Further, you listen, not so much to comprehend, but to imagine and feel.
Eight Values Embedded in the Process
As it turns out, even the process of preparing a story to tell (discovering, developing, shaping, and practicing stories) can give people practice in certain values, as well.
I’ve made a list of eight values that, I believe, are potentially embedded in the process of learning and telling stories:
Group A: The Primacy of Connection
- Value #1: The Power of Listening
- Value #2: A Predisposition Toward Compassion
- Value #3: The Importance of Relationships
- Value #4: The Efficacy of Openness
Group B: Respect for Our Amazing Minds
- Value #5: The Preciousness of Every Human Point of View
- Value #6: The Universality of Human Potential
- Value #7: The Whole Mind: Conceptual Thinking Plus Image Thinking
- Value #8: Emotion’s Role in Thinking
Further, I suspect that most, if not all, of these values can be reinforced by numerous arts.
Process Shapes Values
As we have seen, conventionally we tend to think that values are taught by talking about them. Many of us have come to the deeper realization that we learn values primarily from experience, including the imagined experiences provided by the arts. I invite you to explore yet another layer, as well: experiencing the processes involved in an art form can also reinforce values.
And, as it turns out, the values embedded in certain artforms are values that can guide the transformation of our society—to one that is more just, less wasteful of our abilities, and more supportive of the flourishing of every human.
If you’d like to learn more about how the very processes of storytelling reinforce these values—and might like to participate in describing how the process of other arts can do the same—there are two upcoming opportunities:
In 1970, Doug Lipman was a struggling teacher of troubled adolescents. He had given up connecting with them when one day, by accident, he found himelf telling them a story. They responded! Ever since, he has pursued the transformative power of storytelling.
Over the decades, Doug has coached hundreds of people on their storytelling, writing, and recordings. He is the author of three books on storytelling (Improving Your Storytelling, The Storytelling Coach, and Storytelling Games), scores of published articles, and over 150 issues of his own email newsletters, including “eTips from the Storytelling Coach (http://StorytellingNewsletters.com).
A professional storyteller since 1976, Doug has performed and led workshops on three continents and led many online courses and webinars. His ongoing search for effective ways to teach the transformative power of storytelling has led to projects such as a new paradigm for coaching storytellers, an exploration of the seldom-noticed Hidden Storytelling Skills, and the pursuit of ways that storytelling and related arts can allow our true humanity to blossom.