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Engaging the Disturbing Story 

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October 10, 2016

By Reggie Marra, MA, ACC

As we in the U.S. move through the presidential debates and closer to election day, the power of story and the need for narrative healing are ever more compelling – here, and around the world. The first two principles of Narrative Health Coaching – that stories matter and that relationships engage are essential in our coaching, and in our personal lives, our communities, our national cultures and the world at large.

guy-questionsWhat is at play when an individual who aspires to what is arguably the most powerful governmental position on the planet embodies a story that is grounded in insulting and mocking his opponents, women, entire nations and ethnic groups? And what is at play, when, as he wins his party’s nomination and many leaders of his party publicly withdraw their support, millions of Americans revel in his insults and rally behind him? What, indeed, are we to do, when the quality, level and tenor of political debate is reduced to insult, name-calling and relentless lying, and the prospect of thoughtful, respectful and rigorous dialogue seems impossible? How are “we” to engage relationship with these “others”?

An essential, if not the primary, “doing” is not trying to change the minds or stories of those with whom we disagree, but rather to learn how to engage them in a way that they, and we, feel heard and respected. Waiting for them to take the initiative won’t work – they may not even be interested in respectful engagement. If we care, we do it and risk both success and failure. Expressed differently: the problem we face is less about Elephants and Donkeys not getting along and more about those Elephants who are intolerant of Donkeys and unable or unwilling to engage in respectful interspecies dialogue, and those Donkeys who are similarly intolerant, unwilling or unable when it comes to Elephants.

The U.S. political extremes relentlessly try to censor and discredit each other’s stories* and usually do so in the name of some limited, selected aspect of the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights – in apparent denial of the intimate relationship in which these documents inextricably engage them.

Try these questions on for size, whether you identify as Elephant, Donkey, Elekey, Donkephant, trans-species traveler or paradoxically unclassifiable fundamentalist elitist:

  1. two-people-speakingDo I sincerely want to engage in authentic dialogue with this “other”? (If, not, then don’t).
  2. If so, why – what is my deepest intention/desire? (If to change the other, perhaps rethink to include additional possibilities).
  3. How is it that I can be fully present, listen deeply, share openly and not have to prove, defend or fear anything? Said another way, “How can I show up fully in this space in which I feel significant discomfort?”

The individual in any conversation who has greater perspective-taking capacity – who can hold more, especially, but not only, contradictory perspectives simultaneously, has the larger share of responsibility in the exchange. This individual, if he or she chooses to engage, is responsible for meeting the other where the other is. Easiest example is a more-or-less healthy parent with a more-or-less healthy two-year-old. It’s not the kid’s responsibility to meet the adult, simply because the two-year-old cannot do this. Different perspective-taking capacities are real among adults as well. Here’s another question:

4.  Having chosen to engage this person in conversation, how is it that I can hold us both with compassion and empathy without being untruthful?

This is not for the faint of heart, and, pray tell, how is it relevant to Narrative Health Coaching?

Let’s return to the questions:

  1. Do I sincerely want to work with this client?
    a. Professional ethics say, “If not, then don’t, and express this in an empathic, compassionate and truthful way that may include
    suggestions for referral.”
  2. If so, why – what is my deepest intention/desire?

a. As a coach, why and whom do I serve?

story3.  How is it that I can (what story will allow me to) be fully present, listen deeply, share openly and not have to prove, defend or fear anything? Said another way, “How can I show up fully with this fellow traveler, in this space, in which I feel significant discomfort?”

a.  Sometimes coaching is not smooth; not every client is easy to like or get along with (like lovers, spouses, children, parents, candidates, etc.).

b.  It is the coach’s responsibility to engage in relationship with the client such that the client’s best interests are served.

It is up to each of us to recognize our own ongoing stories first, choose which “others” we feel competent and confident to engage, and do our best to engage as best we can at the intersection of compassion, empathy and truthfulness. Sometimes that intersection will signal the choice not to engage.

Always, it is up to us to choose.

*For more on this, see Nat Hentoff.  Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.


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