Safiya Robinson

Mind the gap - 6 Ways To Deepen Our Relationships Through Stories

Safiya Robinson
Mind the gap - 6 Ways To Deepen Our Relationships Through Stories

Tell me a story…

I recently received a challenge to write about something that is important to me, as I seek to clarify my message. I honestly feel as if I have a bigger message to share, but wanted some clarity around it. In talking with her, I shared about this topic and she challenged me to write about it. It is something I call “The Gap” and I will start with a story.

A couple of years ago, I was attending a conference and I ran into one of the speakers outside who wanted an emergency appointment to have her nails repaired before her all day presentation the following day. She was very striking – petite and slim with huge blond curls framing her face. I booked her in with my own aesthetician, and she hurried off to have her nails done. Later on she wanted to thank me, and invited me for lunch. I was hesitant to go. In truth – I didn’t think we would have anything to discuss – at first glance we seemed to be polar opposites. However, I agreed to go, and about five minutes into the conversation she said to me that I reminded her of one of her best friends. She whipped out her phone and showed me a photo, and to my shock – the lady in the photo looked exactly like me!! Tall, chocolate and curvy – everything she wasn’t!! Over the last couple of years, we have become great friends, and we have plenty in common. That experience showed me that I still fall prey to something that I think many of us experience in various areas of our lives – separating ourselves from others, seeing our differences rather than remembering our similarities, creating a gap.

The example that I gave shows how I made a judgement based on physical appearance, but I realize that all of us do this in many situations. And this brings to light something that plagues us at some point in time – often we don’t feel as if we truly understand those who aren’t like us (or who we perceive aren’t like us). And why do we believe that they aren’t like us? Is it because they look or sound different? Are from a different culture? Live differently to us or speak a different language? Communicate in different ways? See the world differently? Have different values, expectations or experiences? There are so many reasons that we judge people to be different from us, and sometimes that can lead to use making snap judgments (like I did). It can lead us to believe that we don’t (or can’t) understand them, or that they don’t (or can’t) understand us. This creates something that I call (and see in my mind as) The Gap. I would describe the gap as the space that comes to exist between two people, or two groups of people who view the other as different. And the more we focus on these differences, the larger the gap becomes. I have seen the gap manifest in so many different ways both in my personal life and observing life around me. In my life it has led me to jump to conclusions. It has made me feel isolated when I have moved to different countries and I felt confronted by unfamiliar faces and rituals. It has made it difficult for me to sometimes connect with the clients I work with. I also see it on a larger scale – in healthcare it can lead to “victim blaming”, to services that aren’t accessed, to programs that are ineffective. It is at the heart of many us vs them movements. And it can lead to us not truly seeing those around us, or not feeling seen by those who we interact with.

Even though we judge people to be different, based on the facts I mentioned earlier, are they really that different? How would we think and act if we believed that those who we perceived as “other” were exactly like us – having the same need for love, community, connection and belonging that we have? The same desires, dreams and goals? The same joys and sorrows? Would we begin to truly see those around us? Could we begin to close the gaps everywhere?

I feel like bridging the gap is about more than realizing that (to paraphrase) when someone is cut they bleed the same as us. It is about more than the theories of equality, and rights. It is about genuinely seeing that the full range of humanity is contained within all of us, even when our experiences and our upbringings cause us to express it differently.

For those of us who truly want to close the gaps in their work and lives – one powerful way I have to do that is through stories. These days we hear a lot about the power of storytelling (especially in our professional fields) to connect with our ideal client base and amplify our business. And I believe that one of the reasons that stories are so powerful is because they have the ability to bridge that gap, bring us closer together, and draw our attention away from our perceived differences and towards the things we have in common. So for me, I think not only about the art of storytelling but of story-listening. When we talk about the art of storytelling, we think about being open, sharing our mistakes as well as our triumphs, and reaching out with our stories. With story-listening, we also need to be open, and willing to learn – even when the story isn’t told in the manner that we would tell ours.

So how can we use stories to build those bridges? Here are six ways that I have found to use the art of storytelling (and story-listening) to bridge the gap.

1.       Believe. I think that the first part of this process is to start to believe that these gaps (if they exist at all) can be smaller than we perceive them to be. We need to believe that we already have a lot in common with the other person (or people) especially the most important parts of us – love, connection and belonging to give a few examples. We need to believe that we can learn something from that person, from the interaction – something about them, something about ourselves, or something about the world around us. I think that this is a critical first step in the process.

2.       Listen. Using our belief as a foundation, we need to listen with openness and curiosity. I spoke about belief in the point above – and if there is one thing that I learned from my favorite four-year-old (nephew) is that I can learn from anyone – big or small, no matter what my skill or knowledge level is. Listen for the things that bring you together. Stay present in the conversation. This can be difficult to do – something I learn daily in my conversations – but try to be intentional about staying present when someone is telling their story.

3.       Look. When you go to new places, look for the cultural experiences and rituals born out of of common love for one another and connection. Some time ago, I wrote this blog post about a cup of tea. It is about the experience I had when I moved to England. Coming from Barbados, where people who pass you on the street often say a good morning greeting, I felt a bit lonely when I first got there, and I really felt a gap between myself and the people around me. I hardly saw a face that looked like mine, I never heard a voice that sounded like mine, and I missed some of the rituals of home. But I was soon able to discover that very British way of offering a cup of tea, and I came to see it as a moment to offer kindness or greeting, and to make space for a connection. Once I saw this, I began to look for this in other places I traveled. Instead of looking for what was familiar to me, I began to look for what could bring us together and I found that I almost never felt that isolation when I traveled – even when I did not speak the language or have cultural commonalities. I learned that these rituals can also tell the stories of a place, and of the people in that place, and it reduced my impulse to impose my values with judgement. From this space, I have almost always been able to find someone that I can ask questions with genuine curiosity, and further expand my understanding of that place and sense of belonging through the stories of the place and the people.

4.       Be vulnerable. When we share our own stories with vulnerability, it makes others feel as if they can also share theirs. We need to share openly, hold space and keep confidences in these situations and this will go a long way to increasing our ability to share stories.

5.       Feel. Be open to feeling connected with people through their stories. Most of our communication is non-verbal, so remember that stories aren’t only about facts, but about how connected we feel as a result. Feel compassion over pity. I have found that when I feel pity, it is about feeling sorry for someone which is an imposition of my judgement on the person not living up to a personal standard that I hold – and this can be dis-empowering to the other person. When I feel compassion, it is about connecting with the other person, and it means that if I am advocating for them, I do so from a place of showing their humanity to others, rather than attempting to expose what I feel is a deficit or weakness.

6.       Remember. Remember that as people, we often make our choices from the same place. Remember that we all have the same basic humanity driving each of us, at our very core. And that while it may get overlaid by our experiences and culture, meaning that the same underlying motivation may lead us to take different actions, we need to remember that we do have that same underlying motivation. This does not mean that we will “agree” with the actions that a person took or feel as if we would respond the same way, but it can hopefully allow us to pause before we judge, and in that pause we can start to see the bridge that connects us.

People are hard to hate close up - move in… Dr Brené Brown

Storytelling and story-listening allows us to truly see and be seen. It brings us closer, and to quote the fabulous Dr Brené Brown in her book Braving the Wilderness – “people are hard to hate close up… Move in”. And I will end this post with another one of my favourite quotes from Patty Digh – author of Four-Word Self-Help – Simple wisdom for complex lives. She says “the shortest distance between two people is a story”. So go on – close the gap – share a story.

And I bring you big love from a small island

PS - Above is my first toe dip into Unsplash photos - as I really wanted that image for my blog - a throwback to those years I spent living in England. And I give credit where it is due. So please note that the photo is by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash