We are always telling each other stories. Stories about our day, about our experiences, even about illness or loss.
The stories we tell may seem mundane, but research by Jody Koenig Kellas at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows that these stories are powerful tools for creating our identities, strengthening relationships, and having a direct impact on health as well Have well-being.
Koenig Kellas, Willa Cather Professor of Interpersonal, Family, and Health Communication and Chair of the Department of Communication Studies, recently partnered with Nebraska Today to delve into their research and explain how storytelling shapes our lives.
How would you describe your research?
I am a professor and researcher in interpersonal family and health communication. What I am exploring is the way people communicate to understand their identity, relationships, and life. Since we are storytelling creatures, most of my research explores the way we tell our lives and share stories with other people, and how storytelling relates to individual and relational health and wellbeing.
What is the Nebraska Narrative Laboratory?
I founded and run a lab called Narrative Nebraska, a research collective made up of communication science professors and PhD students along with a number of interdisciplinary partners. We explore the connections between storytelling and health and wellbeing.
Storytelling is one of the most important ways people understand their world. We tell a multitude of stories every day. Because storytelling is so central to the way people communicate to give meaning to their lives, I’ve dedicated my career to understanding how people collaboratively make sense, create their identity, connect, socialize, and through storytelling deal with one another of stories.
One of the primary purposes of Narrative Nebraska is to develop and test interventions that use storytelling theories, methodologies, and empirical results to improve the health and wellbeing of our participants.
What interventions are you talking about?
We have developed various narrative interventions. What I’m most excited about is an intervention called Narrative Connection, which uses storytelling, sharing, and compassionate listening techniques to build connections and understanding between small groups, thereby increasing their individual and relational health and wellbeing. While COVID, we received emergency funding from ORED design and test an iteration of it called narrative parenting. A team of interdisciplinary researchers in communication studies took part, including myself, Dr. Toni Morgan, Cassidy Taladay, Trevor Kauer and student laboratory assistants, as well as children, adolescents and families, including Dr. Cody Hollist and Chris Neu who take care of 25 parent groups every week for the year.
In particular, as the pandemic progressed, we engaged small groups of parents in Zoom interactions to help them share their experiences of parenting difficulties during the period COVID-19.
Normally we would have let them get together in person, but this year we had to do everything on Zoom. They spent three weeks in a row in small groups of people they did not know, telling the stories of their challenges and successes in parenting while COVID-19. We invited them to write and share their stories, and also taught them some listening techniques called witnesses to help them appreciate each other’s experiences.
How is that helpful?
As our research examines the links between storytelling and health, we test whether and how mental health has improved over the course of the intervention. Although we haven’t analyzed the data yet, the first results show that the main benefit is the connection. In almost every small group that we looked after, the benefit was repeatedly reported: “I am not alone”. People were able to feel connected in the midst of a time when we were completely disconnected, and felt a sense of community and understanding even in the midst of an incredibly difficult and unprecedented situation.
How does storytelling affect family dynamics?
Storytelling is one of the main ways we perform a number of family functions. First, storytelling helps us construct both individual and family identities. When we tell stories in and about our family, we talk about who we are as a group, but we also tell stories about what it means to be our individual selves in relation to that family.
Second, storytelling serves the function of family socialization. We tell stories to orient people towards meanings, values, beliefs and norms. The stories that we tell and that we hear and that we remember in our families are important in how we think and learn about the world.
Third, storytelling is central to coping and making sense. When we have difficult family experiences, storytelling is one of the most important ways to understand them.
And finally, families also tell stories to promise solidarity. They tell stories in order to interact with each other. Our research has shown that the way families do this affects and reflects feelings of family culture and well-being.
How do we use storytelling to strengthen our relationships?
My theory, known as the communicated narrative making theory, suggests that we might pay close attention to the content of the stories we tell and hear and the processes by which we hear and tell them.
Our research shows that the way people create the content of their stories influences and reflects the way they think and feel about their lives. The more positive stories – something more redeeming than contaminated, for example from Dan McAdam’s works – are also associated with things like mental health and relationship satisfaction.
The same goes for the verbal and non-verbal behaviors we use to tell stories. We identified four behaviors that tend to be associated with higher levels of family satisfaction, family cohesion, and adaptability. The first is engagement, or how warm and involved you are in the storytelling. The second is turning. Are we dynamic? Are we building on each other? Are we giving everyone enough time to share their part of the story? Third is communicated perspective adoption, or the degree to which we consider and affirm other people’s perspectives when telling stories, even if they are different from ours. And all of that is synthesized in ultimate behavior, in coherence, and that is the degree to which we collectively as a family tell an organized story and create meaning in an integrated way.
What role do communication and storytelling play for people with serious illnesses?
One of the main functions of storytelling is coping and making sense. So when life is really messy and messy, we assign narrative characteristics to that clutter to make it coherent and meaningful. When we are in the midst of difficulties such as a serious illness, we can share our experiences, connect with other people, cope with them, and seek social support.
We can also tell a lot about where someone is in their experience of illness based on the quality of their story. Arthur Frank’s writing on illness narratives suggests that illness narratives reflect people’s place in the journey of illness. For example, people sometimes operate in a really messy room and their stories are inconsistent, which says anything about where they are in the disease process.
What have you learned from the past year and life through the pandemic? Has the experience raised new research questions?
I learned something I already knew, which is that communication constructs our reality.
The way we communicated during this pandemic influenced and reflected how we were doing. Most of us longed for these personal interactions. We miss that feeling of connectedness in the classroom or with our families and with our loved ones very much. Face-to-face communication is not to be underestimated when it comes to our mental and physical well-being.
At the same time, I learned that we can also be really creative when it comes to communication. Zoom was really helpful. In the narrative parenting intervention I mentioned, although many would have preferred to sit around a table or on sofas in person, we were able to find ways to connect with other people from all over the country on Zoom, which really made sense.
I think I also learned that I am less extrovert than I thought I was. I love being around people, but I also really appreciated the time to slow down the pace a little and really focus on the people I live with while being creative at connecting with people, who lived outside of my home.
What other research do you have ahead of you?
We are working on an intervention called MiNDSET, which stands for Military Narrative Defense Storytelling Empowered Teams. The same Narrative Nebraska members who worked on Narrative Parenting will work with Military Service and National Guard members who COVID-19 deployments to help them understand the experience.
I also work with some researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, including Dr. Lou Lukas and Dr. Kesey Klute, on the potential benefits of psilocybin (a naturally occurring hallucinogen) in pancreatic cancer patients and their family members. We’re exploring how it can help contain the depression associated with this cancer, and hopefully it can also help improve family dynamics.
How does communication play a role in this study?
The expertise that I bring with me lies primarily in family communication and creating meaning. We will look at how the patients themselves tell the story of their illness and their experiences. We will see whether the meaning of the narrative changes over time, before and after the intervention. In addition, we will help to understand whether a cancer patient’s experience with such an intervention is also beneficial to the family member’s sense of purpose and well-being, as there are many studies that show how well the patient and family members do each other. We are interested in whether the intervention also affects the well-being of family members and family dynamics.