Stories Shape Identity, Relationships and Impact Health | Nebraska today
We tell each other stories all the time. Stories about our day, about our experiences, even about illness or loss.
The stories we tell may seem trivial, 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 and life. well-being.
Koenig Kellas, Willa Cather Professor of Interpersonal, Family, and Health Communication and Chair of the Department of Communication Studies, recently spoke to Nebraska Today to further his research and explain how storytelling shapes our lives.
How would you describe your research?
I am a teacher and specialist in family interpersonal communication and health. What I’m studying are the ways people communicate to make sense of their identity, their relationships, and their lives. Because we are storytelling creatures, most of my research is about how we tell our lives and storytelling collaboratively with other people, and how storytelling relates to health and individual and relational well-being.
What is the Narrative Nebraska Lab?
I founded and ran a lab called Narrative Nebraska, which is a research collective made up of professors and graduate students in (department of) communication studies, with interdisciplinary partners. We research the links between storytelling and health and wellness.
Storytelling is one of the primary ways humans make sense of their world. We tell a multitude of stories every day. Because storytelling is so central to how humans communicate to make sense of their lives, I have dedicated my career to understanding how people in collaboration make sense, create their identity, connect, socialize, and socialize. get by by telling stories. .
One of the primary goals of Narrative Nebraska is to create and test interventions that use storytelling theory, methods, and empirical findings to improve the health and well-being of our participants.
What interventions are you talking about?
We have developed a variety of narrative interventions. The one that excites me the most is an intervention called Narrative Connection which uses techniques of story writing, sharing and compassionate listening to make connections and understanding between small groups and thereby increase their health and good. -be individual and relational. During COVID, we received rapid response funding from ORED to design and test an iteration of this called Narrative Parenting. It involved a team of interdisciplinary communication studies researchers, including myself, Dr Toni Morgan, Cassidy Taladay, Trevor Kauer and undergraduate laboratory assistants, and Child, Youth and the Family, including Dr Cody Hollist and Chris Neu, meeting weekly for the year as well as facilitating 25 parent groups.
Specifically, we engaged small groups of parents in Zoom interactions during the pandemic, to help them share their experiences of how difficult it was to be a parent during the pandemic. COVID-19.
Normally we would have them 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 didn’t know, telling the stories of their challenges and triumphs in parenthood during COVID-19. We invited them to write and share their stories, and also taught them some listening skills, called testimony, to help them honor each other’s experience in the process.
How is something like this useful?
Because our research examines the links between storytelling and health, we are testing whether and how mental health improved during the intervention. Although we have not yet analyzed the data, the first results show that the main benefit is the connection. In almost all of the small groups we facilitated, the repeatedly reported benefit was, “I’m not alone. People were able to feel connected in the midst of a time when we were completely disconnected and also feel a sense of community and understanding in the midst of an incredibly difficult and unprecedented situation.
What is the impact of storytelling on family dynamics?
Storytelling is one of the primary ways in which we accomplish a number of family functions. First, storytelling helps us build both individual and family identity. When we tell stories in and about our families, we are talking about who we are as a group, but we are also telling stories about what it means to be ourselves in relation to this family.
Second, storytelling serves the function of family socialization. We tell stories to guide people towards meaningful meanings, values, beliefs and norms. The stories we tell and hear, and remember in our families, are important to how we think and learn about the world.
Third, storytelling is essential for adaptation and creating meaning. When we have difficult experiences in the family, storytelling is one of the main ways to make sense of them.
And, finally, families also tell stories for the promise of connection. They tell stories to interact with each other. Our research has shown that the way families do this affects and reflects a sense of family culture and family well-being.
How do we use storytelling to strengthen our relationships?
My theory, called Communicated Narrative Sense Theory, suggests that we might pay special 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 define the content of their stories affects and reflects the way they think and feel about their lives. More positive stories – something more redemptive than tainted, for example, from Dan McAdams’ work – also tend to relate to things like mental health and relationship satisfaction.
The same goes for the verbal and non-verbal behaviors we use to engage in storytelling. We have identified four sets of 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 are you in the storytelling. The second is the sleight of hand. Are we dynamic? Are we building on each other? Are we giving everyone enough time to share their part of the story? The third is communicated perspective taking, or the degree to which we pay attention to and confirm the perspectives of others when we tell stories, even if they are different from our own. And it’s all synthesized into the final behavior, the consistency, and it’s the degree to which we tell an organized story together and create meaning in an integrated way, together as a family.
What is the role of communication and storytelling for people with serious illness?
One of the main functions of storytelling is adaptation and meaning making, so when life is really messy and chaotic, we map the narrative features onto that mess to help make it cohesive and logical. When we are in the midst of difficulties, such as serious illness, we can share our experience, connect with other people, cope, and seek social support.
We can also say a lot about a person’s situation in their experience of the disease based on the quality of their history. Arthur Frank’s writings on illness stories suggest that illness stories reflect people’s place in the illness journey. For example, sometimes people operate in a really chaotic space, and their stories are inconsistent, which says a lot about their situation in the disease process.
What have you learned from the past year and from life during the pandemic? Did the experience raise new research questions?
I learned something that I already knew, is that communication builds our reality.
The way we communicated during this pandemic has affected and reflected the way we do business. Most of us were hungry for these in-person interactions. We really miss that sense of connection in the classroom or with our families and loved ones. Face to face communication cannot be underestimated when it comes to our mental and physical well-being.
At the same time, I learned that we can also be very creative in communication. Zoom was very helpful. In the parenting narrative intervention I mentioned, although many would have preferred to be in person around a table together or on sofas, we were able to find ways to connect with other people from across the country by face to face on Zoom it was really meaningful.
I think I’ve also learned that I’m less outgoing than I thought. I love being with people, but I also really enjoyed the time to slow down a bit and really focus on the people I live with while keeping the creative connections with the people who lived outside. from my house.
What other research do you have to come?
We are working on an intervention called MiNDSET, which stands for Military Narrative Defense Storytelling Empowered Teams. The same members of Narrative Nebraska who worked on narrative parenting, will be working with military service members and members of the National Guard who had COVID-19 deployments to help them make sense of the experience.
I’m also working with researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, including Dr. Lou Lukas and Dr. Kesey Klute, among others, to understand the potential benefits of psilocybin (a natural hallucinogen) in patients with cancer of the breast. pancreas and their family members. We are looking at how it can help curb the depression that accompanies this cancer, and I hope it can help improve family dynamics as well.
How does communication play in this study?
The expertise that I bring is mainly on family communication and the creation of meaning. We will see how the patients themselves tell the story of their illness and their experience. We will seek to see if there is a change in the narrative sense 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 for the sense and well-being of the family member, as there is ample research showing that the patient and family member do each influence the other. We want to understand if the intervention also has an impact on the well-being of family members and family dynamics.