The Healing Power of Narrative, Storytelling, and Connection with Dr. Jonathan Adler


There’s nothing quite like the soul enrichment found in spending the afternoon with hospice nurses. Indeed, if you ever need a reminder of the beauty of living, listen to them speak about the beauty of dying. You won’t hear discussions of diagnoses or medical drama. Instead, you’ll hear stories—lots and lots of stories. You’ll hear stories about patients’ families, favorite meals, and lasting moments.

And it’s these stories that will transport you, connect you, and revive you.

Unfortunately, in the rush of the daily grind—particularly in the freneticism of medicine—we forget the power of story, even as we use story every day to share information and make meaning. Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams, a legend in narrative, says, “We are all tellers of tales, and we seek to provide our scattered and often confusing experiences with a sense of coherence by arranging the episodes of our lives” into story.

In a piece co-authored with Dr. Elisabeth Poorman and Dr. Audrey Provenzano, host of the Review of Systems podcast, we reflect on the role of clinicians as storytellers:

There’s no question that to be a clinician is to be a storyteller. Over years of training, we learn how to craft intricate narratives out of disjointed details, shedding light on the lives, choices, and circumstances of our patients. Through stories, we make meaning for and with those we serve. And yet, rarely do our own stories find their way into the daily discourse. Maybe it’s our grueling training that wears it out of us or some misguided belief that vulnerability is weakness. But at some point along the way, we stifle our lived experience. We avoid talking about how our daily work as healers impacts the spirit – how it chips away at our humanity to bear witness to the systemic injustices that cause our patients to suffer, like watching a diabetic patient ache to decide between insulin for herself or food for her children. We struggle to talk about our own battles with isolation and depression and what it means to work in a system engineered to work against us.

So what is it about story that has such a transformative effect on the soul? And are they ways to better share our own stories to build community and find catharsis?

These are the questions that led me to Jonathan Adler, Ph.D., co-director of Health Story Collaborative and a professor of narrative at Olin College. Like McAdams, Jon is acclaimed in the space of storytelling, particularly in healthcare, where he works to bring together patients and providers through the use of story, as well as help patients work through the challenges of illness.

In this latest episode of Relational Rounds, Jon and I sat down in his home in suburban Boston to explore the human as storyteller and the essential role the broader societal story plays into our own. To bring story into your clinics or institution, contact PCP to learn how a Narrative Leadership workshop can change the way you and your team connect.

Elizabeth Métraux

Senior Advisor for Thought Leadership at PCP, Elizabeth regularly speaks and writes on the art, science, and power of language, as well as performs as a storyteller in the Boston area.

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