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 mundane, but Jody Koenig Kellas’ research at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln demonstrates that these stories are powerful tools in creating our identities, strengthening relationships, and have a direct impact on health and well-being.
Koenig Kellas, a Willa Cather professor of interpersonal, family and health communication and chair of the Department of Communication Studies, recently sat down with Nebraska Today to delve into her research and explain how storytelling shapes our lives.
How would you describe your research?
I am a professor and scholar of interpersonal family and health communication. What I study is the ways in which people communicate to make sense of their identities, their relationships and their lives. Because we are storytelling creatures, most of my research looks at the ways in which we narrate our lives and collaboratively tell stories with other people, and the way in which storytelling relates to individual and relational health and well-being.
What is the Narrative Nebraska lab?
I founded and run a lab called Narrative Nebraska which is a research collective comprised of faculty and graduate students in (the Department of) Communication Studies, with some interdisciplinary partners. We do research on the links between storytelling and health and well-being.
Storytelling is one of the primary ways in which humans make sense of their world. We tell a multitude stories every day. Because storytelling is so central to the ways in which humans communicate to make sense of their lives, I have dedicated my career to understanding how people collaboratively make meaning, create their identities, connect, socialize each other, and cope through telling stories with one another.
One of the main purposes of Narrative Nebraska is to create and test interventions that use storytelling theory, methods, and empirical results to improve the health and well-being of our participants.
What kind of interventions are you talking about?
We have developed a variety of narrative interventions. The one I am most excited about is an intervention called Narrative Connection which uses storytelling writing, sharing and compassionate listening techniques to build connection and understanding between small groups and, thereby, increase their individual and relational health and well-being. During COVID, we received rapid response funding from ORED to design and test an iteration of this called Narrative Parenting. This involved a team of interdisciplinary researchers from Communication Studies, including me, Dr. Toni Morgan, Cassidy Taladay, Trevor Kauer and undergraduate lab assistants, and Child, Youth, and the Family, including Dr. Cody Hollist and Chris Neu, meeting weekly for the year as well as facilitating 25 groups of parents.
Specifically, we engaged small groups of parents in Zoom interactions over the course of the pandemic, in order to help them story their experience about the difficulty of parenting during COVID-19.
Normally, we would have them come 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 that they didn’t know, telling the stories of their challenges and triumphs in parenting during COVID-19. We invited them to write and share their stories and also taught them some listening techniques, called witnessing, to help them honor each other’s experience in the process.
How is something like that helpful?
Because our research looks at the links between storytelling and health, we are testing if and how mental health improved over the course of the intervention. Although we haven’t analyzed the data yet, the initial results show that the primary benefit is connection. In almost every small group that we facilitated, the benefit reported over and over again 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 a incredibly difficult and unprecedented situation.
What’s 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 construct both individual and family identity. When we’re telling stories in and about our families, we are talking about who we are as a group, but we’re also telling 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 in order to orient people to significant meanings, values, beliefs and norms. The stories that we tell and that we hear, and that we remember in our families, are important to how we think about and learn about the world.
Third, storytelling is central to coping and sense-making. When we have difficult experiences in the family, storytelling is one of the primary ways that we make sense of them.
And, finally, families also tell stories for the promise of connection. They tell stories in order to interact with one another. Our research has shown that the ways in which families do that affects and reflects a sense of family culture, and family well-being.
How do we use storytelling to strengthen our relationships?
My theory, which is called communicated narrative sense-making theory, suggests that we might pay close attention to the content of the stories that we tell and hear, and the processes by which we hear and tell them.
Our research shows that the way people frame the content of their stories affects and reflects the way they think and feel about their lives. The more positively-framed stories — something that’s more redemptive than it is contaminated, for example, drawing from Dan McAdams work — also tend to be linked to things like mental health, and relational satisfaction.
The same is true for the verbal and nonverbal behaviors that we use to engage in storytelling. We’ve 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 turn-taking. Are we dynamic? Do we build off of each other? Do we give everybody enough time to share their part of the story? Third is communicated perspective-taking, or the degree to which we attend to, and confirm other people’s perspectives when telling stories, even if they differ from ours. And all of that is synthesized in the final behavior, coherence, and that’s the degree to which we jointly tell an organized story and create meaning in an integrated way, together as a family.
What’s the role of communication and storytelling for those dealing with serious illness?
One of the primary functions of storytelling is coping and sense-making, so when life is really messy and chaotic, we map narrative features onto that messiness in order to help make it coherent and make sense. When we’re in the midst of difficulty, like serious illness, we can narrate our experience, to connect with other people, to cope and to seek social support.
We can also tell a lot about where somebody is in their illness experience based on the quality of their story. Arthur Frank’s writing on illness narratives suggests that illness narratives reflect people’s place in the illness journey. For example, sometimes people are operating in a really chaotic space, and their stories are not coherent, which says something about where they are in the illness process.
What have you learned from the past year plus of living through the pandemic? Has the experience raised new research questions?
I’ve learned something that I already knew, which is that communication constructs our reality.
The way in which we communicated during this pandemic affected and reflected how we were doing. Most of us hungered for those in-person interactions. We really miss that sense of connection in the classroom or with our families and with our loved ones. Face-to-face communication cannot be underestimated when it comes to our mental and physical well-being.
At the same time, I’ve learned that we can also be really creative with communication. Zoom has been really helpful. In the narrative parenting intervention that I mentioned, although many would have preferred to be in-person around a table together or on couches, we were able to find ways to connect with other people from all over the country face-to- face on Zoom that was really meaningful.
I think I also learned that I am less of an extrovert than I thought I was. I love being with people, but I also really appreciated the time to just slow the pace down a little bit and really focus on the people that I live with while also creatively keeping connections with the people who lived outside my home.
What other research do you have coming up?
We’re working on an intervention called MiNDSET, which is stands for Military Narrative Defense Storytelling Empowered Teams. The same members of Narrative Nebraska who worked on Narrative parenting, are going to work with military service members and National Guard members who had COVID-19 deployments to help them make sense of the experience.
I’m also working with some researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, including Dr. Lou Lukas and Dr. Kesey Klute, among others, to understand the potential benefits of psilocybin (a naturally-occurring hallucinogenic) in pancreatic cancer patients and their family members. We’re looking at how it may help curb the depression that accompanies that cancer, and hopefully it may also help improve family dynamics.
How does communication play into that study?
The expertise that I bring is primarily on family communication and meaning-making. We will look at how the patients themselves tell the story of their illness and their experience. We will look to see if there’s change in narrative sense-making over time, before and after the intervention. Additionally, we’ll be helping to understand whether or not a cancer patient’s experience with such an intervention also helps benefit the sense-making and well-being of the family member, because there’s plenty of research that shows that how well the patient and the family member are each doing influences the other. We’re interested in understanding whether or not the intervention also impacts the well-being of the family members and the family dynamics.