I don’t have figures to back this up, but experience suggests that a lot of arguments aim not so much to convince the other person as to justify your position to yourself.

I had the great experience of speaking to the Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship this morning about the power of storytelling. I’ve known that power for years in terms of affecting other people, and this morning’s talk focused on the power of the stories we tell ourselves. As part of that talk, we turned to the Book of Job, especially as translated by Stephen Mitchell.

If you’ve never read the book in any form, there are a few things to know about it for this discussion.

  1. Some scholars believe it may be the oldest book in the Bible in terms of when it was written down, and it is based on a story that predates written history. That means the struggle it details (trying to understand why bad things happen to good people) is one of the oldest conundrums humans face.
  2. It’s not just a story; it is a story within a story. As such, it strongly demonstrates how important storytelling is to humans.
  3. When you get right down to it, it’s pretty tedious to read. Most of the 40-something chapters consist of Job arguing with his friends.
  4. Mitchell points out something profound when he observes the following:

The friends and Job all agree that God is wise and can see into the hearts of men. He is not the kind of character who would allow a good man to be tortured because of a bet; nor is he a well-intentioned bungler. Given this premise, they construct opposite syllogisms. The friends: Suffering comes from God. God is just. Therefore Job is guilty. Job: Suffering comes from God. I am innocent. Therefore God is unjust. A third possibility is not even thinkable: Suffering comes from God. God is just. Job is innocent. (No therefore.)

In other words, storytelling is a very strong way that we humans try to make sense out of something that may not make sense (at least from our point of view).

Here’s my observation from the interaction and Mitchell’s observation: the friends came in order to comfort Job, but wound up trying to comfort themselves as they struggled to understand something frightening. After all, if someone as good as Job could suffer as badly as he did, what hope could normal humans have? The friends had to find a way to explain it (basically, Job must have done something wrong) in order to avoid considering the possibility of an unjust almighty.

Ultimately the dialogue is not about theological positions but human reactions [says Mitchell]. Afraid of any real contact with Job and his grief, the friends stay locked inside their own minds.

Therein lies the problem: when we become our own audience, we no longer hear the other person, and we no longer say anything useful. Effective communication requires at least a temporary suspension of the need to be comfortable–and we’re not talking about stage fright this time, either.

How have you let your own fears get in the way of telling the audience what they really needed to hear? How have you let it interfere with hearing your audience?

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