Storytelling & Papañca (#91)

There comes a point when emotional empathy no longer serves us if it prevents us from having the necessary conversation.

Colorful fractal swirls spiral in repeating patterns, gold, blue, and purple dominate.
Storytelling & Papañca, JLP

When we share an experience with another our responses are amplified. If we read a book or watch a show that we know others are reading or watching we tend to pay more attention. Influence flows in both directions, this is true even when someone is speaking to an audience from stage, we are always looking for queues. Our desire to tune our message to an audience will even alter the words we use and the meaning we convey. We can recognize how our narrative is landing and may soften its impact when we notice a tepid response or double down on a theme when listeners respond positively.

This influence can be so strong we can end up tailoring our message into something that no longer matches our beliefs. We may speak in generalities rather than specifics or we may commit to action beyond where we feel comfortable. Have you ever said something you didn't mean nor intended to say? Have you signed up for a course of action that greatly differs from your preferred plan? Or maybe you stopped short of giving the constructive criticism you planned because the recipient appeared distressed.

In the worst cases we are influenced to elaborate too much and too often that we become trapped by our tailored messages, creating internal stress. In the Pali language of Buddhist the word papañca represents the proliferation of stress caused by inhabiting our thoughts of the past or the future. When we get trapped this way it is natural for us to feel anxiety over how things should have been or what our now committed, yet not supported, action will lead to.

"Stress is not an inherent property of events themselves, it is a function of how we label and react to them."
-Bessel van der Kolk

Clearly we've done ourselves a disservice when we get caught up in the emotional response to our storytelling. Equally, we've done our audience the same. They have missed out on our full perspective, on valuable information, on critical feedback. This storytelling trap is what author Kim Scott calls ruinous empathy in her book Radical Candor. "Ruinous Empathy is what happens when you want to spare someone’s short-term feelings, so you don’t tell them something they need to know. It’s praise that isn’t specific enough to help the person understand what was good or criticism that is sugar-coated and unclear. Or simply silence," writes Scott.

In our work we harness the power of storytelling, which connects us to each other. We resist the trap of capitalism that obscures the work, balancing both the value of our efforts with the results of our outcomes. We care about the people we engage and also the message we need to convey. And when we are on the receiving end we remain receptive to the gifts that others are giving us by reciprocating these behaviors.

The Paradox Pairs series is an exploration of the contradictory forces that surround us.  A deeper study finds that these forces often complement each other if we can learn to tap into the strength of each. See the entire series by viewing the Paradox Pairs Index.