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The power of storytelling

There is an increasing interest in listening to people's stories in health and social care. Enabling people to share their experiences of their healthcare journey is playing an increasing role in the preparation of healthcare professionals of the future and in the continuing professional development of current staff.

This attention to story and the discussion that surrounds it always reminds me of what is often an overlooked and neglected part of nursing - that of attentive listening.

As the courses in narrative practice and storytelling develop and academics pontificate about the importance of the "narrative turn" and attending to people's life stories, I sit quietly reflecting on how as a community nurse that was often the vast majority of my job out in people's homes and within the clinic.

People would share with me not just stories about their condition but also the whole kit and caboodle of their family's life and that of their neighbour. One of the hardest skills to learn in district nursing was an effective exit strategy. How to leave someone's home without seeming to be rude and hurried but being mindful of the list of visits still to do took me months to get right and I am still very conscious that I need to listen ALL the time and that the most important things are said on departure.

I spent Monday afternoon this week listening to stories from a number of women about their lives as carers. Nights spent on camp beds being kept awake by oxygen compressors and pressure relieving mattresses, shopping trips cut short by anxious loved ones and inadequate care packages. Then there were the humorous stories of parrots with personalities and misunderstandings about photographs.

As these women were offered relaxing hand massages and Reiki therapy I was deeply moved by their stories. I was there to offer poetry but it all seemed a little inadequate as I listened to what they said. However, it was immensely gratifying to realise that being listened to and being offered the opportunity to have some space was enough.

Talking about poetry can, and does, illicit quite a range of responses from the enthusiastic to the shrugged shoulders and downward glance; but once you start talking about it in a human and connected way it establishes a common ground - that of language and how we express ourselves.

Good poets do this best putting into a few words what it might take someone an afternoon to express, but the fact that it is there written by someone else provides people with permission to talk about their own thoughts and feelings. One of my favourite poems is by an American poet called Jane Kenyon - her poem Otherwise expresses so well what so many people experience when all seems a little uncertain.1

Reading it out loud has proved a challenge for me as I realise that the emotion it evokes gets me every time and that however much I prepare myself for this it doesn't stop my voice cracking. However, I am learning that this doesn't matter - we don't always have to hide our emotions and that if poetry evokes that response then let it. It provides an opportunity to explore those feelings and help make sense of it all.

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