Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Tell Me Your Story

--by Dan Gottlieb (Jun 09, 2008)

It came to me in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago, four words that could change the world:

Tell me your story.

These four words could have an impact on everything from global conflict to personal well-being. All we have to do is ask others to tell us their stories and then be quiet. Oh, one other thing: While you are listening, try to imagine what it would be like - and how you would feel - if it were your story. That's called empathy.

So just ask people for their stories, listen, imagine, and feel - sounds naive, doesn't it? Stick with me here.

First, saying these words will change you. Listening to others is an act of emotional generosity, and there is ample evidence that generosity stimulates the brain's endorphins - natural antidepressants. [...]

Second, this little exercise will change the person whose story you've asked for. Socrates may have overstated the issue a bit when he said, in modern translation, "an unexamined life is not worth living," but we humans do have a fundamental need to be understood for who we are. Think of how full we feel when someone looks in our eyes and says she wants to know how we experience our lives.

In today's world, social networks are shrinking. The number of people who report having no intimate friends is increasing. Simple eye contact, along with a caring "tell me your story," can go a long way toward diminishing someone's feelings of alienation and aloneness. I've spoken those words to kids of all ages in all kinds of neighborhoods. Most thank me for asking - and say that no one has ever done so before.

Third, beyond diminishing alienation and increasing a sense of connection, these four words can have a biological effect on both parties. According to Herbert Adler, a psychiatrist at Jefferson, compassion in the doctor-patient relationship actually changes each person's biological healing system. And if that happens in those relationships, it happens in other relationships. It literally promotes healing.

(...) Try it with a neighbor you don't know very well, a relative with whom you've had a misunderstanding. Try it with a street person and see what happens to both of you.

Just four words. We could start a movement.

--Dan Gottlieb

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Previous Reflections:

On Jun 9, 2008 David wrote:
Just about a year ago OneOfUs awoke in the middle of the night and started writing. Now, we have just released the Whole World Pledge project. Still Beta, and fully functional. Please visit, at
Namaste, David

On Jun 10, 2008 dickson wrote:
I have really enjoyed "tell me your story"

On Jun 10, 2008 shirley hetherington wrote:
It sounds wonderful, however I live in Australia. Maybe sometime I will try starting my own group.
Regards Shirley H.

On Jun 10, 2008 Meera wrote:
What a wonderful article. I work as a volunteer for women seeking help of any kind. 'Listening' is a big part of this work. Some problems are just so vast that it is impossible to find the words to help. The one thing I am learning though, is that 'listening' is help in itself. When solutions seem far away or impossible, the fact that the person is also listening to themselves and hearing their own story, a solution is suddenly closer.

On Jun 10, 2008 carolbeth wrote:
I want to know Dan Gottlieb's story. I am moved by this suggestion and will use it.

On Jun 10, 2008 Nipun wrote:
Dan Gottlieb has an incredible story -- a car crash in 1979 left him paralyzed and went through a lot of suffering; in 1985, he started a "voices in the Family" mental health show which turned into a bi-monthly column in Philadelphia Inquirer; and most recently he came out with a book, Letters From Sam (fully available on Google Books) which contained letters to his developmentally challenged grandson. Incredible guy, indeed!

On Jun 10, 2008 Xiaoshan wrote:
Tell me your story, I will listen and then be quiet.

On Jun 10, 2008 Susan wrote:
YES -- this is the sort of movement we need. I have been part of The Compassionate Listening Project for many years...and listening to people's stories is exactly what we do, from a deep place of love and compassion. We believe 'an enemy is someone whose story you haven't heard,' as expressed by Jean Knudsen Hoffman, our mentor. So part of this movement is alive and well and we invite all of you to join us -- for trainings, practice groups, and a community of compassionate listeners. Check us out:

We are primarily in the USA (based in the Northwest) but also have worked in the Middle East and Germany and have practitioners in many places in the world...

On Jun 10, 2008 Richard Shotz wrote:
This is lovely..."Tell me your story." Tell me a story, I'll tell you a story. Yet, understand: your story isn't you, my story isn't me. These stories, perhaps instructive...beautiful, sad, joyful - they ain't reality. I'm not putting down Brother Gottlieb, not for a moment - yet we need to look far beyond our stories. We all have our story..or stories: beyond these stories there is a stunning, profound, shimmering reality (uncapturable in words) waiting to be discovered. Shazzzammm!

On Jun 12, 2008 Christine Kane wrote:
I facilitate retreats for women - and I train companies in Creativity. In the last year, I've begun to REALLY listen to each person as they talk. Listen without my own opinions dancing in my head as they speak.

Practicing this has changed the entire outcome of these events. The results are huge, and the changes people are making are getting bigger.

One other thing though: I also try to see BEYOND the story into the heart of the person. (where stories aren't even important.) When i do that, I don't have to BELIEVE their story. I get to see their power. This makes a huge difference too.

On Sep 10, 2008 Helen T wrote:
You have "hit the nail on the head".You have said exactly what I have been thinking. People are communicating less and less with each other. Sadly people have adopted the role of TV commentators/journalists in their dealing with everyday people.They ask a question and before one finishes a sentence turn it around to present their own personal thoughts. My mother calls them "transmittors" There is a trend with North Americans to emulate the ratio, transmit only and no facility to talk back. The style of interupting and speaking too fast has really caught on.
I question if people will ask the question"what is your story" but then not have the time or patience to listen.
It is a beautiful thought and an opportunity to also hear some great original stories.
Great work. Thanks

On Sep 10, 2008 Tim wrote:
Isn't it funny how a "novel" idea today used to be common practice by most cultures all over the world? Still is for many folks. When people of old gathered, there'd often be a fire they would gather around and have exactly the kind of experience being suggested here--people sharing their stories and listening to one another around an open flame.
Maybe all we need to do is turn off the TVs, the iPods, the cell phones, and a thousand other distractions. I think people are still telling their stories--there's just too many distractions around for them to be heard. Try sitting on a plane without something stuck in your ears and I guarantee you it won't take long to strike up a conversation with people next to you. What a great time to listen and speak to one another. Some of my best friends are total strangers!
Thanks for the thought provoking reality that we all could be more mindful of getting back to the basics of being human.

On Sep 10, 2008 Lynette Charles wrote:
I have a son who suffers from Sickle Beta Thalassemia a blood disease and I call him everyday for him to tell me his daily story.I also do it with others .It's a nice feeling knowing you can help someone by just listening. Thanks for this article very inspiring....Tell me your story''

On Sep 10, 2008 Sherry Tucker wrote:
Tell me your story are the four words that can solve many problems in this world. If we all took the time to listen and understand others heartaches the world would be a much better place. I have put my son's story in a book called Unfinished Love - Walking by Faith through Pediatric Cancer. I am being told this story changes lives.

On Sep 10, 2008 P. Ray wrote:
We all have a story to tell, even if our listener is only ourselves.

I recently had a profound (and self-imposed) opportunity to spend three months in unobstructed solitude. I used the time to thoroughly examine my 57 year-long life. My commitment to full and honest self-disclosure brought about a personal epiphany and recognition of what I consider to be an axiomatic revelation.

The synthesis of all I know, all I imagine, or all I desire to know about anything at all condensed into the simple homonym-us equation: Whys=Wise.

To achieve balance and gain understanding, we must first ask the question. When we actively listen to the answers, we achieve Wisdom... ad infinitum.


On Sep 10, 2008 Tim wrote:
In response to P. Ray: that's so sublime and at the heart of what's being discussed here. I offer you this: beyond the whys are the hows (or the House, which we are all building)!

On Sep 10, 2008 phuong wrote:
I find inspiration from Shinkichi Takahashi in this matter...

I don't take your words Merely as words.
Far from it.
I listen To what makes you talk- Whatever that is
And me listen.

On Sep 12, 2008 Dirk Schrauwen wrote:
This is a great idea!!! I'll publish the Dan Gottlieb text on the Care2 Spirituality Group I co-host: Ascension.Please feel free to visit!

On Feb 25, 2009 Swetha wrote:
It's a beautiful article, people now a days harldy find some to listen to them,all of us have many important things in life and we forget the most important one that's listing to someone,yes all of us should take intiative even by listing to the people whom we knw,in that way we can change many people's life... thanks for the article once again :)

On Jun 3, 2011 teresmica wrote:

It's as simple as christ's teaching ' love your neighbour as yourself ' ! If you do this, you will invariably be doing all that is mentioned in this News that Inspires

On Jun 3, 2011 Deepthi wrote:

Its 100 % true, this is my personal experience too,i may not have used the same words as used her,but offered to listen to no of lives,i knw wht impact it has,,,everyone wnts tht love shown from eyes n someone to listen n it makes all the difference...though genuine self reflection, self analysis n genuine concern in sch things brings sustainable difference.

On Jun 3, 2011 Dhara wrote:

Great reading, when someone listed to me for the first time in my life, it changed my life forever.

Most of us don't feel that we are "heard".  There is a difference b/w when you speak and someone listens through their ears or with their ears, heart and soul.  :-) 



On Jun 3, 2011 Retta wrote:

I really like this.  I work with adults with developmental disabilities, which means anything that occurs to make them disabled before the age of 22.  (Usually its something that occurs at birth or shortly afterwards, but perhaps an automobile accident at 19 left him a quadraplegic, etc.)

The reason I am so good at what I do is that I HAVE to really listen.   Sometimes the disability makes their speech difficult to hear/understand.  Sometimes its almost like learning another language!  But if you are truly attentive, you can understand what they are saying and then you can really and truly advocate for them.   It's sometimes like being a translator.

On Jun 3, 2011 jeanne bearmon wrote:

for the past three years as a  volunteer, i have  facilitated a group i have named: "When Memories Speak" for the association of american university women, mpls chapter. and another group  for the osher lifelong learning institute (university of mn.). over time  i have prepared dozens of index cards on each of which is a statement or question which taps memories .  participants take  turns picking a card  from a group randomly  placed face down . granted that this is not the same as asking the four worded question you suggest ,  it does generate some remarkable stories whiich makes for  surprising connections to one's self and also among the members .i keep the group at fewer than eight . i think having a focus adds comfort and a sense of safety.   i think such groups could be part of  the movement you would like to start  and i would be very happy to see it happen - soon.  i am ninety years of  age. jeanne bearmon

On Jun 6, 2011 mitsy wrote:

Tell me your story. Mitsy

On Jun 6, 2011 carrie wrote:

Even in my neighborhood there is a constant clique happening as well. When my kids were younger no one seemed to be at home and it was extremely isolating. I needed to do something to save my sanity so I went and looked for people only to find in my close mid size town that people seemed skeptical of unfamiliar folks. This enabled them to stay in their comfort zone and keep out others. I really can't relate to this. Now, when I come across someone else who was just like me, I stop myself and remember how it was for me so that I can keep my self in check.

On Jun 10, 2011 Graeme Cowan wrote:

I wonderful proposal. Such simple action would have powerful repercussions.

I am part of a movement in Australia which is called RUOK?Day on September 15 people are asked to reach out to someone they are concerned about and ask "Are you OK?" Last year over 2 million Australians had RUOK? conversations.

Our tag line is "a conversation could change a life" and I believe that to be true for both the "asker" and the "askee".

"Tell me your story" covers many other scenarios and I will add it to my inventory of enquiry.

On Sep 20, 2011 Donagh wrote:

When someone asks to hear your story, for me, a number of magical things occur. There's that simple special sharing between two people,. Listening to the voice, the spirit of another human being. It's an opportunity for the teller, perhaps for the first time, to put into words, their deepest thoughts. It's an opportunity for the teller to hear his or her own story in complete sentences and in a story. Before that they were merely a collection of thoughts, unspoken, and perhaps never connected in such a way. The teller is almost forced to bring together strands that may have been unconnected before into a coherent story. Often, when telling another person your story, the seperateness of events comes together and makes sense as much to the teller as the listener. We often tell ourselves something in thoughts that when revealed to another person, lets us hear ourselves for the first time.   Like putting pen to paper, it releases unsaid things that reveal more to ourselves as well as to those who are listening.  The process, as suggested above, offers the perfect opportunity for empathy.Equally the teller of the story has a chance to listen, really listen, to hear their own story

On Mar 27, 2013 Ishq wrote:


 As someone rightly said
"Every person you meet, has a story to tell, a lesson to teach and a dream to do"