Ever since Maya and David began their careers, they have felt in sync about the direction of their lives. There has always been a natural rhythm in how they talked about life, sharing stories, planning, and thinking together about their future, often over late-night dinners. But recently, as they have gotten more earnest about their retirement planning, things have felt different. There has been a subtle shift in the tenor of their conversations. They felt like each planning meeting was more about reviewing goals and analysis that told them what they could or should do rather than envisioning their next stage of life together.
The importance of stories for envisioning and connecting
Understanding what's happening for Maya and David begins with understanding how our brains work and exploring the role stories play in stimulating a vision for the future. A growing body of evidence has shown how things like goals, lists, tasks, and graphs stimulate the more analytical part of our brain that is not as well suited to creative envisioning or for taking a relationship focus. By contrast, storytelling and storylistening engage the more empathetic part of our brain and elicits the positive emotions necessary for connecting, envisioning, and enacting a desired change.
Speaking to NPR, Princeton Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Uri Hasson explains that as we hear a story, our brain waves start to synchronize with those of the storyteller. The greater our comprehension as a listener, the more our brains are in sync. This means that storytelling creates the psychological and physiological conditions for intimate connection, as though "I'm trying to make your brain similar to mine," Hasson explains.1
This is good news for couples like Maya and David. They simply need to reengage their storytelling and storylistening selves, in conjunction with their analytical planning and goal setting. This activates both parts of their brains by switching between analysis and storytelling.
How to tell and gather intimate stories
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, famed screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee described a story and storytelling: "Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance: You come to work day after day, week after week, and everything's fine. You expect it will go on that way. But then there's an event—in screenwriting, we call it the ‘inciting incident'—that throws life out of balance."2
What better phrase than "inciting incident" to describe why couples like David and Maya may experience some disorientation as they consider retirement. Every aspect of their lives is potentially thrown out of balance, from the financial to the emotional and relational, even the geographical and generational.
That is why the analytical models are only a partial approach to planning. Storytelling, however, can include the full range of emotions, from our fears and wishes to the challenges and opportunities associated with this inciting incident.
To help activate your intimate storytelling and storylistening selves, ask, "How do we imagine our future?" Then consider this framework with a set of useful practice hints.
1. Tell a compelling story
A compelling story includes the emotional and meaningful parts, not just the descriptive facts. Maya saying "I want to live in North Carolina with our children and grandchildren" is not the same as storytelling about the vitality and joy of being there for every stage of their grandchildren's lives. The facts pale in comparison to her greatest wish, which is to leave them with memories she never had of time with her own grandparents. "It always felt like such a loss to not know my grandparents better," might be an ending to that chapter. The engaging power of your story comes from feeling like what's happening in the story is happening in "real time." Here are some hints:
- Close your eyes and use a storytelling voice to vividly describe the scenes you see as they unfold in your story mind.
- Drop your listener into the future moment by sharing the sensory details of what you are aspirationally seeing, feeling, and experiencing.
- Intentionally identify what is "compelling" to you rather than just talking "about" what might happen: "It is so important for me to know the hopes and dreams of my grandchildren."
- Ask questions that further explore the "compelling" emotional and meaningful parts of the story, not the facts—in this case, Maya's greatest wish (e.g., instead of asking an analytical question like "How can we do that?," ask empathetic questions like "What's important to you about that wish?" or "Tell me more about the wish").
2. Tell an integrated story
An integrated story includes both the good and the bad parts with a full range of wishes and fears, challenges and opportunities, successes and failures, and, ultimately, life and death. David hasn't always been known as a person with a positive outlook, and that's OK. He told Maya a story about his fear of depending on the children. But he was also able to envision and describe the fun of fishing with grandchildren and feeling needed by helping the children with their houses. His story included a vision of his death and his comfort at Maya being surrounded by the children and grandchildren.
Telling an integrated story can be hard and relies on helping each other. Here are some hints:
- List all the emotions you might be feeling about retirement to create an integrated storyboard.
- Try to envision the hope and aspiration you have in the face of this full range of emotions and experiences.
- Tell "endings" to each chapter that speak to the emotional and relational fulfillment you wish for: "I really wish to feel helpful to my children as long as I can."
- Help keep it integrated by making it clear the storyteller doesn't need to edit out parts of their story you might not like (e.g., avoid "Oh, you shouldn't feel that way," or "That doesn't seem very fun and healthy").
3. Tell an inclusive story
An inclusive story contains the lives and roles of all the players, not just you. You are storytelling a rich mosaic of the people and relationships you wish to make up your retirement future.
Both Maya and David were able to tell stories about the key people in their lives. Of course, it included their children, as David shared: "I don't want to parent the kids. I feel thrilled anytime they bring us into their experiences. I love seeing how different they each are and how life is changing for them." And the story included some long-standing friends. Maya added, "I don't see us isolated in North Carolina. I would be sad if we didn't intentionally plan to spend time with Mark and Gina. I see us on vacation together comparing our experiences and struggles of the aging journey."
An inclusive story has richness because you expand beyond yourself. Here are some hints:
- Create a character storyboard of all the people in your future story.
- Describe how you want to stay connected and the different emotions in your relationships: "Charlie is the person who keeps me real and light."
- Tell a version of your engagement with them that is true to who they are—for example, your friend John probably won't start to love opera if he doesn't now.
- Ask questions about the people in your life to see how they get written into—or out of—the story, without feeling a need to share your own opinion (e.g., "Where is your sister in your story?" and "What feelings do you have about Janet's involvement in the future?").
4. Tell an empathetic story
An empathetic story steps into the lives of others instead of being shaped exclusively by your own view of life. In "real life" storytelling, we hold in tension our aspirational desires for the future with the reality that other people's lives are entwined with our own. David's story included concerns about imposing on their kids' lives and knowing they would have to work on their communication with certain family members. His empathetic story awareness impacted Maya, and she was able to expand the story: "I see us having open conversations about where they want us to join them and what they view as ‘their lives.'" And I want to make sure we always have enough of those late-night dinner talks with just the two of us."
Empathetic storytelling and storylistening requires heightened awareness and reflection. Here are some hints:
- Reflect on how your story is always in tension with the story of other people's lives.
- It's OK to ask other people their views on parts of your story to see how you might "write them in" (e.g., "Samantha, how do you see us spending time together in the future?").
- Describe how you will cultivate empathy for what others are experiencing.
- Empathetic listening leads to curious and caring questions that show your interest in following the story (e.g., "Tell me more about your fears around communication").
- Remember that an integrated story of aging includes dependence and loss: Your partner may require an empathetic helper to get through their storytelling about their future.
Planning can be a catalyst for connection
When Maya and David leaned into storytelling their future, they began to feel the energy and possibilities of what lay ahead. Their dinners became animated and intimate again. And that storytelling connection and vision carried over into their sessions with their advisor. Their planning had a better balance between the analytical and more empathetic and relational parts of their lives. They definitely felt like "their brains were more in sync."
Storytelling isn't about writing a fairy tale. It's about imagining intimacy—chapters full of love, passion, struggles, and ascending and descending moments, just like life itself. Your retirement years will be full of transitions and change—so keep the storytelling going. It is not necessarily a point-in-time experience. And celebrate the new levels of shared vision and relationship intimacy you will create every time you sit down to connect through story.