“What’s Your Story?”, column for June 28, 2016

How do you get people to tell you their stories?

Readers of my column often write to ask me that. It’s a great question.

My children might tell you it’s because I wear a sign on my back that reads: “Confess. Do it now before I beat it out of you.”

Don’t believe them. I’ve never worn a sign like that. If I did, they certainly never heeded it.

Getting people to tell you their stories isn’t some kind of magic. Anybody with half a brain can do it. Yes, I am living proof.  I’ll share with you some things I’ve learned about the process. But first, let’s talk about stories.

Stories tell us who we are.   They help us understand one another and ourselves, both separately as individuals and collectively as a people. They celebrate our differences, yet show us how much we’re alike.

Stories remind us that we are human. When we hear a story and nod our heads at its truth, we realize that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and we are not alone.

Stories say, “There has never been, and will never be, anyone else exactly like me. I am here and I want you to know me while there is still time.”

My stepdad’s mother collected salt ‘n‘ pepper shakers. She had dozens all lined up on shelves in her home. When I visited, she made me dust them. I collect stories. I’ve got thousands lined up on the shelves of my memory. And I never have to dust them.

Storytelling is a two-way gift. The listener gets to hear a story. And the teller gets the chance to be heard. Young and old alike, we hunger for that chance. We just need someone to listen.

How do you get someone to tell you their story?

1. Make eye contact. Smile. Let them see the light in your eyes that tells them you mean well and you’re not entirely crazy.

2. Ask questions. Be interested, not nosy. Never press. If they want to tell, they will. Let them.

3. Listen, not just with your ears but with your full attention and most of all, with your heart.

Here are some things to ask someone you’ve just met: Where are you from? What do you do there? Tell me about your family. Where did you grow up? Why did you leave or stay? If you could live anywhere else, where would it be?

The best stories are those of  people you know and love. You may think you’ve heard all their stories and know all there is to know about them. But one day when they’re gone, you may find yourself haunted by questions you never asked them, stories you never heard.

Here are some things to ask someone you love: Who were you when you were (5, 15, 30, 60)? Who are you now? Tell me about the first (or last) time you fell in love. Who broke your heart? What are the best and worst things you ever did? What’s something I don’t know about you? Tell me a story you’ve never told anyone else.

Those are examples. You can think of better questions. Just start asking and see where they lead. But be prepared. The answers may surprise you.

My parents divorced when I was 2. They were never on good terms. My dad was in his late 70s when he took his life. My mother died of lung cancer four years later. Despite all the times we shared, there were so many questions I never asked them, so many stories they never told me.

A few days before my mother died, I sat by her hospital bed trying to get her to talk.

“Mama,” I said, “tell me a story. One I’ve never heard. Tell me how you and daddy met.”

She worked up on one elbow to give me a squinty-eyed look: “Well, why in God’s name would I want to remember that?”

You can ask the questions, but remember: The teller gets to tell the story.

OK, it’s your turn. What’s your story?




  1. Sharon, re: “I’ve got plenty of great stories to tell…” While I respond to every one of your columns (but don’t write for fear it would appear to be stalking -lol), but this time YOU ASKED FOR IT! Our seven year old grandson, while dining with his parents at a sea food restaurant, asked, “Dad, did you ever notice that sea food restaurants all have aquariums? Does it make the fish in there sad seeing us eat their relatives?” He’s the same one who when sharing at the Thanksgiving table what we are most thankful for, he responded, “I’m most thankful for me!”
    From the ex-basketball coach, now pastor, who not only loves to write, but often uses illustrations from your stories in my sermons.

  2. ronda Stewart says

    I always read and enjoy your column every Monday in the Times Record.You say such nice things about your family, but I have noticed that when you mention your mother there is a trace of bitterness in your comments. And in the July 4th column you mentioned the fact that your stepdads mother collected salt and pepper shakers. You said every time you went to visit she made you dust them. Made you not let you, I’m sure some were probably valuable, so she probably didn’t mean it as punishment. You sing your Maternal Grandma’s praises usually when putting your mother down.you have a good life and you should let the bitterness go, because it does shine through. then again maybe that’s the way to write a story, the hurtful things with the joyfull things. I will continue to enjoy your columns.maybe that’s my story.

  3. Shashi Saini says

    Thank you so much telling us real stories . They are not only stories to read ,they inspire us in so many ways to face challenges . They inspire everybody to be strong . They inspire us to write and share our stories . some day we need to share it . It relieves our heart from pain and hurt .

  4. Nicole Kirk says

    My mom certainly had that effect on people whenever she went anywhere people (strangers) stopping to share with her their story. Lol she would say to me Nikki I don’t understand why strangers always walk up to me and want to tell me their life story, And I would tell her it’s a look she has that’s inviting to others. So if I was in a hurry I’d say “mom please no eye contact with smiles today” Lol I’m sad to say I did not know your dad died four years before your mom. I recall when my grandma was diagnosed with cancer your mom came in to see her and aunt Jane too. During their visit with my grandma your mom (aunt Betty) kept saying she wasn’t feeling well, And it turned out she had cancer too. I don’t know if you recall me being at the hospital the day your mom (aunt Betty) had her biopsy? In your column you mentioned asking your mom how she and your dad met Lol I got a kick out of her response because her response reminds me of my grandma to a tee. My grandma your aunt Dare was my best friend while I was growing up and I unfortunately had to loose her to soon. I’ve endured the loss of to many love ones that I hold dear and I find it has changed me in a distant kind of way I lack the ability to get close to others. I always enjoy your “Stories” it brings forth a feeling of home.

  5. Debbie K says

    Another fabulous column, as usual. Many times I will think to myself, if only mom was still here to ask her this or that. I do remember sitting with my maternal grandfather & he would tell me stories about growing up in the Ukraine. I was fascinated. Or my maternal grandmother, telling me stories growing up very poor in Pennsylvania. Thanks again, Sharon, for telling us a wonderful story! God bless!

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