The art of conversation, open dialogue and storytelling — a meta interview

Alexa Steinbrück
Jun 26, 2019 · 12 min read

TheirStory is an online platform that helps with facilitating, recording and digitally archiving meaningful conversations now and for future generations. I talked with the founder of TheirStory, Zack Ellis, about the art of conversation, the power of open dialogue and the responsibility that comes with running such a platform. This interview was done partly in written form on Slack and partly via live conversation through the TheirStory tool.

Storytellers United is a diverse and inclusive community of creatives working on innovative forms of storytelling. We connect from across many different time zones and even more backgrounds to share ideas, projects and inspiration. We felt it would be nice to have a deeper look at what people in the community are working on. This is the third in an interview series with Storytellers United members. Also check out the first about the Captured project and the second about the Nomad project.

Alexa and Zack talking and recording via TheirStory

Hi Zack! Can you tell the story of how you started TheirStory?

Sure! It’s long been my dad’s biggest regret that he never recorded his father’s stories before he died. I had known that for a while but hadn’t done anything about it until one day: I was in Amsterdam, in the attic of the Anne Frank house, and there was a video playing of Anne’s father, Otto. He talked about how he had never really realized the depth and complexity of Anne’s thoughts until after she had died and he read her diary. He concluded that because he had had such a close relationship with Anne but never really knew who she was, that no parent really knows their kid(s).

It hit me then, well, if no parent really knows their kids, then how could I really know who my parents are — who have shaped so much about who I am?

The problem was, I was in San Francisco, and they were in Rochester, NY. So, about once a week we would hop on a FaceTime call, and the three of us would share stories about our lives. I had a rule that I would always share as well. I would record those conversations using QuickTime from my computer. We recorded almost 20 conversations over several years. Over the last 6 months of that time, I took a course in web development, and I built a private website that hosted our recorded conversations with a nice interface just for my family.

I never intended to be a technical founder nor to become a software developer. Rather, I hoped that I could take this prototype to someone technical who would say to me, “I believe in you. I believe in the idea. You suck at coding. I’d like to help.” And that would be how I would find a technical co-founder. Instead, however, a close friend of mine saw the prototype and said to me, “I believe in you. I believe in the idea. I don’t know how to code. But, I’d like to help you pay for a contractor who does.” That friend allowed us to build the first real version of TheirStory. Without that friend’s help, TheirStory would not exist.

What is your mission with TheirStory?

Ultimately, my goal with TheirStory is to create shaping experiences for younger generations and deeper relationships through shared experiences across communities. I think the first community of which we are all a part is our own family, and I hope that just like the process did for me and my family, TheirStory will help build capacity for stronger communication within and across families.

Who is using TheirStory already?

My primary focus at the moment is working with institutions who provide TheirStory to their communities. For example, I am currently working with a synagogue in Rochester on two projects.

One is a series of family-based workshops where I facilitate a multi-generational group to reflect on meaningful moments in their own lives, generate their own questions to explore together, and then independently record their family’s conversations through TheirStory. Family members who don’t live locally can video conference in live through TheirStory. The group that I am currently working with also decided to record the workshop sessions themselves through TheirStory. This has been helpful in allowing me to look back and improve as a facilitator as well as find interesting moments in each session to revisit and discuss as a class. The participants can also revisit the recordings of the workshops.

How TheirStory works

The second project with the temple is about telling the history of the temple over the last 50 years through all the “little stories” of the individuals that have made up the community. We’re putting together a small team of congregants who are responsible for interviewing members of the congregation about what the temple has meant to them over the years. Our goal is to start the practice of creating a living digital archive for the temple, and in the process, make sure that each congregant feels heard, seen, and included.

What role do oral histories play for communities and families?

I think that oral histories are about learning from and honoring the past so that we can intelligently and intentionally create the future we want for ourselves. We do this by preserving legacy, wrestling with identity, and passing on values. I think oftentimes when we see different communities and groups of people we think about the differences. But when we see and really listen to the oral histories of the individuals that make up these communities, we end up seeing ourselves in their stories. While we appreciate the uniqueness of each community, it also brings a sense of connection. I think oral histories and storytelling can be seen as one-way, but to me, the practice of oral history is about being present with someone, and it’s about giving yourself permission to sit down and take the time to really listen to each other.

When it comes to dialogue, conversation and interviewing do you have some advice to share?

I’d like to share a story that gets at the heart of what has been the most helpful skill for me to learn and practice when it comes to interviewing, and really in sparking meaningful everyday conversation.

When I worked for a home care startup in San Francisco, we were in the early days, and as most startups go, it was a chaotic environment where people had to wear the proverbial many hats. Before interviewing for a new team member, we brainstormed which values were most important for our group. I believed that resilience was a key value and wanted to find someone possessing that characteristic.

After unsuccessfully struggling for a while to find the right interview question, I finally asked myself, “Well, when have I been resilient in my own life?” My wrestling experiences immediately came to mind. So I asked myself:

“What question would someone have to ask me, the answer to which is the story in my head?”

I shared with her briefly, “Well, for me wrestling has been the longest-single threaded experience that has helped to shape who I am. I started wrestling from the age of 10. I was recruited to wrestle in college. It was one of my college wrestling teammates who then recruited me to work for him here in San Francisco. Many of my closest friends have come from wrestling, and some of both my biggest lessons learned and proudest moments have come from my wrestling career. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for my involvement with wrestling. What might that be for you in your own life?”

She thought for a moment. We waited. She then shared her own story. We did not see it coming at all! All of a sudden the others on the team started following up with all sorts of questions. When she left the interview, we were glowing about her. Her story had been such a wonderful surprise and showed her to have resilience as well as many other qualities we wanted for our team. We made her an offer, and she took the job. While she was interviewing with multiple startups at the time, she told us that one of the main reasons she took the job with us was because she felt she was really able to share her true self with us during the interview process. Right before I moved away from San Francisco, she even told me that she now uses that same interview question when she interviews candidates at the company she works for today.

So, if I had to extract from this a process that I think would be helpful as it relates to the art of the interview:

  • Identify what you’re trying to learn about a person from the interview.
  • Brainstorm the values and emotions that may be embedded in stories that demonstrate or may be associated with what you’re trying to learn.
  • Reflect on when you have exemplified these traits yourself.
  • Identify a question that someone would have to ask you, the answer to which, would be your own story reflecting these values.
  • Ask the question! And then be quiet, and let the other person think.
  • Be willing to share your own story.
  • Show you care. Follow your curiosity and ask follow up questions to which you’re genuinely interested in knowing the answer.

Apart from the “design” of the question itself, what else is important?

Beyond the characteristics of questions that have a good chance at helping someone to think through their own stories, I think the most important factors all have to do with things that surround a specific question, namely:

1. an atmosphere of safety

2. a logical progression of the questions

3. being patient as an interviewer and allowing yourself to respectfully and tactfully follow your own curiosity. The real story is often not the first thing that someone says.

4. following up with questions that get beyond the facts and get to thoughts, feelings, and motivations

5. a sense that the answer to the question is necessary and will serve a purpose that is in the interest of both the interviewer and interviewee.

What is different if the interviewer is also participating in the process, sharing their own perspectives?

I think when the interviewer shares their own perspectives as well it can help to create an atmosphere of safety as the interviewer models being vulnerable. The interviewer’s stories can also spark memories for the interviewee.

The downside is that this eats into the interviewee’s time to share, and if the interviewer isn’t careful the interviewee may feel that the interviewer actually doesn’t care about their stories and is making the interview unnecessarily about the interviewer. This could result in the interviewee becoming reluctant to share their stories, especially intimate ones.

So, it’s a balance. And it also takes keeping in mind the purpose of the interview, the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee, as well as if there will be opportunities for future interviews. All of these things impact the interviewer’s decisions about if and how much to share one’s own stories.

Some of the process I used when interviewing my own parents can be found at theirstory.io/getting-started.

What’s the difference between an interview and a conversation?

An interview oftentimes can feel like a one way street. I think at its best an interview gets the interviewee to think about themselves in a new way. Or the interviewee willingly shares a story that otherwise would have been hard for them to tell. As an interviewer, you do create an environment where someone feels comfortable to share their authentic self. Conversation at its best is an incredibly collaborative and creative experience where you’re creating a shared pool of meaning and understanding: It’s my thoughts, it’s your thoughts, and we’re putting those together and creating something totally new. We’re getting to a place together that we otherwise might not have been. And I think that’s what’s really exciting to me. I tend to have a slightly more conversational style to interviewing.

What fears or reservations do you have with TheirStory?

Part of what I’m doing now is facilitating these workshops between kids and parents and grandparents. And it gets people to really reflect and be vulnerable. I think to myself sometimes:

“Who am I to possibly change the family dynamic for other people?”

The startup scene has this concept of „fail fast, break things“. How do you relate to that?

When I originally interviewed for the startup where I worked most recently before TheirStory, I asked the CEO the following question: “What would you do if the company failed?” I felt that this question would get to the heart of who this person is and what kind of company this person is going to build over time. What were they willing to sacrifice? What were they unwilling to compromise? How he responded was along the lines of “I don’t know what I would do. We can’t let that happen. I feel like at this point we’re too enmeshed in this community and too many people have come to rely on our participation in the community and the technology itself. There’s too much responsibility that I feel like we have as a part of this community for it to fail. So I don’t know what I would do.

I loved that response because it taught me something about his values. One of the main principles that I have with TheirStory is the same that this company has, it is: Do no harm. I know for sure that in the process of building TheirStory there will be frustrations, technical glitches, and pitfalls along the way, but I hope that to the best of my abilities I will do no harm. And I hope that if TheirStory ever fails, I’ll be able to look back and say that with the information I had at any given moment, I’m comfortable with the decisions that I made and that they were ones of integrity. And I hope that I never sacrifice the long term needs of the people in the communities that I’m serving for short term value for TheirStory. Most of all, I hope that this project has set me on a trajectory where even if TheirStory fails, I will continue to focus on learning about creating open dialogue. And I think that is a worthwhile thing to dedicate a career to!

How do you see the future of TheirStory and where do you want to go next?

Oh man the future! Someone once said something like, “It’s hard to predict things, especially about the future”. I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to say it as an excerpt of a letter that I will have written to a former colleague dated 20 years in the future:

…. Now I am able to look back and say that TheirStory has made some small dent in how the arts of open dialogue, interviewing, and empathy are taught. We’ve been able to reach so many kids who have started to learn and appreciate open dialogue. They’ve been able to have conversations that they otherwise would never have had, and with people that they otherwise never would have connected with. And my goodness have we had fun as a team!“

What does the term storytelling mean to you?

I’ll say at its worst storytelling is one way. It takes us out of being present with someone else, and it’s all about me as the storyteller. The listener falls into their own head and isn’t present either. It’s actually a point of disconnect as opposed to being a mechanism of connection.

I think at its best storytelling is the opposite of that. Storytelling is about at the right time pulling from one’s past experience and being able to relate to someone in such a way that it demonstrates that you heard them, and that you’re telling a story specifically for them. And at this moment for both the storyteller and listener, this creates a sense of connection. The other person can really see themselves in the story, and you see them in it as well. It creates a safe space for further dialogue.

Thank you for this interview, Zack!

🤙 TheirStory is in a beta period for individual users. If you’d like to be a part of the beta program you can email Zack at zack at theirstory.io! 🤙

Zack Ellis is the founder & CEO of TheirStory. It was one of Zack’s former college wrestling team mates at the University of Pennsylvania who dragged Zack from Philadelphia to Silicon Valley. Zack spent 6 years there working at several startups ranging from API Management to Home Care, to EdTech, before launching his own company TheirStory.

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