Stories have always been a vital way for humans to communicate—across ancient campfires, in handwritten manuscripts, and now on television, in movies, and books. I wonder, though, if in our current age we’re missing opportunities to engage the full power of stories.
I have been re-learning the impact of storytelling as I incorporate it more into my professional work. Recently I was asked to facilitate a large group of passionate individuals trying to meet a common goal through different avenues and at different levels. Balancing 45 determined voices is a difficult task, and I wanted to include each voice in a respectful, active, future-oriented way.
What would make the most sense? Could each person simply present a short list of their desires? Could we split up into smaller groups to create charts? I soon realized that the way forward lay in the timeless practice of storytelling.
So we structured the entire session around stories. Each participant shared stories about their work and life; we also split up into smaller pods so that everyone could share longer stories and find shared, critical aspects to bring back to the group. Of course, as those points were shared, the group was building its very own stories,—relationships with each other, shared challenges, common goals. Gradually, 45 different songs were blending together into a dynamic chorus.
At the end of the days’ sessions, the group was set to meet with government officials seeking specific recommendations about this group’s specialty. Imagine their surprise when instead of being met with PowerPoint presentations and graphs, they heard these women’s stories. The stories, now being told in a room populated with trusted friends who had shared aspects of their lives through storytelling, resonated with every single person there. And as the stories were told, a clear consensus emerged.
I have been working as a facilitator for a long time, but even for me, this was an incredibly special moment. And when, through their sharing, the women and the decision makers came up with a five-point plan for the future, it was clear to me that their stories had enabled the trust that allowed the group to work together so easily.
Storytelling allows us to set aside the statistics and policies and programs that can sometimes dehumanize workplaces and programs. It allows us to be full humans outside of our professional roles. Stories told authentically and listened to carefully make us complete, nuanced human beings; allow emotions their proper place, which can be so tricky in work settings; and connect us intimately.
In this case, the women were able to be bigger than their jobs in national and local organizations, and to bring the full force of their passion and brilliance to bear on the issue at hand. Each participant left that room feeling heard, connected, and galvanized—ready to begin work anew on their shared goals. Of course, not every session ends with people on such a high, but I’m so grateful to have witnessed this potent storytelling success.
Is there a place in your professional life for shared stories? Is there a story you wish you could share with the people at your workplace? And have you ever experienced a story-focused meeting or retreat?
I look forward to hear from you!