Tell me a story, about …

September 11, 2013

The best way to shares our lives. or visions, our dreams, our fears . . . is by telling stories.  And one of the best ways to do the same things about our organizations (profit or non-profit) is to tell stories.  Opening ourselves to a story telling mindset is very adaptive.

Recently I was mentoring somebody who was very conflicted about whether to proceed on a certain path.  He wasn’t clear that he wanted to reach that destination, and was equally unclear whether the words associated with the celebration of that path were words he could say with integrity.

I was in no position to offer advice.  I couldn’t know which direction was preferable, and, besides, i was his “mentor” but not his guide.  it would have been appropriate for me to even try to chart his course.

But I could offer the following process:

  • Tell me  a story about following that path and where it takes you.
  • Then, tell me another story about standing back, and not following that path.  Where does that leave you?

Note that neither of these were requests to analyze, measure, or weigh.  He’d done that a lot already, and that process only added to the inner conflict.  Instead, I was asking him to let stories flow — and, indeed, they did.

It quickly became clear that the words associated with the certification were a crucial concern.  The destination might have been right, but the words were an obstacle.

Again, story telling was the way forward.  I asked him to create a story of a certification process that had resonance, with words he could easily say and stand behind.  Then, I suggested, he might explore how much freedom he would have to use his words and his process.

I never heard that story, and don’t know exactly what pathway opened up.  But he was able to follow a solid path to that destination, and I do know that he found the clarity he sought.

Did it matter that I never heard the inward part of this story?  Not at all!  Some stories are meant to guide us, and not to inform the rest of the world.

The same kinds of stories can guide non-profit organization and even for-profit corporations as they plan program, product lines, service offerings, etc.  I recall vividly one occasion where I was asked to help re-design some software — following guidelines that intuitively seemed quite wrong to me.  I spent several days watching their staff using the current software as they talked on the phone with their customers or clients, and listening to both sides of each phone call.  Finally I was able to blurt out a very simple version of what seemed like the iconic story behind each interaction.  The staff was thrilled to hear it stated so simply, and found that the story we had exposed led directly to a greatly improved and simplified version of the software.

As I look forward to each dialog with a client or prospect, with a non-profit board member or concerned stakeholder, with a troubled director or an engaged staff member, the five words that are almost always at the tip of my tongue are, “Tell me a story, about . . .”

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