In business, success requires the ability to connect and resonate with colleagues, employees, vendors, and clients. The path to authentic connection begins with sharing our ideas and experiences, yet many struggle with the level of vulnerability needed for true connection, which can often be perceived as weakness in the professional context. We suggest that appropriate vulnerability can actually establish credibility and create opportunities for collaborative thinking and connection, as well as foster professional growth.
We understand the hesitation; we’ve been taught to adopt strict roles in the workplace, which emphasize a separation of the personal from the professional in order to be successful. However, emerging research in psychology and sociology emphasizes the power of storytelling and personal narrative to create meaning and connection, especially in the age of statistics and “big data.” For example, Brene Brown, PhD, who has spent her academic career studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame offers, “Maybe stories are just data with soul.” Furthermore, in recent LinkedIn article, Shane Snow (Chief Creative Officer for Contently), suggests that storytelling will be the number one business skill of the next five years.
At the 6th International Conference on Conflict Resolution Education, Mark Schulte, Education Director for the Pulitzer Center, offered a keynote address entitled “Telling Better Stories.” Mark began by sharing a short anecdote about a recent interview with the president of an international banking organization. He had asked the executive: “What is the number one trait that all people must have to be successful?” Much to Mark’s surprise, the response was “empathy.”
At the root of a good story is the power of empathy – the ability to create emotional connections that resonate between individuals and across the human experience. Indeed, current neuroscience research shows that listening to a story activates the same neural pathways that fire when one is actually experiencing the events of the story, literally creating the experience of empathy. Once a connection is made, listeners are much more likely to align with the speaker and to feel invested in the subject matter.
Melinda has found that when teaching or facilitating discussion groups, it’s easy to hide behind her “religious studies professor” title, which can end up creating a sense of separation from the group. However, when she steps beyond that role and begins sharing her own personal stories and experiences, the group in turn becomes more receptive and more willing to discuss their own. Her personal stories, especially of her own challenges and uncertainties, create an atmosphere of invitation and engagement that allows participants the opportunity to acknowledge and share their own difficulties. The dialogue then becomes more authentic and embodied rather than abstract and theoretical.
Charlotte, as Chair of the Creative Writing Department at Austin Community College, uses storytelling in both her classes and in her various positions on committees. Recently, while making a presentation on success equity to a group of higher education professionals, she decided to start by asking how many people in the room had actually attended a community college. Only about a fifth of the attendees raised their hands, including Charlotte. This question created an entry point for discussing the different experiences and resources students bring to their educational aspirations. “As a first time college student,” she shared, “I was looking for a reason to not belong – I was waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me to leave.” She shared this experience in order to underscore the sense of inadequacy students might feel while attending a community college. Instead of talking about the data first, Charlotte grounded her presentation with the emotions she wanted to highlight. She also established a connection with those in the room that had not gone to a four-year university immediately out of high school—she found her education companions, so to speak—and this increased her confidence. In opening up and allowing a moment of possible vulnerability, she created a more resilient space for the presentation.
Not only do vulnerability and storytelling create connection, they can also transform individuals, relationships, and organizations. As Brene Brown observes: “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” We communicate our vulnerability through sharing our stories, and we all have stories to tell. As Charlotte often tells her students, stories are the great denominators; they evidence our shared humanity.
While this may all sound compelling in theory, how do we decide which stories to use in a professional setting? When considering whether to weave a personal moment into a work presentation, we suggest asking yourself these three questions:
1) What common foundation do I have with this group? Thinking about the points of connection with a group/client can create an opportunity for empathy and resonance.
2) What emotions do I want to inform this session? A careful consideration of the emotional bedrock of a meeting/presentation can greatly increase the success and power of the associated outcomes.
3) Why am I telling this story? Considering why is key. Without an understanding of why, we might easily get off track and/or veer into victimization rather than creating connection.
Once you have done some thinking/talking/journaling about the why of a specific story, it’s time to consider what story to tell.
Here are a few guidelines for weaving a story into the professional setting:
• Know the essence of your story. Think about the universal emotions of love, loss, joy, anger, shame, and grief – what is the emotional resonance of the story?
• Key details create connections – what sounds, smells, tastes, or touches, informed the situation? Our stories live in our bodies, and it is through the visceral you will create resonance. Remember, use a light touch here; just a couple of sensory details can transport an audience into a moment.
• Don’t tell the most recent story. The brain, body, and heart need time to process, and sharing your most recent vulnerabilities may undermine your professional aims.
If you’re looking for resources to deepen your own connection to the power of storytelling, we suggest listening any of these shows: Radiolab, The Moth, and Ira Glass’ “This American Life.”
If you’re interested in diving into your own stories in a supported environment, join us for our Storytelling for Life workshop on Sunday, February, 23, 1:00-4:00 at Soma Vida, 1210 Rosewood Ave, Austin, Texas 78702