Ben Zoldan in Stories | June 28, 2016 | No Comments

Why We Tell Stories

In the beginning, I didn’t get it. I totally misunderstood it. And I wildly underestimated its power.

Recently, I was doing a Storyleaders workshop and at the end of the first day, as I was packing up my stuff, one of the attendees pulls me aside and asks if he could talk with me in private. His name is Ryan.

He says, “I don’t think I can do this.”
“Do what?”, I ask.
“It’s Frank. I’m not comfortable opening up with Frank in the workshop.”

Frank was Ryan’s Manager and he tells me how difficult it’s been to work for Frank. He describes Frank as one of those Managers who’s always on him for his forecast, “always telling me what I need to do”. He’s describing one of those bosses we all hate to work for. And because of that, Ryan says he’s uncomfortable opening up in the workshop.

But opening up and sharing our stories is the starting point in our workshops – it’s about digging in, sharing who we are, and what makes us tick. So, as I’m listening to Ryan share this, I start to get worried. What if the entire group feels this way about Frank? He’s the leaders in the room, and maybe people don’t feel safe around him…

But I’ve known Frank for a while, and I happen to like him a lot. But I didn’t want to say that to Ryan. I didn’t want him to think I as placating him, so I just listened and suggested that he should do whatever he feels comfortable doing. And that was it. He said, “Thanks” and we both head out. But it was on my mind the entire evening.

Fast forward, it’s the next morning: Day 2 of the workshop. It’s on the second day where we have people dive deeper into their story. We break participants into subgroups and have them share some of their most meaningful, profound life experiences that have shaped who they are. And people tend to reveal themselves in beautiful and often unexpected ways.

These break out groups are set randomly, and it turns out that Ryan and Frank are paired together in the same group for this break out. I see that, but I couldn’t find a way to intercept it. So off they go off together in their break out and I go off with another group.

I was worried about it for a few minutes, but I had to tend to my group, and I forget about Frank & Ryan. Nothing happens. Actually that was it. The issue didn’t come up again in the workshop. I had totally forgotten about Ryan’s concern.

Until the third day… We’re about to adjourn the workshop, and I’m in front of room. Ryan interrupts, “I have something to share with the group.”
And before I could respond, he walks around to the front, looks directly at Frank and says, “Frank, I’ve always hated working for you.”

And my jaw drops. I’m like “WTF?” Frank looks frozen on the side of the room, as Ryan is going off on him in front of the entire group.
He says, “You’ve never taken an interest in me.” “You’ve always made me feel like a number.” He’s going on and on…

He then scans back to the group and in the most soft-spoken, reflective tone, says, “But here’s what you all need to know… I was in Frank’s break out group yesterday, and after listening to his story…”
(He then looks directly back at Frank and says)
“I will run through walls with you, Frank.”

And the entire workshop is floored by what just happened. It becomes super quiet in the room. And Ryan closes by sharing what that whole experience meant to him. He talked about how his relationship with Frank would have been so much different if he’d taken the time to know Frank’s story; the importance of another person’s story.

Then, Frank comes to the front of the room and what felt like a spontaneous move, shares his whole story in front of us all. And his life was so incredibly inspiring; he disclosed things that nobody knew. I remember everything about his story. I remember his body language when he was telling it. It moved a lot of us to tears. And to a lot of us in the room, Frank demonstrated the most incredible form of leadership.

And in that moment, everyone in the room just ‘got’ him. He had no pretense when he shared with us. There was no “trying to make a point.” He just opened himself up and shared who he was, and we all get a sense of why he is the way he is. And all the walls came down.

I had witnessed someone going from “walls up” to then wanting to “run through walls.”

And there is such a beautiful lesson there for those of us who are in sales. Or leadership. Or for those of us who are trying to figure out what it means to parent. Or any form of any human-to-another-human interaction.

And for me, the real lesson ties back to my perspective when I started Storyleaders. In the beginning, I thought that storytelling would help us sell more – it would be a tool in the toolbox that could be used to get what we wanted. As if it were the means to an ends. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. That’s not why we tell stories. Stories aren’t tools in a toolbox.

The real lesson is that it’s possible to create shifts in the world. Shifts in how we relate to one another; to go from the “walls” that stand between us, to a feeling that we would “run through those walls” for each other.

And that’s one of the most important things in we can do in our lives. That’s what Frank taught me.

That’s why we tell stories.


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