Recipe for motivating and bonding: ask for a story

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One of the joys of my consulting practice is getting to know people in many different lines of work and positions within their organizations, who face a wide array of issues involving decision-making, leadership, customer relationships, communication, motivation, and conflicts.

An epiphany I have had from this vantage point is that most people’s interpersonal challenges, limitations and strengths are startlingly similar. Several powerful and encouraging thoughts flow from this realization, among them the following.

1) Although we habitually point out and emphasize differences in culture, education, income, employment, and experience, in the ways we are “wired” beneath the surface to organize information and make decisions, we’re much more alike than we are different.

2) Our similarities give us extraordinary abilities to understand and be understood by one another.

3) We can accomplish a tremendous amount in combination with people who appear to have little in common with us using uncomplicated, more-or-less intuitive communication approaches and tools.

Here is a communication tool I call “ask for a story.” It’s based on the observation that just about everybody makes an effort to feel successful and effective when they are responsible for accomplishing something. A near universal way to tap into someone’s motivation is to simply ask them for stories about themselves, which helps increase their interest, focus, and commitment while building bonds between them and their listeners.

When to ask for a story. This tool can be used by a supervisor, by a subordinate, by a peer, with a customer, by a customer, and in any situation where one has the desire to change someone else’s perspective, and the ability to focus exclusively on someone else for a few minutes.

How to ask for a story. Simply ask someone to tell you what she especially liked doing recently. For example, you could say something like “Terry, what did you like about work this week?”

When she answers, listen for three things: what she says happened; how she felt about it; and what was important about it to her. Then, to help you understand these things, and to clearly demonstrate to her that you understood her, make your best effort to put into words what she said to you, paraphrasing what you heard in similar words, including how it seems to you that she feels about what she described.

Don’t add new ideas or information to what she said. It’s “about” her, not about you. Limit your response to showing her that you heard, and understood, what she said.

Continuing the previous example, if Terry were to answer you by saying “I really enjoyed completing the Coolidge project, I pushed myself hard and got a lot of compliments for what I got done,” you might respond: “So you really enjoyed finishing the project, and your hard work was recognized – you sound pretty proud of yourself!”

It can require a great deal of patience and self-control to listen without offering opinions, without getting defensive and disagreeing when you don’t agree, and without jumping in with your own story if you do agree. But everyone can listen like this if they choose to, and its effects are powerful.

What’s good about asking for a story? For people who work together the impact can be very beneficial. It can help the person telling a story trust and respect the listener, it can help the listener understand what motivates the story teller besides simply getting paid, and it will sometimes give people the insight they need to learn to improve their leadership, communication, and decision-making.

For sellers and those involved in customer relationships, the very same benefits arise: trust and respect are exchanged, motivations other than the purchase price and the thing being purchased are revealed, and feedback may be given which can help strengthen the relationship.

For anyone who has business relationships, and especially for those who supervise or delegate to someone else, I recommend asking for a story at periodic “check-in” intervals: daily, weekly, monthly, or whatever otherwise makes sense given the nature of your relationship. It triggers an internal sync-up which renews motivation, reinforces an important bond, and refreshes a shared sense of purpose.

Tool summary: Ask for a story.

Ask something like “What did you like about work this week?”

Listen for three things: what she says happened; how she felt about it; and what was important about it to her.

Paraphrase what she says, and how you think she feels about what happened, without adding anything about yourself.

Use in any business relationship as a periodic check-in, depending upon the quantity and quality of contact you have with someone.

Formalized story telling has been used for some time as a change tool by organizational development professionals. One notable format is “Appreciative Inquiry,” which tends to generate great results but can wind up becoming a somewhat involved process. Inspired by a cut-to-the-chase version of appreciative inquiry called “appreciative process,” I’ve used the even simpler, universally applicable “ask for a story” tool I describe here with excellent results in many different situations with virtually no time or budget overhead.

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