Telling Stories in the Workplace

Barry Lopez, an American essayist, poet, and fiction writer, knows the value of stories:  “If stories come to you, care for them.  And learn to give them away where they are needed.  Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.  That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory.  That is how people care for themselves.” 
What stories do you have to tell?  What stories do you need?  Let me try one out on you. 
Catastrophe Story
At the height of the real estate investment market—before the downturn, I read a book that convinced me to buy a brand new condo as an investment property.  As the author explained, all I had to do was find a renter who would, in effect, make all the monthly payments as I reaped the rewards of real estate appreciation.  I was very proud of myself when I was able to secure a loan to buy the condo, and as soon as the property was in my name, I put an ad in the paper seeking a renter. 
Before I was able to show the beautiful three-story condo to a potential renter, however, disaster struck.  A tiny nail in the baseboard inside a closet on the third floor had inadvertently penetrated a pipe and eventually rusted through and created a leak that allowed water from that pipe to first flood the upper floor, crash through the ceiling of the second floor taking most of the ceiling with it, and then continue to stream down the walls to the ground floor.  That, in fact, is the condition in which I found my once lovely property one morning when I went to water the potted petunias on the porch before showing it to a potential renter. 
The condo catastrophe is one of my personal stories, and I like to tell it in my workshops to illustrate many of the factors of emotional intelligence. My audience listens rapt with attention as I dramatize the unfolding scene and tell them how my heart was racing, my blood pressure rising, and my mind jumping from one thought to the next trying to take in the reality and come up with an explanation and, later, a resolution. 
Connecting with Listeners
In telling the story, I am connecting with my listeners.  After I’ve told the story, I can talk more meaningfully to the workshop participants about self-awareness, optimism, stress management, problem solving, interrelationships, resilience, and managing one’s emotions—all significant aspects of emotional intelligence. 
Stories create an emotional connection between the speaker and the listener that is powerful and transformative.  In the workplace, telling stories–between individuals, among team members, and throughout entire organizations– helps us to build healthy, socially intelligent relationships that go beyond narrow self interest.
The emotional connection created in telling and listening to a story is much more than a metaphorical construct.  In Daniel Goleman’s 2006 book, Social Intelligence, he explains how the neurons in our brains—those of both speaker and listener—become active when we make such a connection.  He explains that “whenever we connect face to face (or voice to voice, or skin to skin) with someone else, our social brains interlock. . . . Thus how we connect with others has unimagined significance.”
Every Story has an End
Oh—are you are wondering about what happened with that condo?  It was not a simple problem to resolve as it involved the developer, the homeowner’s association, the sub-contractor who installed the baseboards, more than one insurance company, a couple of attorneys, a realtor, a mold expert, and . . . well, you get the picture.  But it was resolved successfully—with many lessons along the way about the importance of emotional intelligence.
Learning to tell stories in the context of the workplace is just one technique that can be learned to enhance emotional intelligence and create more effective teams and organizations.  Telling our stories, as Barry Lopez so eloquently writes, “is how people care for themselves.” It’s also a way of demonstrating emotional intelligence—of improving interactions with others, building teams and support networks, and motivating people to work together with success, satisfaction, and enhanced well-being.
What stories do you have to tell?