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Whose Story Should Take the Spotlight?

Fifteen years ago I went to Canada and had one of the most profound insights of my professional life. I was a newly minted VitalSmarts Master Trainer leading both a Crucial Conversations course and trainer certification course in London, Ontario, Canada. The facilitators in the course were and are among the most highly skilled I have ever met.

At the end of the session, I laid it bare. I remember saying, “You are an amazing group of facilitators, and I have learned more from you than you from me this week. I would be so grateful for your honest and candid feedback so that I can become better.” I felt so vulnerable. I was channeling advice from Brené Brown before I even knew who she was.

I immediately regretted that decision, however, when one member of the group approached me and asked, “Could I take this evaluation form home over the weekend and then fax it to you? I would really like to give my comments some thought.”

First, faxing. How adorable.

Second, oh no! She had more feedback to offer than she could share in the four minutes it would take me to pack up my laptop and leave the classroom? Did I really want this level of critique?

I said yes. I flew home and waited for the fax. It came… and I stared at it for three solid minutes before I finally decided to read it.

On that faxed piece of paper was a gift that I still carry inside me. She wrote, “Emily, you are a gifted storyteller. Your stories bring to life the skills and principles you are teaching. They help learners make the connection between concept and real life. And, I can’t help but wonder if your training would be more powerful if, rather than tell your stories, you helped your learners tell theirs.”

I made a commitment that day to spend as much time preparing my questions as I did preparing my stories—if not more.

Before facilitating any course, I ask myself the following: What are the questions I want to ask? And how can I create an experience for learners to tell their stories?

Yes, I still like telling stories in training. It is part of the fun. But I also know how critical it is to create the conditions and plan enough time for learners to tell (out loud or in their own minds and hearts) their own stories.

Here are three tips for inviting stories in your trainings:

Ask How, Not Why

I have found that “how” questions better invite learners to reflect on personal experiences. How have you experienced this in your life? How has this concept impacted you? How do you see this working in your organization? I also like the when/what combo: When have you experienced this, and what was that like?

Provide the Time

Stories take time to recall, formulate, and tell. Some people want to share their story with the group. Others want or need to share it with one or two people. Some may only tell the story in their own mind. Each approach is valid, and we should create the opportunity for all approaches. Make sure you are asking your “story questions” when learners are paired up or in small groups, as well as with the larger group. Give people time to reflect and capture their stories on their own.

Respond with ABCs

We all know that in training, when you ask people to share, there’s a risk that they will share in ways that don’t move the learning forward. I think this fear (which, in my experience, is more prevalent than the reality) keeps facilitators from opening up rich application discussions.

The antidote is to know how to respond. I use the ABCs: agree, build, and compare (see Chapter 8 in Crucial Conversations, “Explore Others’ Paths”). When I hear a story from a learner, I can agree and affirm it. It is his or her experience, and I honor him or her for sharing it. And, if the story is somewhat divergent from the learning point, I can build on it by adding in my own meaning. If the story illustrates something I see as fundamentally at odds with the learning point, I offer up a comparison: I validate the story and compare it to a different way of seeing things.

As facilitators, we can describe the connection between principles and better living through our stories, or we can help learners experience that connection by asking them for their stories. I find that helping learners discover their own stories carries more weight, and so I am still working to do more of the latter and invite them to connect the principles to their own experiences.

Emily Gregory

Emily has consulted and trained with non profit, start-up ventures, and major national corporations such as Eli Lily and The Chicago Board of Trade. Additionally, Emily has taught finance courses at Brigham Young University and trained corporate clients in Crucial Conversations.

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One thought on “Whose Story Should Take the Spotlight?

  1. Emily, thank you so much for sharing. Reading and reflecting on this has inspired me to also look at how stories are being shared in our classes. Today in Workshop 2 of our blended Crucial Conversations, I am going to immediately start using more “How” questions, and somewhere in the session, will definitely use “When have you seen this happen with the team and what was it like when you tried XXX (the skill)?” Can’t wait to hear more of THEIR stories.

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