Can storytelling save us?

Can storytelling save us?

Ben Okri, the Nigerian poet and novelist, reminded me recently: “Stories can conquer fear. They can make the heart bigger.”

It is through telling our stories, in circle and from the heart, that we can find the empathy residing in all of us. It’s something that at times seems hidden from each of us, but here is the amazing thing—we can pull it up in one another.

Empathy has taken on new meaning for me in doing this work; I now see the development of empathy as a communal act. I had been in the weeds with the process of helping leaders discover their leadership identities. But in reading Okri, I had a revelation: Sitting in circle, listening to each other’s stories, can create the empathy so needed in our relationships, our organizations, our country.

To unpack the process just a bit, let me explain. My aims in getting leaders to understand their personal values and anchor the named values in their autobiographical memories is intended to aid them in their leadership identity development, to make that process of becoming a leader clear to them—from the inside out.

This grows the leader’s ability to be consciously values-oriented and to convey those values in the context of the organization’s challenges and opportunities. This process is important for leaders to fully step into an understanding that they are indeed leaders, and to realize they need to intentionally select and focus on the values they believe they carry and are mirrored in the context of their organization.

“Stories can conquer fear. They can make the heart bigger.”

So, it’s logical that it’s not enough solely to gain these insights about their values and where they came from; leaders must take the next step, which is to share their stories with others.

It is in the process of preparing the leaders that I have been witness to the power of simply telling one’s personal story. What I bring to most leadership development programs I conduct is an awareness of the three stories leaders tell: “Who am I?”, “Who are we?”, and “Where are we going?” Each program begins with personal identity work, and the leaders share their “Who am I as a leader?” story first with a partner and then with their cohort or action learning project team. They are also asked to share these stories with the various audiences they lead “back at home.”

One thing I have observed time and time again is that when people tell these personal stories, this way of speaking with each other shifts the way people listen and uniformly elicits an empathetic reaction and bond.

The simple act of sharing personal stories of what’s shaped and made us who we are needs no facilitation or guidance, no skill-building, no modeling, none of the trappings of learning how to be a good story teller. What matters is the connection to what is true in another’s story, and that truth always lands in the heart.

Thich Nhat Hanh famously said, “The longest journey a leader makes is the 18 inches from his head to his heart.” In sharing personal stories, the leaders in the program quickly make that journey and bring everyone along. When that kind of personal, direct connection is made, it has not just bonded the individuals sharing this story space, it has re-contextualized the work within the enchantment (not a word used much in the corporate realm) of these moments. The work is now founded on a bed of meaning and connection.

Participants often use the word “magical” to describe their experience of sharing and hearing each other’s stories. Sometimes this transformative process has resulted in leaders I have worked with releasing long-held trauma, valuing often-overlooked shaping moments, and recovering and remembering people who have had significant influence on their identity but were in the recesses of their memories, to name but a few of the outcomes of this process.

With these kinds of results and impacts, I am considering how we, as coaches and Organizational Practitioners, might bring this powerful work to the world beyond our corporate clients. Circling back to Okri’s poetics, telling our stories can help us overcome fear and grow our hearts—together.

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My Story is My Path

Resources for all those called to leadership who understand the power of words and stories to shape their futures from one of the nation’s preeminent narrative coaches, Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons of CCS Consulting Inc.

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