March 10, 2019 / Esther Choy


At one very memorable Leadership Story Lab workshop a few years ago, a participant named Mary Johnson sat down to exchange stories with a partner. After they interviewed each other, the partner shared Mary’s story:

When packing for a trip to Australia, you normally think of taking your swimsuit, sunglasses, and sunblock. However, for Mary, her most prized possession for the trip is a binder. The binder contains all the well-planned details of the trip – where to go, what to do, what time to do it and where to eat. She takes this step because the unknown can be scary.

Even though Mary was once scared of the unknown in her career, others have encouraged her to accept talents she had been afraid to embrace. “Now,” said Mary’s interview partner, “Mary helps support low-income children at her organization by giving them planning tools to overcome their unknowns.”

The most memorable moment in the workshop happened when Mary’s hiring manager, who was in the room when Mary’s partner shared this story, said: “Those characteristics are exactly why we hired you, it just took many interviews to figure it out.”

I thought about how lucky Mary was that her hiring team stuck with her long enough to uncover those characteristics, finding out that Mary isn’t afraid of the unknown anymore, and not only that, she’s able to help others manage their unknowns. Mary is lucky—but imagine if she had walked into her first job interview and shared a story that revealed her character!

This is the power of the “Paired Introduction” exercise we’ve developed at Leadership Story Lab. By spending just twenty minutes with a partner, our clients uncover the essentials of their character.

Learning Each Other’s Stories

At work, we tend to define “professional” as keeping others at arm’s-length and never disclosing much about our true character or what really matters to us. This means that we can work beside the same colleagues for years without getting to know what truly motivates them. And that’s a problem, because it means we aren’t building the kind of trust that comes from knowing why people do the things they do. That trust is at the core of all positive and productive relationships.

The solution happens when people sit down together—be they complete strangers or long-time colleagues—and ask each other story-collecting questions. Their essential character begins to rise to the surface. I like to use this set of questions, called “Crazy Good Questions,” because they prompt people to share a story that is personal and authentic, but is not private.

When people understand each other’s character through an exercise like this, things change. Here’s what I’ve seen:

1. You manage conflict.

You can never completely escape interpersonal clashes in the workplace, but you can certainly manage them. I’ve found that the best way to handle conflict is to understand my colleague’s stories. For example, someone I know is trying—under extreme time pressure—to get on the same page with his business partner. The partner’s family obligations make it tricky to schedule calls and meetings. Moreover, the fact that the partner is an exercise nut—exercising five times weekly— also makes scheduling difficult. But why does she exercise so frequently? Once the business partner can understand that, he knows the context for why she sticks to this routine. This is exactly the kind of information a story-collecting exercise can reveal, building trust and defusing conflict.

2. You find undiscovered talents.

You tell someone your story. They rework it and tell it back to you. That means you get to see how your story looks to somebody else. At a recent Leadership Story Lab workshop, for instance, a client shared about a kindergarten experience—a time when she’d confronted a group of sixth graders. She’d always framed it as an example of standing up for herself. But when her partner interviewed her and re-told the story, it became, instead, a story of “courageous problem-solving.” From her partner’s view, the client had strategized, recruited allies (her friends and even the kindergarten teacher) and then bravely stood up to a group of kids twice her age and size! She’d done much more than stand up for her own rights. It was an example of fearless problem solving.

3. You grow.

When I needed to rewrite my bio, I decided to call up a colleague and have her interview me and write about me from her perspective—as Mary Johnson’s partner had done for her. This process helped me remember that I used to hate my Chinese name. Until that moment, I had not realized that this name said a great deal about who I am and how far my parents hoped I would go in life. The name they chose revealed that they always believed in me 100%. This is the kind of realization that can lead to personal and professional growth.

Finding and telling other people’s stories is useful for teambuilding, networking, introducing a keynote speaker, or—as I found—revamping your bio. But underneath those purposes is a quest for something that is too often neglected in the business world: understanding other people in a meaningful way.

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Need to learn more about what motivates your team? Want to explore the best ways to reveal your own character as you lead? We can help you build a storytelling culture that revitalizes and strengthens your organization! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in proven techniques to not only help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators, but also to infuse a game-changing storytelling culture into their company. Schedule a complimentary session with us today and learn how storytelling culture can help your organization meet its most ambitious goals.

My book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

This article originally appeared on

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
Karla Trotman and Robert Pasin

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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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