November 8, 2019 / Esther Choy

StoryCorps specializes in crafting better conversations

Conversation patterns reinforce relational roles. A manager with 20 years more industry experience than her average team member will likely default to “expert” role, doling out work-related advice (maybe even life-related advice) while non-experts listen. From colleagues to friends to family members, we tend to lock into these roles.

Patterns offer comfort, letting us know how to act. But what should we do when relationships feel stuck?


Studies have shown that feeling understood not only strengthens relational bonds but also enhances life satisfaction.

People more quickly warm up to strangers who “get” them. Studies have shown that feeling understood not only strengthens relational bonds but also enhances life satisfaction. People more quickly warm up to strangers who “get” them. And, when listened to, people’s attitudes become “less extreme,” as researchers Guy Itzchakov and Avraham N. Kluger write in Harvard Business Review. They found that people who feel listened to become less “one-sided.” Being listened to helps bridge divides, thereby “unsticking” stubborn relationship dynamics.

But how can we cultivate listening in modern life, when time and patience are often in short supply?

Busy leaders can create space for engaging, informative, inspiring, and even life-altering conversations by using some of the listening techniques the American nonprofit StoryCorps teaches. StoryCorps has recorded over 100,000 conversations so far, some of these through their Great Thanksgiving Listen project, where school children around the U.S. record an interview with an elder.

Whether you want to have quality conversations with friends and family during the holidays or colleagues and customers at work year round, replicating the StoryCorps process can improve those conversations.

1. Deliberately want to have a conversation and regard that conversation as historic.

“People take it very seriously,” StoryCorps CEO Robin Sparkman says of the time people spend having a conversation in a StoryCorps recording booth. “It’s 40 minutes, the lights are low, the trained facilitator is there to help prompt the conversation…..”

Robyn Sparkman specializes in crafting better conversationsEach StoryCorps conversation is archived in the Library of Congress, so the conversation literally goes down in history. What if we treated our own meaningful conversations as historic moments? We’d think about their impact. We’d consider the weight and intended meaning of our words. We’d reflect on how the other person will remember us.

2. Prepare curiosity-driven questions, with respect.

In ten years of speaking on business storytelling, it amazes me how often I meet people who work alongside each other for years, but hardly know more than superficial facts about each other. StoryCorps provides a long list of possible questions you can use to change this, including:

  • “Tell me about how you got into your line of work.”
  • “Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?”

I’ve also developed this series of questions that is particularly suited to business contexts.As you begin to deepen your conversations, tailor the number of questions carefully. When her own children were preparing to interview their grandmother for StoryCorps, Sparkman considered the kind of person their grandmother is. Concluding that “she’s a pretty modest woman,” Sparkman told her kids that asking too many questions would make her self-conscious. She advised them to “think very carefully about your questions for her, and line them up in order of priority.”

3. Practice Disciplined Listening.

Since StoryCorps’s goal is to facilitate listening, Sparkman has pondered what makes a good listener. “You have to really try to genuinely connect with the person who is telling the story to you. Even if they are a stranger, or you feel like, ‘God, there’s nothing in common,’” it’s a matter of “just quieting yourself and connecting with something the person is telling you, and trying not to interrupt.”

Sparkman adds that it’s important to be conscious of whether, “if you make a comment, are you redirecting the conversation back to yourself or something that you’re comfortable with?” Good listening, she says, stretches beyond this. “To be a good listener, you’re staying on the topic with that person.”

Staying on topic takes disciplined listening. “It’s not that bringing the conversation back to yourself is so terrible,” Sparkman says, it’s that hearing what people want to open up to you about requires “being very mindful of whether your input in the conversation is shifting the topic away from what your storyteller is trying to say.” In other words, disciplined listening is patient listening. “Patience is really in short supply these days,” Sparkman notes. “Being patient and letting someone finish what they were trying to say…it’s a gift!” It’s an “aggressive listening” that includes body language, mental state and clarifying questions.

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When you give others this gift, you can free yourself from relational ruts. You might even increase the other person’s life satisfaction. And you can potentially change their minds about something you’ve been trying to persuade them about!For even more guidance on how to reinvigorate your conversations, check out my article, “Break Out Of Unproductive Conversation Patterns.”

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This article by Esther Choy originally appeared on

Photo credits: StoryCorps, Harvey Wang

Esther Choy

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

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