February 28, 2020 / Esther Choy

Connect through leadership storytelling

When Hubert Joly took the helm at Best Buy from 2012 to mid-2019, one of his first moves was to get managers to connect with their employees. Specifically, he wanted managers to understand their employees’ dreams and then connect those dreams to Best Buy’s vision.

To have employees share so deeply, relationships must be built. Managers have to connect with their employees about everyday life. And while connecting with someone who shares some obvious commonality with you takes no skill, what sets leaders apart is their ability to connect with anyone at all– even if it seems as though the leaders have nothing in common with them.How do they do this? Yes, maybe there’s a natural ability. But for those of us who might not find this ability natural, here are the ways.

Connect By Listening Aggressively

My former boss and retired Northwestern University communications professor Paul Arntson used to say, “For every one part talking, do three parts listening.”What do we do during the three parts listening? My fellow storytelling advocate Annette Simmons describes it as “being present to other people’s words and meaning, even when, or especially when, their words and meaning might potentially disconfirm or destabilize your own.”Connect by listening

Here are three tips for listening aggressively:

Body language:

  • Maintain eye contact: Look at the other person most of the time when they are speaking, but don’t stare them down! Alternate your focus between the speaker and a nearby empty space, signaling that you are thinking deeply about what they’re saying.
  • Communicate openness: Make sure your arms and legs are not crossed, to avoid an impression of defensiveness.
  • Be “The Thinker”: For important conversations, imitate that famous statue by Auguste Rodin by leaning forward with your hand cupping your chin to communicate care and attention.

Further their story:

  • Ask clarifying questions: If something doesn’t add up, or if you’re struggling to follow the story, ask clarifying questions. For instance, “Did this happen before the job interview, or after?” “Why do you think he’s hesitant to disclose the information?” It demonstrates that you care about the story and want to understand it fully.
  • Paraphrase: Repeating what you’ve heard but using your own words gives your audience proof that you’ve grasped what they’re saying. But if you get it wrong, don’t worry. You’ve just given them a chance to clarify! In many situations, especially emotion-laden ones, there’s nothing more validating than hearing your thoughts, experiences, and feelings expressed in someone else’s voice. (Just remember to do this sparingly so that it augments, rather than distracts from, what they want to say.)

Give them the spotlight:

  • Don’t interject: It’s natural for stories of your own to come to mind as you hear someone else’s. But try to resist the temptation to interject. We often think of sharing a similar story as a demonstration of empathy. But too often it merely puts our own story in the spotlight and pushes our conversation partner’s story aside.
  • Respect silence: If you’re an extrovert and your audience tends to be more introverted, it may be hard for you to deal with their longer silences, but it’s important not to fill that space, as it may be part of their process of warming up to share.

Share Intersecting Stories

Have you ever watched kids build forts out of simple materials? All they need is a pile of plastic poles and a few handfuls of connector pieces and they can build whatever they imagine.

This simple combination is a good metaphor for persuasion. Your life experience gives you a heap of stories. The same is true for the person you’re trying to persuade–they also have an abundance of stories. Persuasion is what allows you to connect your story with theirs. Finding that “lock” that authentically intersects your story with someone else’s is what makes persuasion happen. It enables you to establish rapport, build relationships, and earn trust from your audience so that they see you as truly in the same tribe.I worked with a client who had to pitch to a sovereign wealth fund. If successful, his firm would be the first western investment company to have won from this particular country’s sovereign fund. And the mandate was to set up a national social retirement security system.

What Intersecting Stories could he share that’s relevant to his audience and yet revealing to his character? His grandmother.

His grandmother once owned a small corner pharmacy store but could not survive once the giant chains came into the scene. Divorced and out of business, she was still able to retire with dignity because of the robust social pension that his country provides. His grandmother helped raise him and his sibling. Knowing she was taken care of even when she had diminishing ability to take care of herself provided an enormous sense of relief to his family, especially his parents.

My client became very animated when he shared that story but more importantly, he showed and told this selection committee of this sovereign wealth that winning this account wasn’t just business to him, it’s personal.

You may not have such precise scenarios every time you can share an Intersecting Story. Nonetheless, as you meet new people in any situation, consider experiences that many people share, and tell stories related to this.

Positive Experiences

  • Job promotion
  • Great teachers/mentors
  • Carefree summers
  • Birth of a child/grandchild
  • Eureka moments
  • Love of a hobby/charity
  • Being in a flow
  • Family dinner
  • Holiday tradition
  • Playing team sports

Negative Experiences

  • Being passed over for promotion
  • Bad customer service
  • “Blue screen” of death
  • Failed business venture
  • Boring meetings
  • Missing the train by 2 seconds

Either / Both

  • First car
  • Culture shock
  • School/family reunion
  • Ignoring users’ manual
  • Business travel
  • Dropping your child off at college
  • Getting lost
  • Paying back loans
  • Meeting your idol
  • Managing up and down
  • Being in the “sandwich generation” (caregiver to parents and children)

Read more on how to craft intersecting stories.

In job interviews in particular, when the interviewer says, “tell me about yourself,” they’re really asking to hear a story that reminds them of themselves. Lauren Rivera of Kellogg School of Management has found that interviewers give top rankings to applicants who remind them of themselves. Reminding someone of themselves depends upon finding meaningful connections with them, and the list of shared experiences gives you many options for telling a story someone else is very likely to relate to.

Share with Care

Of course, there are a few things that you should avoid when sharing a personal story–especially during a formal setting like an interview.Most likely, your interviewer will invite you to reflect on a weakness or failure. A story can be appropriate here, but choose a failure story that suggests that you lacked experience but not character. Never tell a story about treating a team member poorly, procrastinating or doing half-hearted work.

When sharing any story, find the right level of vulnerability. I encourage clients to choose stories from the realm of “personal” but not “private.” Know what those categories are for you and stick with them.Learn more about job interview pitfalls.

Through listening, empathetic sharing, and finding the right level of vulnerability, you will make meaningful connections in the workplace and beyond.

Read a real-life example of how one employee leveraged the power of storytelling to create an authentic connection and land a job.

This is Part 5 in our Leadership Storytelling 101 series. Read Part 4 here.


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Whoever you need to connect with, we can help. We provide customized services to help you succeed. Give us a shout! Schedule a complimentary working session with us today. For more tips and insights on storytelling, sign up for our monthly guide. Also, my book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is full of storytelling advice, tools and templates!

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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"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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