Getting to really, really know each other

There is no substitute for empathy in work (or any) relationships.

The more we understand each other’s perspectives, the more we trust each other. The more we trust each other, the better we are at working together.

I think all companies should invest in finding structured forums for employees to really, really get to know each other. (Note: I think it’s even better when those ‘structured forums’ do not include drinking.)

A few years ago, I found myself sitting across the table at lunch at work from someone I didn’t know. We struck up conversation. At first, we leaned on niceties but we quickly found common and meaningful points of connection. When our work eventually intersected a few months later, we already had a solid foundation of mutual respect to work from.

This experience got me thinking about ways I could create time and space to facilitate deeper, more personal, connections with colleagues. I never liked the idea of relying on random chance to meet and learn from someone.

So, I sent an email to everyone at the company asking whether they felt the same and proposed an idea for what we could do about it. The email started, “I want to get to know you better. Yes, you,” and proposed a monthly forum in which an employee could tell their story to colleagues. Stories were encouraged to be about life experience more than professional accomplishments. I asked if anyone would be interested in telling or listening to stories from each other.

The extent to which employees were craving this kind of connection was surprising to me. Nearly one fifth of the company responded in resounding support. Soon, ‘Storytime’ was born.

Since its inception, employees have heard from each other about climbing mountains, racing cars, and inspecting bones. We’ve heard about experiences of race, gender, religion, and sexuality. We’ve heard about the joy of finding a long-lost parent and the heartbreak of losing a child. We’ve heard about first dates and strange encounters with wildlife.

Every single story blows me away.

And, perhaps most importantly, walking by those people who have told stories feels different now. I feel warmer toward them. All teams and companies should find a way to facilitate that. Here are some ideas for making that happen.

1- Make the case.

  • Treat the creation of this program as seriously as you would any other program you are working on. There should be a well-documented resource on why the program exists and what it entails.  This should include:
    • Overview of $COMPANYNAME Stories?
    • Why does $COMPANYNAME Stories exist?
    • What does the $COMPANYNAME Stories program entail?
      • Include relevant details from [2]
      • Include information on how to get involved
  • Assemble your working team. This may be just you, but it should cover the following roles/responsibilities:
    • DRI (directly responsible individual): this is the single person responsible for the entire program. She sets the program up (by answering the questions below) and communicates about it to the broader organization.
    • Day-of coordination: this is the person (or set of people) responsible for securing and setting up the space and arranging the recordings.
    • Storytelling coaches: This person/people are responsible for helping the storyteller prepare her story.  (More on resources below).

2- Design a storytelling program that is right for your company.

3- Ensure that the stories are awesome

  • On content: Ask your storytellers to ‘be brave.’ This will mean something different to every storyteller, but it will universally push her towards the edge where the material most interesting.
    • Some storytellers will know exactly the story they want to tell. Ask them to outline what they want to say and share it with you before they start writing. This will ensure they don’t waste any cycles.
    • Some storytellers will want more guidance on what to talk about. This is where you can invoke Oprah. Oprah famously asks her interviewees one question before they get to her couch; “where do you want to go?” Ask this to your storyteller and then discuss for examples of experiences that support this narrative.
  • On craft: Here are my favorite resources for advice on storytelling and presenting.
  • On process: You’ll want to work hand-on with your storytellers to craft their stories in all cases. No matter what the tone or the content of the story, every one should lead to something about the storyteller’s essence.
  • On mentorship: Remind storytellers regularly that you are there to bounce ideas off of. Storytellers are opening themselves up so be precious and tender with that vulnerability. In your work together, exude positivity and support by clearly communicating what elements of the story are working.
  • On preparation: The story will look and sound a lot different than expected once its translated from the storyteller’s head into the world. It is an absolute requirement that someone sees a dry-run, script, presentation, or outline before a storyteller goes on stage. This not only ensures that the storyteller has adequately prepared in advance, but it also gives her a chance to work out any unexpected kinks. Some storytellers will want to yolo more than others and that’s okay- they still need to practice in advance and let at least one other person in on their narrative.

4- Relentlessly ensure that the storytelling and listening experience is awesome.

  • Follow best practices in [3] such that the story is great. Storytellers and listeners alike will know a great story when they tell/hear it.
  • After the storytelling event, follow up with your storyteller. If it exists, share the recording with her in case she wants to send it to loved ones. Give her feedback on how it went and anything you heard from listeners.
  • Provide a regular cadence of updates to the company on upcoming story events and information about how to get involved.
  • Create a repository of Stories such that all employees can engage on an ongoing basis.

5- Keep it going.

  • It will be very exciting and energizing to stand this program up. The next challenge will be sustaining this energy and excitement. It’s up to you to keep the program alive!  

If this is something you’d like to try at your company, I’d love to help you! I think this stuff is so, so important.

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