January 15, 2019

34: How Stories Can Transform Relationships with Ann Smith

When was the last time your team had a conversation about a non-work topic? That might seem like an unusual question when in fact, it’s an important component to building a high performing team. When people connect on a human level, they develop and deepen trust and respect, enabling them to constructively engage in conflict, openly share ideas and much more.

This week, I speak with Ann Smith, Executive Director of the non-profit Books@Work. Books@Work partners with employers to break down barriers, build connections and foster openness, trust and respect. Using facilitated dialogue about a carefully-curated piece of narrative literature, the program invites colleagues to deepen the relationships that anchor healthy and inclusive organizations.

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Read the related blog post: How to use Stories to Transform Relationships

Key Takeaways:

  • Using narrative text as the basis for a discussion tees up conversations that don’t normally happen, enabling the group to address topics as potentially challenging as race, and gender, and politics. The story creates an alternate reality to talk about, so people feel more open to share their view. When people engage in a narrative text, they each bring their own perspective, often seeing different things.
  • There’s almost no organization or industry where the ability to connect more deeply with other people isn’t relevant and profound. Books@Work has impact any place that the human relationship lies at the core of being successful.
  • The big difference between the Books@Work approach and other common forms of team bonding such as a happy hour, is that a happy hour is wonderful in the moment, but most people will gravitate to the people they already know.
  • To elevate the conversation, don’t use business books or self-help books, and select stories that are on topics unrelated to your work. Use narratives because they bring up human stories which actually attract you to share your own. Once you’ve shared your own, others will share theirs as well.
  • Really bring everybody to the table for the conversation. Even beyond your direct team – bring people from different functions, different roles, different levels of the organization. People are always pleasantly surprised that the most insightful comments don’t always come from the most senior person in the room or the most educated person in the room.
  • If possible, have somebody who’s trained to facilitate the discussion through questions. This will help ensure the conversation is open and that the text becomes a starting point but not the only thing you talk about. The facilitator allows people to go deeper and deeper into the story and bridge to the implications for people in the workplace.
  • Different stories tee-up different conversations on big topics like creativity, accountability, free will, etc. Start by asking some of the fundamental human questions: What are the actions that this character took that really intrigued you? What are the actions that the character took that gave you pause? Is there somebody that you identify with? And then to move to more essential, topical questions e.g. What does it take for human nature to be innovative? Or, would you make the same choice as the character?
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Give people space to reflect, gather their thoughts and speak up. Ask open-ended questions rather than yes-no. Don’t ask if people liked the story. This doesn’t lead to productive discussion.
  • Only at the end might you ask if there are any implications or connections to your work.


Website: www.booksatwork.org

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/annkowalsmith/

Twitter: @anksmith1

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