The Power of Stories to Transform

Jul 12, 2021

"To fashion an inner story of our pain carries us into the heart of it, which is where rebirth inevitability occurs." -  Sue Monk Kidd

If You Knew Me Well...

You'd know that I grew up in Kentucky, I was a national speech competitor in college, and my first job was at Procter & Gamble. I received my doctorate researching leadership development. I've been married to my college sweetheart, Steve, for over twenty years. We love being parents.

Pretty basic stuff, which makes it a tame (and lame) icebreaker in the retreats I facilitate for leadership teams. But conversations like these get more interesting when we start telling the stories behind the stories. So...

The plot thickens...

Before joining P&G, I spent a year with a music group that traveled around the world. We were in Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall came down, performing in the shipyards of GdaƄsk where Poland was invaded at the start of WW2.

After P&G, I joined an African-American led diversity consulting firm. I learned more about my own blind spots and biases than I could have ever imagined. It was hard. And so very, very worth it.

I first went to graduate school to study theology before getting degrees in business and education. I discovered quickly that I was made for organizational leadership consulting. My work combines all my passions and talents.

Steve and I met as teenagers, but didn't get married until our 30s. After four years together and then six years apart (with other people and lots of life drama in between...), Steve Fed-Exed me a 7-page love letter. We were engaged six weeks later. Our love story is one for the ages.

The stories we don't tell...

In workshops when pairs do this exercise, the room fills with an animated buzz. It's energizing and affirming to share adventurous parts of ourselves. But what about the stories that reveal heartache and shame, disappointment and loss?

When we narrate our lives to others, it's easy to paint ourselves as the victor (or victim). What if we revealed ourselves as fully human - flawed, hurt, uncertain, contradictory, a work in progress?

I give the teams I work with an opportunity to explore those narratives by taking the ice-breaker (now a meaningful dialogue) a step further...

If you knew me really well, you'd know...

I felt way in over my head at P&G. Every day I worried that all my MBA peers would figure out I was a fraud. I learned early that hustling to prove my worth is a soul-sucking gerbil wheel.

I've always been a spiritual seeker. I was baptized in a swimming pool in the Bible Belt, rejected the church, became a Unitarian, considered converting to Judaism, and finally made my way to a progressive Christian church that has taught me the most about loving kindness, doing justice, and walking humbly with the Holy. This community has saved my life in ways that have nothing to do with salvation.

The long writing commitment of a dissertation was brutal. I sat in my basement office of our house in the suburbs, struggling with the loneliness of being a new mom without a community of my own. Being out in the world (and not in my head) is a healthier path for me. The fact that I wrote a book during Covid is no small miracle.

We have four children; three on this earth, and one who died when he was nine. Six years later I still carry the devastation of that loss with me daily. Sharing Ben's story is my greatest pain and greatest joy.

The power of stories to transform...

Sharing our most meaningful life experiences is not just for late-night jam sessions in college, bonding in a growing romance, or a therapy session.  In my "everyone has a story" icebreaker, I share some of my personal stories to model what kind of conversations are possible when we are willing to reveal a richer picture of our life experiences.

By revealing my deeper story of surviving and thriving, I’ve given a team permission to bring their whole selves to the leadership session.

No one needs to divulge life tragedies, but we collectively create a psychological safety net that allows us to be real with one another in courageous and compassionate ways.

When team members in my workshops start their own conversations about  “If you really knew me well, you’d know…” a chorus emerges of past failures, surprise detours, un-pursued passions, self doubts, obstacles overcome, hopes for the future, and more.

The energy of the team is not somber, as one might expect. The engaged attentiveness is palpable. They are "all in" -- for one another, for learning, for growth.

Many share that they learned more about each other in mere minutes than they had after years of working together.

Accelerating the speed of trust...

Authentic intimacy doesn't depend on a long relational history; it's honesty, vulnerability, and acceptance that is required.

My job is to accelerate the forming of trusting bonds within a team by creating space for honest conversations about what matters most.

Moving forward into the workshop, we begin to tackle complex corporate issues about performance, talent development, strategic alignment, wellbeing, communication, you name it.

With permission to stay open with each other, solutions to problems are more innovative, more honest, and more well-rounded across the board.

As it turns out...

Having run this exercise with hundreds of teams, I’ve seen how heartfelt dialogue achieves far more than heated debate. This is work that I am grateful to witness time and time again.

As it turns out, the emotional resonance felt from sharing deeper, truer stories helps teams connect beyond a shared strategy. They cultivate a shared identity.

Together, they build insight, trust, loyalty, and even love for one another.

That type of belonging doesn’t appear because we know each other’s resumes. It happens because we know each other’s stories.

What is your story of surviving and thriving?

Have you ever shared it fully, bravely, unvarnished? Has that story been heard with compassion, curiosity, and acceptance?  

The story itself is not transformative... but the connection created in intentional sharing can be.

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