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The Power of Story ~ Using Storytelling to Heal and Strengthen Teams
by Cheri Baker
Editor's Note: In this article, consultant Cheri Baker shares her experience of using Appreciative Inquiry and storytelling to transform and empower a business team.
Appreciative Inquiry is a consulting methodology or philosophy which states that powerful change can arise from a focus on what is already working well in organizations. Rather than the old problem solving approach of fixing what is broken, AI tells us to focus on what is strongest, and then translate those strengths into action. Strengths-oriented team development often borrows from Appreciative Inquiry. And AI is bound up with the art of storytelling. We tell stories of success, and we learn from them.
So today I wanted to tell a story about a team that I worked with recently. The context was rather ordinary - a team of healthcare professionals who wanted to strengthen their customer service abilities. The details however, were anything but ordinary. Here is what happened:
I was on my way to deliver one of the training sessions when I got a phone call from one of the managers. He called to tell me that one of the leaders of this team was recently diagnosed with a terrible illness. The team was shocked and devastated by the news. "I wanted you to know what is happening, in case it comes up today," the manager said.
When I arrived, the team was quiet. As a facilitator, it is hard to say how such an event will impact the learning. Clearly, it's hard to focus on service when someone you care about is in danger. What would happen next?
The team broke into pairs for a storytelling exercise that I had planned. I provided each pair with an interview template, and they interviewed each other to uncover stories about how they made a difference through customer service.
Would it surprise you to hear that the whole feel of the session changed? that people smiled and shared and broke out into laughter? I usually get a positive response when doing appreciative interviews, but the strength of the response surprised me a little. We had a great session and ended with some outstanding action steps.
I was driving home that day, when an idea struck me. When someone you care about is very sick, you feel powerless. And in asking this team to share stories of how they made a difference through excellent service in healthcare, they were reminded that YES they can make a difference for people. In service to others, there is hope.
So yes we learned about customer service that day. But I think that something a little extra happened too. Such is the power of storytelling in the workplace. Stories are not just examples. They can give us hope, courage, and the will to move on. Why else has storytelling been such an integral part of human civilization since the beginning? Our stories have power.
More and more, I'm incorporating storytelling into my employee development programs. Sometimes a dysfunctional team needs to look at themselves in the mirror and describe the story of the "way things are" so that they can begin to rewrite reality. Sometimes a story about our past successes can give us clues to a better future.
And sometimes, you have a team that has a heavy heart. Apparently story has the power to help people get through that day. I think that may be the greatest gift of all.
© Cheri Baker. Reprinted with the author's permission.
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About the Author
Cheri Baker is the owner of Emergence Consulting®, an Organizational Development Consulting firm based near Seattle, WA. Cheri Baker holds a M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Antioch University Seattle and a B.A. in Business Administration from Washington State University. She is adjunct faculty in the undergraduate business program at Argosy University and is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources. Learn more at www.emergenceconsulting.net and her blog at blog.emergenceconsulting.net.