Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Benefits of Storytelling for Stressed-Out Staff

Story has a role to play in every aspect of your business, from external communications to internal functioning.

Some years ago I presented a storytelling program for technical and support staff at a major hospital in Washington, DC. These are the people who operate the technology and shepherd patients through the acute care journey, from the first terrifying admissions interview, through pre-surgical tests and prep, to and from the OR to recovery -- and ultimately to discharge. Their impact on a patient's experience is huge. (You may have experienced the spike of fear aroused by a sullen admissions clerk or the trust that you were in good hands inspired by a gentle touch on your shoulder.) They bear the brunt of the stress in our dysfunctional care system, are on the receiving end of most complaints, and yet they are the forgotten employees.

This was a special event arranged for Secretary's Day. It was held in a conference room usually reserved for hospital board meetings. The door was closed, with instructions not to enter during the two hours of this workshop. The atmosphere was determinedly non-clinical. With meditative music playing; platters of sandwiches, fruit, and cookies on a side table; and a complete absence of supervisors, there would be no mistaking this get-together for a departmental meeting.

I introduced the program: They had probably left home in the morning with everything they would need during the day: wallet, keys, credit cards, coat. Everything, that is, except what mattered most: themselves. Their hopes and worries about their kids; their plan for a dream vacation; the burden of caring for an elderly parent; and all the possibilities and potentials they had given up along the way to create a little security. This time was theirs to tell whatever untold stories they were carrying around, if they wanted. They could also just listen to the music, poetry, and stories I had brought in. Frankly, I wasn't sure how this invitation to more personal relationship would go over in a place like this.

There were 25 participants, and a day-long workshop wouldn't have been too long for them. They were starved for attention, respect, listening. Everyone had a story and together they created a sorrowful documentary of a day in the life of a hospital worker.

One woman, whose job was to transport patients, described the loneliness and fear that she felt constantly in the face of so much suffering. "Sometimes I hug the patients, but it's just as much for myself as it is for them," she said.

The stories moved -- as stories naturally do when people realize they are being heard -- from distress to hope to laughter and finally to transformational action. They shared with one another their dreams of taking night courses to finish college, getting a better job, going to Hawaii, seeing their grandchildren graduate high school. And they collaborated on an employee stress reduction plan to present to administrators.

1. They asked for a quiet room with plants, sofas, and soft music, where they could eat, read, catch a nap, and just relax. They got a small unused storage area.

2. They asked for a weekly support group for any staff who wanted to attend. They got a biweekly one.

3. They asked for more input in the staff weekly newsletter. They got article suggestion boxes in their departments.

But really, they got much more.

This project was only one clear drop in the toxic ocean of our healthcare system, but it changed things a little in one small place. It began with the spark of collective creativity ignited by story.

Imagine what an employee storytelling program could accomplish in your workplace.

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserveed.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Small Businesses Have Big Stories. What's Yours?

"The keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind -- creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people -- artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers -- will now reap society's richest rewards and share its greatest joys." -- Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

There is nothing more powerful than a story. Those who tell stories recreate the world.

Stories create connection, communicate uniqueness, and ignite innovation -- qualities needed more than ever in these economically unstable times, especially by small businesses struggling to gain visibility and credibility in an ever-changing, jam-packed marketplace.

Assuming you're producing excellent products or services, what is it about your business that is unique? What do customers and clients get from you that they can't from your competitors? What's that indefinable something that creates charisma and belief? Passion for your work, deep knowledge, and a relaxation in your presence that can only arise from authenticity. (For example, I keep noticing how kinetic self-realized people are. They fully inhabit their bodies and the spaces around them. They're alive!)

Logic just doesn't move people, folks. Emotions do. People buy stories that help to create a vision that makes them feel better.

Stories accomplish this arc of higher expectation better than any other form of communication. Why? Because no matter what issue, stories always begin with a problem and end with a resolution. The middle of a story is the journey to get there.

There's the hook.

The story of that journey touches your listener beneath the level of intellectuality, hits a visceral conflict or need, connects them to their own intuitive sense, and guides them toward action that benefits both of you.

This is why highly successful business people and leaders meet their customers, clients, and the public on the common ground of story.

Not only do successful people tell a great story about their product or service; they understand the story evolving at the core of their business -- the story their numbers, customer feedback, and workplace culture are telling them. They pay attention! They tend to the heart of their business and take intuitive action to keep it healthy.

Photo: "The Boyhood of Raleigh," by Sir John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 1870. A seafarer tells the young Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother the story of what happened out at sea.

by Juliet Bruce, All rights reserved.