I am constantly struck by the impact of real, specific, personal story.
Hong Kong Snapshot: Bathing Chester (and the power of story)
I am constantly struck by the power of real, specific, personal story. This week,I’m with fellow OYFer Brad Robertson in the utterly fascinating city of Hong Kong. We’re helping a client group with cross-cultural communication and influence – specifically, working with their Asian partners to more effectively communicate their depth of knowledge and expertise back to headquarters in North America. Perceived importance of hierarchy, status and power differences, 10,000 years of cultural grooving (on both sides), indirect vs. direct communication styles… as you might expect, a variety of drivers make this difficult.
So we knew going in that influence tools weren’t the only ingredients needed. At the end of the first day, we did a module on risk-taking. After a block of improv games (that required participants to take risks with each other right there in the room), we asked them to share the story of a time they, themselves, took a significant risk. What was the risk, and why did they take it? What happened? What did they learn?
The room grew soft with awe as participants from Korea, North America, Taiwan, Indonesia, China and elsewhere told their stories. One man quit his job and bicycled around the world. Another woman fell in love from a distance, and – stepping WAY outside traditional cultural norms – expressed her love with a heart-shaped sweet. And heard nothing. Several months later, seemingly out of the blue, the man she’d reached out to asked her to marry him. (They’ve now been married 10 years.) Another participant, so terrified of heights his entire life that he wouldn’t climb up on a table to change a lightbulb, went parasailing over 400 meters in the air. And then went again.
Across the room, people leaned toward each other, utterly engaged – laughing with recognition and grimacing with empathy. A new level of ease and comfort being open and vulnerable developed, becoming especially apparent the following day as they waded more deeply into the challenging waters of their real business issues and communication.
A story that stuck came from the Taiwanese father of a newborn, Chester. “I never thought I’d have children,” he said. “My friends still don’t believe it.” Bottom line: he was terrified of screwing it up. (How many parents around the world share that fear?) (How many parents are now considering naming their next child Chester? Is that adorable, or what?) “Before he was born, my wife took a series of classes for new parents. She was going by herself because I was scared that if I tried to care for the baby, I would break it. For some reason, I decided to go to the class on how to give a bath. I insisted on going alone to that particular class and when we brought Chester home, I was the one who bathed him. I was so scared. But it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever done. Now, the highlight of my every day is giving Chester his bath. I arrange my day so I am home in the evening to do that.”
“Bathing Chester” became symbolic, and we referred to this story many times. “Growth comes from risk,” as one person put it. “That’s the only way you can get to it. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from.”
Tip: One of our favorite group story forms is “Story Circle,” which we learned from the masterful Kat Koppett and use endlessly with a huge variety of groups. Her easy-to-follow instructions can be found in her valuable book, Training to Imagine.
What other ways of using story are you especially jazzed about? Do tell.