About David Lee


David Lee here.

Here’s the backstory about my approach to storytelling and the influences that have shaped the work I share with you on this site and in my presentations and consulting.

I’m sharing my back story  in part because I know most people are like me in wanting to know where the person they are contemplating learning from is “coming from.”

I’m also sharing it with you because I bet in many ways my story is like your story…in other words, the things that motivated me to learn about storytelling are similar to those that are motivating you.

I’m also sharing my back story because it’s an example of telling your “origin story”–something you want to do in many of your speaking venues, so people can connect with you and your message.

So…you might want to read it for content the first time through, and then read it from the perspective of “Hmmm…how did he tell this origin story and why does it include these different components?”

Why Aren’t They Listening to My Life Saving Advice?

Before I entered the corporate training and consulting world, I was a therapist who first worked with substance abusers and then later with trauma survivors. Fresh out of graduate school, I got a job working at a mental health agency, working with substance abusers.

Many of the people who came to see me did not want to be in the same room with me, let alone talk about their addiction. They had the “choice” between going to counseling or going to jail.

Well…just because they chose me, didn’t mean they wanted to be there, as I mentioned.

Now, the approach to addictions counseling I had been trained in was the hard core confrontational approach practiced in inpatient programs. The basic approach was to “break through denial.”

So…I would try to break through the very strong denial of many of my clients, trying to show them that the fact that they had multiple drunk driving arrests, had barely escaped jail time, and had lost a spouse due to their drinking just might be  indicative of a substance abuse problem.

I thought, naively, that they would be thankful for the potentially life-saving feedback.

Not only were they not thankful, they often didn’t return.

To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men:”They couldn’t handle the truth!”

Like many therapists then, my approach was to blame the client. They were “in denial” and “not ready to change.”


Enough About Me for a Minute…Let’s Talk about You…

Think for a moment of people in your life who aren’t “getting with the program” in your opinion, whether a teammate at work, a family member, your boss, people you manage, or someone else who really frustrates you and/or seems very resistent to any feedback or point of view other than their own.

Think of the direct, perhaps even confrontational approaches you have used to try to help them “see the light” and how well that has worked. Well…that frustration you feel is how I felt.

OK…Back to Me…

But here’s the deal…Even though I felt quite righteous in my assessment of their “being in denial”, this judgment wasn’t doing me any good because…even if I was right…I also was losing so many clients, my appointment calendar could have almost been returned to the office supply store as unused.

I knew I needed to develop new tools, tools that worked way better than the direct confrontational approach I had been trained in.

That Sounds Kind of Magical!

Around this time, colleagues of mine were really into Neuro-Linguistic Programming. They were often talking about the amazing approach it was for helping people change. I read some of the classic NLP books (this was LONG before the Internet) and learned that the founders of NLP, John Grinder and Richard Bandler had studied with a psychiatrist Dr. Milton Erickson, who was a legend in the therapy and hypnosis field. Their writings led me to writings about Dr. Erickson.

And I was hooked.

He had almost a miraculous way of connecting with patients who other therapists had given up on. He had an almost magical way of facilitating major healing and transformation, whether through hypnosis, action assignments, or seemingly informal storytelling.

Guiding Principles of Dr. Erickson’s Approach to Facilitating Change

A couple of Erickson’s philosophical underpinnings that are especially relevant to the work I share with you are:

  1. People are far more likely to change and solve their problems if you work with their strengths, rather than focus on what’s wrong with them. This was revolutionary at the time he entered the therapy scene where most practitioners used a Freudian, let’s-dig-up-the-past-to-understand-your-pathology approach to therapy.
  2. People have the answers inside of them. Your job is to help them discover their own answers.
  3. People change through experience, not through insight. Your job is to create experiences that lead to change. Storytelling is one of the ways you can do that.
  4. People usually have the “resources”–attitudes, skills, perspectives, and behavioral responses–they need to solve their problem, they just can’t access them in the problematic situation. Your job is to create an experience (again, often through storytelling) that helps them access these resources and link them to the problem context. So for instance, if someone has trouble speaking up at work, but they easily do so with their friends and family, your job is to help them call forth and apply the assertive skills they possess in the “friends and family context” and learn how to apply them in the work context.

By the way…do you notice how much this resonates with strengths-based approaches to coaching and leadership, and the modern positive psychology movement?

OK…back to Dr. Erickson’s work.


My Intensive Storytelling and Ericksonian Hypnotherapy Training Odyssey Begins..

So…I went down to Pensacola, Florida and participated in an intensive Ericksonian Hypnotherapy training program with two of Erickson’s star students (Dr. Erickson had died by then), Steve and Carol Lankton. Of Erickson’s handful of most famous and talented students, Steve Lankton was the one best known for his work decoding Erickson’s storytelling approach. He developed sophsiticated protocols for designing therapeutic stories that helped people:

  1. Access specific emotional states
  2. Change their perspectives
  3. Develop a new self-image and map of what’s possible for them.
  4. Develop new responses to problematic situations.
  5. Practice, vicariously, new skills that could help them solve their problem.


I’m a Real Novice at This…But I’m Trying…

My first attempts at hypnosis and therapeutic storytelling were awkward. In the beginning, I would sketch out an outline of a story theme, have the client close their eyes, and let the magic begin. Let’s put “magic” in quotes, because I’m sure I wasn’t particularly good, but  how could I be? I just started. I point out this rather obvious point because I found out later when I would go to other Ericksonian Hypnotherapy seminars and meet people who had been in the field far longer than I  had, that I was much farther along skill-wise than they were because I STARTED APPLYING WHAT I LEARNED RIGHT AWAY…WHETHER IT FELT AWKWARD OR NOT.

After a while, what felt awkward began to feel very natural.

Please keep that in mind if you currently consider yourself  unskilled in this area–or any area of expertise. OF COURSE it will feel awkward in the beginning and so “not  you”.

But…. if you keep working at it, it will become you. It will become second nature. I’m getting ahead of myself, but in a few short years, I went from novice, to local expert, to speaking at a national and international level. So keep that in mind if you question your ability or you tried to apply some skill and you felt clumsy and awkward.

This Hypnotic Storytelling Approach Changes Everything!

After a while, here’s how my work changed after becoming skilled in Ericksonian Hypnotherapy and storytelling:

  1. People who had remained “stuck” despite being in more traditional counseling, began to get “unstuck”, resolving issues and emotions that had troubled them for years.
  2. People who reacted to direct confrontation–no matter how respectful the approach–with denial and defensiveness, became open to ideas and messages that were embedded in stories.

In this interest of full disclosure, these changes in my ability to reach people that before I had experienced as unreachable wasn’t just because of storytelling and hypnosis. It was also because of many of the underlying principles of Erickson’s work, such as “Before you can lead someone to a new perspective, you must first ‘pace’ them–i.e. get in sync with their point of view, so they feel understood. Once they feel  understood, you can then lead them to a new and different perspective.”

From Avid Practitioner to Teacher of  Transformational Storytelling

After a few years of developing my skills, seeing the results, and recognizing how natural this approach felt to me, I started teaching other therapists and clinicians how to use therapeutic storytelling (or what you can think of as Transformational Storytelling). I gave workshops and presented at conferences both domestically and abroad. My work was included in Tales of Enchantment, a book about therapeutic metaphors, edited by Steve and Carol Lankton.

OK…But How Can I Apply This in a Corporate Environment?

When I decided to switch careers and apply what I had learned about human nature (with a special emphasis on how stress affected the human brain, and therefore behavior) I thought I would have to leave a lot of what I learned from Dr. Erickson’s students behind. However, as the years went by, I experienced three reoccuring themes that made me realize that storytelling had a huge place in  business:

1. When people would come up to me and tell me how much they liked my presentation, often the aspect of it they would cite was the use of stories which made the presentation more engaging and impactful than the typical “Death by Powerpoint” they were used to.

2. Often at association meetings when a sponsor would get up and do their 5 minute talk about their product or service, I was struck by how boring most of these were and how sad it was that they wasted this precious opportunity to share how their product or service could help the audience.

3. I would often witness leaders try to “motivate” their employees and see their efforts fall flat or…even worse…they would show no interest in motivating…they just droned on and on. It was sad to see such an important opportunity to engage and inspire go wasted.

This, along with a comment from a close friend and colleague, that went something likes this: “Dude…you really need to teach other consultants how to tell stories. You’re so good at it and it comes so naturally to you.”….made me decide to teach others how to use storytelling to:

  • Enliven their presentations
  • Add more “umph” and  impact to their ideas
  • Make complex or novel concepts more understandable
  • Increase their ability to get their ideas considered…especially with skeptical people
  • Increase their ability to challenge someone’s limiting belief or unhelpful perspective without triggering defensiveness

These are a few of the results you can get by becoming skilled at storytelling.

One Last Thing…

One of the other things I absolutely LOVE about storytelling is that it enables you to use your creativity. Often in “modern” cultures, people are divided into “creative” or “artistic” and “worker bees”, unlike many indigeneous cultures where everyone creates. It’s simply part of being human.

If you long to use more of your creative or expressive ability, you’ll LOVE storytelling, too.

So Here We Are…

Alright then…now that you know something about me and where this comes from, start (or keep) checking out the blog posts and videos on the site. Please participate by posting comments and questions on the blog posts.

I’m off to write a blog post…


Best regards,

David Lee

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