Recently, I was coaching a client who had a longstanding contentious relationship with a colleague. We had discussed what she could do to create a more harmonious relationship with this person. I asked her if she could focus on the things this other person did that she really respected, practice noticing the good things this person did, and intentionally engage in pleasant interactions.
The purpose was for her to help them build positive emotional associations with their interactions to help offset the many negative emotional associations they both had around their past interactions.
My client responded honestly that she didn’t think she could. She said she had tried, but all she could think of and notice were the things this person did that angered her and which she found objectionable.Rather than challenge her further or launch into a mini-lecture on how she might overcome this obstacle, I decided to tell her a story about someone else who experienced a MAJOR shift in his relationship because of the work that he did on himself. The shift was quite miraculous.
Before I share his story—or more specifically, have him share his story—let’s talk briefly about why you want to use stories to help shift someone out of a stuck place.
Use Stories to Paint a Picture of Possibility
One of the best ways of helping someone see the possibility of a new response to a troubling relationship or situation is to tell them a story about someone else (including you) who dealt with the same challenge.
Don’t Give Advice. Tell a Story
Rather than offer your five-step solution or other helpful advice, if you instead share a story you:
- Make your message more captivating, because we are fascinated by stories of other people dealing with challenges we face.
- Help the person see possibility where before they could only see obstacle or certain failure. Your success story of you or someone else overcoming a similar challenge as they are facing provides them with an image of what is possible.
- Help shift the person’s emotional state to a more empowered, uplifted state. In that state, they can see opportunities and generate solutions that were unavailable to them when they were feeling stuck and overwhelmed.
Here’s the story that I shared with my client. It was told to me by LeRoy Lowell about what happened in his contentious relationship with his mother-in-law after he did his own work.I also shared with my client about the work a friend and colleague of mine, Bonnie Vestal, MD does with people who are stuck in angry, bitter relationships with spouses, bosses, colleagues or friends, and want to feel free of the animosity that is poisoning their lives.I walked her through a visualization Dr. Vestal does with her clients that enables them to genuinely send the other person love and goodwill. I did this conversationally, simply describing the process.
My intent was to provide an opportunity for my client to insert her relationship into the “visualization walk through” if she wanted to, or to simply hear it as a description of a technique that facilitated the outcome I told her about next.After describing the technique, I shared an example of an amazing relationship transformation a client of Dr. Vestal’s had during the week following the visualization.
I shared LeRoy Lowell’s story and Dr. Vestal’s visualization story with my client because of storytelling’s ability to create both “inspiration and simulation” as Made to Stick author’s Chip and Dan Heath say. When you share stories of people overcoming challenges, it inspires the listener, it offers hope. When you describe what the person did to overcome their challenge or achieve their result, you offer a simulated experience the listener can engage in, that shows them how they might do the same. It’s sort of like virtual reality learning, or like a flight simulator pilot’s use in their training.My goal was first, to help her shift from “I can’t find it in my heart to see good in this person” to “I can…” Then, my goal in sharing these stories was to provide her with a couple of paths to doing so. This ability to provide both hope that a positive outcome is possible, and an example of how to make the outcome happen, is one of reasons why sharing stories is such a powerful way of helping people solve problems and achieve better outcomes.
Here is LeRoy Lowell’s Story