Using Storytelling to Challenge at Work Without Being Confrontational

Have you noticed how people often don’t respond positively to your well-meaning advice and professional opinion?

What about when you challenge their perspective on an issue or their belief?

It tends not to go very well, doesn’t it?

When confronted, most people tend to:

  • Get defensive;
  • Become combative;
  • Clutch onto their perspective even more fiercely.

The virtues of the indirect approach

While being very direct has its place, and can be very effective, sometimes being indirect — at least at the outset — is a wiser and more effective path to influence.

That’s why adding storytelling  to your influence toolbox is so important, both in one-on-one interactions and with groups.

When you use stories rather than direct confrontation, you can accomplish the following without triggering defensiveness or combativeness:

  1. Challenge someone’s limiting belief, such as  “There’s NO way that’s possible” or “I can’t do THAT!”
  2. Offer a different perspective than the one they adamantly believe is correct, such as “My team isn’t performing well because they’re just unmotivated.
  3. Get someone to look at their own unproductive behavior, such as  “Yeah…maybe I am an In-Your-Face kind of guy, but it gets results…so what’s the problem?

Why stories – why the indirect approach?

I first learned the power of storytelling as a communication tool for catalyzing change from Steve and Carol Lankton, who were students of the legendary Dr. Milton Erickson. Dr. Erickson, the grandfather of therapeutic storytelling, used to describe storytelling as a “therapy of politeness.”

Dr. Erickson was famous for his ability to work with, and influence, people who other clinicians wrote off as intractable. They would send their “untreatable” patients to Erickson, as a last ditch effort. While their approach to challenging irrational beliefs and fears was to directly confront the patient and try to convince them that their beliefs and fears were irrational, Erickson took a different approach.

He would tell his patients stories. It’s “just” a story, so there’s nothing to defend against

He called his story-based approach a “therapy of politeness” because when you tell a story, you aren’t confronting the listener with a hard message that they might not be willing or able to hear.

You are not triggering the need to save face. Instead, you are simply telling them a story they might find interesting.

There’s nothing for them to defend against, no cherished position to hang onto. It’s just a story.

If they want to take the message to heart, they can. If they want to simply hear it as a story about someone else’s situation or dilemma, they can do that, too.

Why well told stories work

Because well told stories work at the subconscious level, telling well designed stories can plant the seed of a new awareness, a new perspective. While they might not see a connection between the story and their situation in the moment, the story continues to get processed at the unconscious level. If and when the person is ready to consciously recognize the message embedded in the story, they will.

This also makes storytelling a more respectful way of giving advice or confronting another person. You are not saying “Here’s where you need to change” or “Here’s what you need to do.”

The following story is not only an example of a story you can use to challenge others without being confrontational. It is also a great example of “You can find useful teaching stories  everywhere, if … you pay attention.”

Here’s what happened:

A friend of mine, a seasoned manager, shared an experience he had in the workplace. We had been talking about how important it is for managers to be mindful of “little” moments of truth and how different responses in those situations  generate very different results from employees.

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Seth (not his real name) told me how he had recently given a presentation to a group of managers at his professional services firm. He said it was one of those presentations where you know you’re in the zone and performing at your best. Knowing Seth and his dynamism, I can imagine it was powerful.

A day after his fantastic presentation, he got a very complimentary email from one of the managers who attended. Seth said how nice it was to receive that email and how thoughtful of this colleague.

Saying “good job?” It’s Management 101

He also noted that neither his boss, nor his boss’s boss — both who attended — said anything to him about how well he had done.

“I don’t need pats on the back,” continued Seth, “But…really…? You can’t even say ‘good job’? I mean…we’re talking Management 101 here.”

Put yourself in Seth’s position. Would YOU wonder if  your boss and boss’s boss didn’t like how you did if they didn’t offer up any comment?

Seth’s reaction provides a glimpse into the effect of such a lack of mindfulness (and Emotional Intelligence for that matter) on the part of managers. It gives the listener a glimpse into how it affects an employee’s opinion of their boss and how they feel about their boss.

So how would you use this story?

This is the type of story I would use in both executive coaching and in presentations. I would use it to increase a manager’s awareness of opportunities to show recognition and appreciation, and how easy it is to miss those opportunities. It’s a story I would also use to help increase a manager’s awareness of how such missteps affect not only employee morale, but also their opinion of their manager.

Whether I shared this in a coaching session or seminar, I might simply use it as an example of these “Moments of Truth,” with the intention that they will mull it over later and reflect on how they might be “that guy.”

I also might follow up the story with a direct question like:

What are some examples in your career where your boss did something that left you feeling unappreciated, annoyed, or even resentful, but you didn’t say anything to them?”

“What important Moments of Truth have you had a boss blow, and because of that, you felt a little less determined to go above and beyond?”

My favorite version of this story genre

I like using stories from my own experience of making the mistake I’m talking about, situations where I was the fool, so to speak. Adding a vulnerable, self-effacing touch to the challenging story both models vulnerability and takes away any subliminal message of superiority or shaming by the storyteller.

By using yourself as the bad example, it makes it more comfortable for the listener to be willing to look at themselves and share without shame.

Here’s how to put this into use:

  1. Collect and curate stories that illustrate the counterproductive behaviors you you’re your “audience” to reflect upon.
  2. When appropriate, include how these behaviors interfered with the protagonist’s ability to get the results they wanted.
  3. Collect and curate stories that either reflect — or are analogous to — beliefs or perspectives you want to challenge, and how the protagonist discovers that what they believed to be true, turned out NOT to be. These are especially powerful when you are the protagonist.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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1 Comment on “Using Storytelling to Challenge at Work Without Being Confrontational

  1. Excellent article, David! Stories ARE such a powerful way to make a point and keep the listener’s mind open to hear/understand/internalize it. The specifics and examples you gave made it easy to see how to apply this idea at work or at home.

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