by Rick Brenner
When people relate stories at work, what seems important to one person can feel irrelevant to someone else. Being subjected to one irrelevant detail after another can be as exasperating as being told repeatedly to get to the point. How can we find a balance?
A Nez Perce ceremonial shirt. The body of the shirt is made from elk hide. The fringes are deer hide. The shirt is decorated with porcupine quills and Venetian glass beads. It was undoubtedly a treasured possession of its owner.
Around the world, shirt owners have treasured some of their shirts, especially those worn in social gatherings. When disputes arise in these gatherings, and when the parties to the dispute elect to resolve the dispute by physical conflict, it is often customary to remove one's shirt if it is highly valued. This is the origin of the phrase, "Keep your shirt on!", which is a slightly older version of "Chill!" See, for example, Eric Partridge's book, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Order from Amazon.com.
Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.
Eye rolling. Doodling. Checking the tweet stream. More eye rolling. More doodling. These are signs of bored exasperation. They can happen in any meeting when the speaker's tale includes details that seem irrelevant to whatever the speaker's point turns out to be, if he or she has a point.
Listeners who feel powerful might interrupt, "What's your point?" or "Tell me why this matters." Storytellers who feel powerful might respond, "Be patient," or "Chill, I'll get there."
Storytellers who feel less powerful might deliver hastily formed summaries that make little sense without the details. The point-demander must then ask for details. A dance of Q&A ensues in which the questions don't elicit the right details, and the answers are meaninglessly skeletal, because the storyteller is intimidated into excessive brevity.
It's all unnecessarily painful for the storyteller, the point-demander, and the lookers-on and listeners-in. Worse, it takes twice as long it should to get the information into the open.
Here are two guidelines for breaking the deadlock — one for storytellers and one for point-demanders.
- For storytellers: Master drama-free storytelling
- Most storytelling is designed for entertainment. It's dramatic. It's suspenseful. But neither drama nor suspense is helpful in relating complex tales at work.
- Listeners need to know from the very start where the tale is heading. Not necessarily in full detail, but at least the basics: "We'll make the deadline, but we'll need more of Phil's time than we thought;" or, "I don't think we can close this deal unless we can get some time with Andrea this afternoon."
- Leading with the ending goes against all our storytelling experience. That's why it's so powerful.
- For listeners: learn to guide drama-oriented storytellers
- Listeners who try Dramatic storytellers feel devalued
by coercion. Coercion often
begets resistance to the
extraction of facts.to coerce the punch line from a storyteller who doesn't know, understand, or believe in the importance of drama-free storytelling will almost surely fail. Dramatic storytellers feel devalued by coercion. Coercion often begets resistance to the extraction of facts.
- At the first sign of a dramatic tale structure, the listener can interrupt with, "I want to hear the whole story, and I want you to start with the end. Tell me, first, how does the story end? Then tell me the story." Do not use the word "point," as in "What's your point?" because it has baggage.
- Honoring the storyteller's desire to tell the story usually earns the listener permission to influence the order of telling. And with the drama removed, the urge to spin a long yarn usually expires quietly.
Pressing some storytellers for the point can be problematic if they don't actually know what the point is. It might not have an ending yet, or they might be stumped. Demanding that they get to the point might yield nonsense. Tread carefully. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
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- When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the headline first, and then offer the details.
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- Unwelcome Workplace Hugs
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- The Limits of Status Reports: Part II
- We aren't completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 2: Suppressing Dissent: Part II
- Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.
- And on December 9: Clearing Conflict Fog
- At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it? Available here and by RSS on December 9.
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