How Your Stories Shape You

The following is adapted from The 4 Keys.

In 2014 I was hired to coach a team of about 17 people in the Middle East, and a man named Ajay was the team leader. My first task was getting everyone on the team to open up to one another. It was a cultural melting pot of a team, with Palestinians, Swedes, Germans, English, Americans, and Jordanians. I told Ajay that I had an exercise that would be useful to get people to start talking, but he said, ‘No, no, no. I’ve got this exercise. I’ll start by talking about my family, and we’ll all do it, one by one.’ He stood up and reeled off facts about his family, like he’s got two children, a wife, and so on. All 17 of them then did this in turn, and I did it too. It was incredibly awkward and impersonal. The exercise fell flat, and I went on to do the day’s team coaching.

Then we did a psychometric evaluation with Ajay and all the members of the team to try and learn more about each other. Later, I had to meet Ajay in an Istanbul hotel to go through his psychometric results and the feedback from his team, moving this to an executive coaching role. Ajay hadn’t booked a meeting room, so he upgraded his hotel room to a suite, and the two of us sat in his suite and went through the feedback, none of which was new or surprising. Ajay was a seasoned team leader, and I thought the conversation would go nowhere. This was before my TEDx Talk, so I’d never really opened up with a coaching client, but in an impromptu moment, I said, ‘Ajay, let me explain why I do what I do.’

I told him about my dad, and as I finished, Ajay looked down at his feet. I knew it was random to sit in a Turkish hotel suite, telling a client who I had formed a good relationship with this personal story about my dad. During an awkward silence, I thought Ajay might be thinking it was inappropriate. He went very quiet. Then he told me about his father and why perfection, resilience, and working hard were so important to him.

Ajay’s father migrated during India Partition and survived the genocide. He was forced to hide beneath a pile of dead bodies until the mass killings stopped. He managed to escape across the border, where he met his wife. As Ajay talked, he started to cry, then said, ‘Andrew, I don’t do this. I don’t cry.’ He left the room for the bathroom. When he returned, I told him that he had to tell his team this story. They needed to hear more than dry facts, and they needed to see behind this polished exterior of the man who pushed them to complete their work without ever making a personal connection with any of them.

I coached and prepped him, helping him relate the extraordinary tale in a real way that let him express the depth of emotion and let his audience connect with it. Once he voiced his story to the team, the dynamics changed. They changed completely. There had been distance and a degree of uncertainty from his team, but on hearing why he strived so hard for perfection, why he behaved a certain way, and why delivering brilliant service was so important, they understood him and bought into him.

It took me six months, two trips to Dubai, and two trips to Turkey, but I eventually got all 17 team members to share their own stories, passions, and motivations.

Getting clear on the stories that shaped you and how they shaped you is crucial for business leaders because it helps others understand you, connect with you, and ultimately, believe in you. Stories still deliver data and facts, but they do it in a deeper, more meaningful way. Our stories make sense of what we have become as we can make the necessary changes that will have a positive impact on our lives and the lives of those around us. By doing so, you’ll experience a shift in how people respond to you.

For example, I have noticed a direct correlation between improved client engagement and my TEDx Talk. The best talk I ever gave happened when the technology wasn’t working, so I couldn’t show my 10 slides. I had to describe them through storytelling. Now I never use slides. I just tell the story, and people connect with it.

For more advice on career performance, you can find The 4 Keys on Amazon.

Andrew Sillitoe is a business psychologist, author, and speaker. His innovative approach to leadership and work-life balance has earned him invitations to work with a range of global companies, including Pfizer, Nationwide, Virgin, and the BBC. Today Andrew runs the UK’s number-one training company for entrepreneurs and business owners who want to succeed in business, health, relationships, and mindset.

The 4 Keys on Amazon