Know Your Story – Fearless Storytelling, Authentic Listening

by Dymphny Dronyk, Q.Med

Know your story, own your story, tell your story.  This has been my mantra for the 25+ years that I have worked in the field of stakeholder engagement and conflict resolution. As a writer I have always loved the power of story, but it wasn’t until I lived in the Peace Country during very controversial times, in the 90s, that story – a true, simple story – became my superpower.

My job was to go door to door all over the county, to engage hundreds of rural households in the emergency response planning that was a mandatory part of a proposed new sour gas plant, at that time, the largest one in the world. Back then, it wasn’t called stakeholder engagement. We did resident contacts, or flaring notifications, and our residents were often not thrilled to be contacted, especially not about the need to shelter-in-place, or evacuate, in the event that my client had a sour gas leak.

“What do you care?” they’d snarl. “You’re from Calgary. You won’t be around when your company gasses us.”

“Actually, I live here,” I’d reply. “Since we bought our place in ’93, we’ve had sour wells and compressors pop up all around us. It scares me too. But I’ve sure learned a lot about safety practices since I started this job, and it helps me sleep a bit better at night. May I share what I’ve learned with you?”

Almost always, they would take a second look at me, and invite me in, and after chatting for a bit, they would trust me with the confidential information about their families that our company needed to respond efficiently if an emergency ever occurred. And even though there were still tough questions and uncomfortable realities, relationships were built, and we learned from each other.

It’s also true that my head office may not have been thrilled with my candour had they known about it. But I got results, even from notoriously “difficult” stakeholders. That’s what mattered to them.

In admitting my own fear to my stakeholders, and disclosing where I lived, my honest, unvarnished little story achieved two things: it gave us common ground on which to build, and it showed I wasn’t a slick outsider. My stakeholders felt heard and so they were more willing to listen to what I had to share, and more likely to believe it. They saw me as a neighbour, instead of an “Other”.

I would also encourage them NOT to believe me, or my handouts. I gave them references for more research, and urged them to become as informed as possible, and to call me if they discovered information or a perspective that I could learn from too.

Concise, kind, and transparent communication is essential for any business. In a world that buzzes relentlessly with sales pitches, hysterical social media posts, and spin doctors, a calm, direct, honest story stands out. A story that reflects your values and interests and shows the listener who you are and what matters to you. Your true story.

Authentic storytelling requires a bit of courage, and some planning and practice. The most compelling stories are told by people who are so passionate about the idea they are trying to convey, that you can feel the energy. It crackles around them. They believe in what they’re telling us, and we can feel that.

Courage is a key ingredient because to tell a story authentically you must reveal a little of your true self.  You must allow yourself a certain amount of vulnerability. You must also know exactly what you believe, and sometimes, when it comes to “selling” ourselves and our business, that can be tricky. It forces us to do the work and dig deep, to ask ourselves – why I am doing this? Why does it matter? Why would anyone else care?

Once you have those answers, you will have your story. Then you have to practice telling it, in language that feels natural to you, with conviction and passion. Know your story, own your story, tell your story.

And how is listening – really listening – as important as telling your story fearlessly?

Active listening skills matter, in good times, and especially in bad. What do I mean by active, authentic listening? Listening with your whole being, all the way to the end of the other person’s sentence, even when it is a tough sentence to hear. Stay curious as you listen, especially if you don’t agree. Give the speaker your full attention. Try to understand why their story is important to them.

Most of us only hear the first five or seven words in a sentence before we begin to tune the speaker out because we are busy formulating our reply, our reaction, our rebuttal. We interrupt. We speak over each other. We miss 90% of what was said, and too often, 100% of what mattered.

Good listening skills are not hard to learn. It is about coaching yourself to be in the moment, to quieten your monkey brain and focus only on the conversation at hand. Don’t interrupt. Be mindful of body language, of tone of voice. Make eye contact. Keep your body posture open and engaged and calm.

We’ve all had the experience where we’ve been talking about something important and the listener is on their phone, or fidgeting in what seems like an impatient way, or turns their back. We do not feel heard. We do not feel that the other person cares about what we’re trying to say.

One simple, essential conflict mitigation strategy that I’ve taught all the engagement people, and land agents, and project team members I’ve coached is to take notes. When you’re out in the field talking to an enraged stakeholder, this is one of the best tactics to use. It helps you stay calm. It forces you to translate their anger or fear into logical notes that can then be used as the agenda points to continue the conversation. You can ask them to slow down what they’re saying so you can take accurate notes. (Slowing down often helps them calm down too.) Best of all, you are showing them that you take what they’re saying seriously, that you care enough to write it down, and get it right. It works.

I also use it in mediation sessions with my clients. If they feel the urge to interrupt and refute, I ask them to write down their thoughts instead. They learn that we’ll make sure to come back to each of their notes, tackling the topics in a respectful and transparent way.

Fearless storytelling and authentic listening are key tools in anyone’s communication toolkit and will improve your relationships, at work and at home.  These principles apply to marketing your business, owning and honing your brand, as well as working with your team, and even managing an unexpected crisis. I hope you add them to your superpowers!

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