HYCS #28 – Using Personal Stories

HYCS #28 – Using Personal Stories

I’ll never forget the first time I used a personal story to make a connection with a client.It felt risky, sloppy, even unprofessional.

++++ +

Word Count: 794

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Assignment Time:No additional Time

++++ +

I was desperate to make contact.After 45 minutes on the phone, there was no “click.”No warmth in the voice, no thoughtful pauses, no shift in tone that signaled interest – just a polite exchange of words.I’d named out impasse, said what was so, listened carefully.What hadn’t I tried?He’d talked about how his Japanese grandmother had raised him several times.I hadn’t mentioned my family once. I didn’t want to.

I’ve never wanted to be that consultant who bores people with stories of their exploits as the clock ticks on.And I really don’t want to be the consultant who uses times with clients as personal therapy.On the other hand, at story-telling festivals, I love the seasonal storytellers best.A good personal storyteller wrings all the pain and self-indulgence from their story until it is a perfectly polished gem.Those stories of personal suffering become gifts of distilled wisdom.They are the opposite of needy, therapeutic confession.

I didn’t have one of those.Plus, I’m deeply private and telling a personal story felt wrong to me.

I did it anyway.

And even though I hadn’t yet found a way to polish that story into a gem, I could offer it as evidence of our shared vulnerability and struggle. So I told him that my family had not recovered from my mother’s death or my father’s subsequent remarriage, and wasn’t likely to.Just that sentence left me in a cold sweat.And just that sentence cemented a bod between us that became the foundation for some transformative coaching work.

Using Stories

Telling a story is not a technique.You can’t phone them in and expect anything to happen.A story that connects will make you feel vulnerable because it shows something about you that others will interpret.A story that transforms has transformed you before it can make a difference for a client.Those are the stories to watch out for, remember and use.

If your palms are sweating or you breathing is shallow and you feel it’s important to speak up – pause.Ask one more question:Who is this for?Is the benefit of the story for my client, or for me?If it’s for them alone, and may put you at some risk to tell it, speak up.If it’s mostly for your ego or to get your voice in the room or for validation, don’t.


You want your story to work the way a model or diagram does, not as a personal relief valve.


Stories of Transformation are Models

These days we talk a lot about organizational transformation without understanding it very well.The diagrams and tables show us the steps and concepts of organizational transformation, but they don’t show us its heart.

The heart of transformation is the unresolvable tension between what you have and want you want.Why else would you transform?

Stories help with the unresolvable by giving us a more merciful way to look at our dilemma.When you can re-imagine an unresolvable tension as a normal, even inevitable fact of life, everyone can relax.

The Unresolvable Tension of Family

My cousin Deb is an investigator and someone I’ve always looked up to for her steadiness, grit and plain good sense.I asked for her help with a better story for the rift in my family.I wanted it to create more peace and acceptance around a difficult truth.

“I think it’s like having two eye-witnesses to an accident,” she said.“Even though they saw the same accident, they didn’t see the same thing.What we see depends on who we are, not what happened.That’s why you’ll never get two eye-witnesses to agree.They genuinely didn’t see the same thing.Your father went to a different wedding that the rest of us, because we is the product of his experiences, just like the rest of it.We’ll never agree to one story of what happened, because there isn’t one.And that’s OK.”

I know this will be a good transformational story for a client someday, because it worked so well on me.


Are you telling the same difficult story over and over?Is your client? You might be ripe for a new, transformational version.Transformative stories offer a more merciful, holistic way of viewing an unresolvable tension.Find one of those stories and a new transformative way to talk about it.Deb gave me an analogy that really fit.What will you use?