Storytelling: Expanding Empathy and Showing Understanding in Interviews

In part 1 on this topic, we introduced the idea and importance of using a story to expand on empathy and show understanding, as well as the structure of telling a good story. In this column, we will address how the story works and why it continues rapport and builds trust.

The stories that we choose are not about the individual to whom we are speaking, but rather others who have faced circumstances or problems that are common to everyone. When using stories to show understanding and empathy, the interviewer does not have to talk about circumstances that are illegal or immoral when developing the stories. In fact, the discussion seems to be much more effective when it doesn’t deal with these types of issues but instead focuses on more everyday circumstances that people face. The stories that are most effective are those that fit the experience of the listener’s everyday life. When focusing on common stories, it allows the individual to more easily generalize the information into their own decision-making.

Types of Stories

Stories can provide a means of encouraging action, letting the listener visualize how to change their circumstances. The story cannot have so much detail that it engages all the cognitive ability of the listener; it must leave enough resources so that they can consider their own personal changes.

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Some stories may be used to share knowledge with the listener about how problems got resolved or failed to do so. The story can focus on a myriad of possible options to resolve the problem or leave it unfulfilled. This type of story can use social proof of how others have handled problems or failed to do so while providing an opportunity to consider available options.

Other stories can focus on the future and the opportunities that lie ahead. This allows the listener to begin to become comfortable with what the future may hold. Listening to how others have handled obstacles gives people an opportunity to visualize the variety of avenues the future may hold for them.

So the stories can offer insight and resolution, but more importantly they commit the listener and create a state of engagement and thinking. Each story is presented as something of value worth listening to and should actively reflect the truth. Our truth is that we believe it’s good to talk through problems. When people are engaged and thinking about the story, they begin to apply the circumstances to their own situations and consider the possible remedies.

What’s in It for Me?

One thing that the interviewer should consider is the mindset of the subject. If I do this or that, “What’s in it for me?” Many decisions are simply made by considering the personal benefits of a course of action. If the positives outweigh the negatives, then the choice is easily made. If the negatives outweigh the positives, the choice is also easily made. When there is a balance between the two, however, it is often a story that can help change the balance.

Stories to Encourage Action

The subject must see something worthwhile achieved in the story. For us in showing understanding, our story revolves around a change of perspective. When people are in trouble, they position themselves as victims who are helpless. The purpose of this story is to reengage the individual, providing an opportunity for them to have some power in the situation. To do this, we might select a story that puts them in a decision-making capacity over others. They are now in a position where they must evaluate the actions and explanations of others and then decide. Intellectually this takes them out of the role of victim, and they now must consider how other people acted in a difficult situation.

In this simple story, one of the people in trouble decides to deny his action while the other explained what happened and how he made his decision. In the story, as the decision-maker, the subject will appreciate the cooperation and discussion the second person decided to use. This is a decision the subject makes by themselves unaided, and they have now committed to a course of action that they believe is appropriate. The subject has identified their own benefit in the story, one that can be applied to their situation. Their commitment to this course of action encourages consistency with their decision, which has already been made.

Focusing on the Future

For the people whom we deal with, our conversations with them occur at a particularly dark moment in their lives. This moment is filled with fear about the unknown, and their primary concern is the present rather than their future. They are concerned about their fears: arrest, termination, embarrassment, financial problems, or some other issue. The purpose of the story focusing on the future is to illustrate better days and outcomes. Effectively, this story revolves around a rags-to-riches concept or adversity overcome. This does not mean financially necessarily but moving from a point of despair to hope or making lemonade out of lemons.

There are literally thousands of stories of people who overcome the odds to recover or exceed what they had done before. Consider the story of Mike Lindell.

The Story of Mike Lindell

People have a choice of how they want to deal with their difficulties. Some just go with the flow being pushed one way or another, while others step up and look toward a different future.

I remember an incredibly interesting story about a guy named Mike. Mike was fired from one of his first jobs at a grocery store after a disagreement with the manager. He went on to fail at a carpet-cleaning business, as a card counter in Las Vegas, as a pig farmer, and in a lunch-wagon business. He finally purchased a bar and became addicted to crack cocaine. His life was literally one disaster after the next.

Mike was having trouble sleeping because his pillow wouldn’t hold its shape. He learned to sew, so he could make a prototype pillow that would hold that shape. While he had a bit of success selling a few pillows, the cocaine slowly took a grip on his life, causing him to lose his wife, his house, and almost his business. He hit bottom, and even his cocaine dealer cut him off because he was using too much crack. He was down and out. Then he got control of his addiction and his business.

At that point he was selling maybe $100,000 worth of pillows. He got his act together, focused on a better tomorrow, and today he employs over 1,500 people and has in excess of $300 million in sales. Just think: today 1,500 people are gainfully employed, just by Mike, not to mention those that are employed by his suppliers because he looked forward to better days.

He came to that crossroads in his life where he had to make a decision about which way to go. We’ve all been at that place at one time or another. That’s why it’s always important to think about the future and where we want to be.

Common Ground

The stories that we tell the subject focus on understanding the individual circumstances and decision-making that brought the person to that crossroads. Often, a story is chosen to convey a message that would be difficult to say directly, but the shared experiences of life allow the message to be conveyed to the subject. Sometimes the story names the problem, so the subject can more clearly assess how it affects their life and situation. Ironically, the stories also effect the teller using the same parts of the brain that the listener uses when considering and evaluating the story. This builds empathy and a common bond between the teller and the listener as they both experience the effect of the story. Both are relating to a situation they could see themselves in.

Regardless which type of story the investigator tells, there is a flow or sequence of events that connect with one another. There is some form of conflict that keeps the listener’s interest to find out how it ends. There is fear and dread about what is going to happen. This is where the subject is mentally and emotionally. The finality of the story relieves the pressure, making the individual feel better. And finally, there is the moral of the story, which leaves no question about what was to be understood.

The investigator uses stories to build a connection with the subject, showing understanding, sharing empathy, and building rapport. Our stories and the reactions to them give the listener an opportunity to show agreement, neutrality, or disagreement with its premise. Just as importantly, it gives the listener an opportunity to assess the teller’s character, understanding, and empathy toward others. If the listener hears this and assesses it in a positive fashion, it builds trust and encourages the view that we are not so different after all.

Click here to read Part 1 of this series.

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