Getting Shy People to Tell Stories: A Sensitive Approach
Imagine a team meeting where a facilitator is asking customer service reps to tell a two-minute story about an incident where they felt personal satisfaction in helping a customer. The goal is to share effective relationship skills. Of the team members who volunteer their stories, many are caught up in the emotion or humor of their own tales, clearly enjoying their moment. But one or two are reluctant to contribute, and, when pressed by the facilitator, they tell stories that are stilted, unclear and awkward. They retreat into silence for the rest of the meeting’s agenda. What happened?
Shy people don't feel comfortable when attention is on them. They can be afraid of being judged by others or embarrassed by what they say or do in a social setting. Yet, as part of a team, their ideas and perspectives are valuable and should be included. How can shy people contribute their stories to the group without feeling pressure or anxiety? Here are tips for facilitators:
- · Set the stage: Explain why stories—because of their imagery, detail and emotion—are useful in implanting memorable lessons, inspiring change, and creating connections between people. Demonstrate by telling a short classic or two like “The Blind Men and The Elephant”, or “The Zen Master and The Cup of Tea”. Google these titles for examples.
- · Keep the tone comfortable: Explain the ground rules—No one is being judged, it’s not a contest, the overall goal is to learn from each other, it’s important to share what you are comfortable with. The feeling in the room should be light, fun and upbeat.
- · Make it easy to contribute: Get participation going by some light-hearted easing into speaking aloud in a group. Ask participants to give you a one-word description of the first thing that comes to mind when they think of…peanut butter, flat tires, bow ties, kittens…something a little silly and non-business. Call it a sound-check; have fun with the responses.
- · Safety in structure: Provide a framework for the story, give an example, and ask everyone to use it. A story-telling structure can be as simple as three steps: 1) Set-up the situation, who is doing what and where, 2) Tell us what happened or went wrong and what you did, 3) Describe what you learned. There are other story structures you can invent or find, but keep it simple and uncluttered.
- · First write, then read: Shy people might be reluctant to speak in front of people, but generally they are not shy about writing. So, ask everyone to spend a short time writing an outline, some phrases, or sentences to fill in the structure. Provide a worksheet with the story structure. People will feel more comfortable reading aloud what they’ve written.
- · Small group, big group: Telling a story to a partner or in a trio group might be less threatening than a larger group. After participants exchange stories in the relative safety of a small group, ask each group to nominate the best story it heard or to summarize the lessons learned.
Finally, and most important of all, recognize when shy people do make a contribution. During a break or in a quiet moment, privately thank them for their story. After all, they went into uncomfortable territory to help the team.