Many years ago, I was sitting in a doctor’s private office, waiting to meet a holistic practitioner who had been highly recommended to me. In my lap was a list of health related problems that I wanted to discuss. But when the doctor came in, instead of asking what was wrong with me, he sat down, looked into my eyes, took my hand, and said, “Tell me your story.”

In that moment, I knew I was going to be cared for. Inviting me to tell my story took a big investment of his valuable time. But in listening so thoughtfully, he was building a long-term connection with me, while collecting clues about my future health care.

In listening for a client’s story, you build connection, show caring, and benefit your business.

My real estate agent, Sarah, helped me shop for my first house when I was still with a soon-to-be-ex-partner. I wanted a house – walls, rooms, kitchen and all that. But underneath it all, what I really wanted was a safe harbor in which to anchor my life. Sarah heard my stories as we marched through house after house. When I finally decided to go solo (smart move!), Sarah matched her real estate knowledge with an understanding of me and we found my beautiful, bungalow home within a week – and we became good friends!

Listening for the stories

This summer, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to listen to the stories of many nurses, and I’ve learned a lot about the gentle art of pulling a story forward.

Sometimes the first story people tell you is the one they always tell – the one they’ve packaged. Often entertaining, it may be hiding the unfiltered stories that are more revealing about who they are and what they value.

In my work, I’m not just listening TO a story, I’m listening FOR the stories.

A way of building business

In their book, Your Client’s Story, authors Scott West and Mitch Anthony document how the most successful investment advisors (managing most, if not all, of their client’s assets), were those who knew how to listen with empathy, ask the right questions and hear the stories.

“While every person’s story may not be interesting to you, it is interesting to that individual – and he or she wants to tell it. The problem is, not many people want to sit and hear another person’s story. Even rarer is the individual who attempts to cajole the story out of someone. The advisor who acts as biographer will find that clients feel quite connected and loyal to a person who cares enough to seek and hear their personal biography. We believe that a greatly under appreciated, powerful driving force in every human is the need to be known.” 

Five I’s to help you listen for a story

Whether I’m interviewing someone for a podcast, talking to a friend, or working with a potential client, these I’s help me develop a richer story.

Intend

People feel your intent. You may not ask perfect questions, but if your intent is clear, your clients and friends will feel that and continue the conversation with you. This summer, I intended that each nurse I spoke with felt good about her nursing legacy at the end of our conversation.

Show Interest

Curiosity is key. In my best interviews, I’m genuinely curious. I often do a lot of prep before an interview, but in the conversation, I let my curiosity pull me forward.

If I stick to a script, I may miss the clues that open up an exciting conversation. I want my interviews to feel conversational and relational, not transactional (like being grilled).

Invite

I love it when someone asks me “Is it all right to ask you a few questions?” It makes me feel honored, acknowledges that it might not be the right time, and allows me to feel like I’m making a choice to be in conversation.

Many years ago, I had a good friend who was a reporter. She knew how to ask great, probing questions. But our conversations often felt like interrogations, even when I didn’t want to be grilled!

During a conversation, when I want take a topic deeper, I might say, “Oh that’s so interesting, may I ask you a question about that?”

And sometimes, I need to hold back and not push to get a story – knowing that good stories may take a while to emerge.

Interview

I’m often listening to “story fragments” that can be developed rather than just listening to a story my client or guest has told. I’ll hear something: an interesting fact, a murky explanation, or a bit of emotion and I’ll want to know more.

This is where a fresh, new story begins. Working with nurses, I often started my interviews with a safe, open-ended question like, “Tell me about your history in the organization. ” As they talked, I’d listen for the story fragment that we’d develop, with more questions, into a fuller story.

Imagine

Stories can take us beyond the facts into the imaginal world  – of feelings, senses, hopes and dreams – and that is really valuable when you want to understand a client’s goals.

I recently ran a retreat for a client group. I wanted to know the client’s goals and objectives. I also wanted to know what they were imagining would happen after the retreat.  What would participants be saying, doing or feeling? Hearing my client’s imaginary outcomes helped me design a better retreat.

Creating a future story is a great way of fleshing out client expectations.

Intent. Interest. Invite. Interview. Imagine – and then go find some great stories!