The Power of Storytelling for Building Inclusive Environments

A lot of organizations have struggled to figure out how to make diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training lead to sustainable behavior change. What we typically find is that mandatory, compliance-based training doesn’t necessarily work. People need to see the value of the training for themselves and others, not be told they must “or else.” Nor does a one-off presentation that inundates people with research and data lead to a commitment to change.

In DEI training, it’s all about connecting the head, heart, and hands. You need to hit people at the emotional as well as the intellectual level, and then give them practical tools to apply to their real lives. Research has shown that DEI training that leads to sustainable change focuses on two key items: perspective taking and goal setting.

How Can Storytelling Lead to Sustainable DEI Training?

Storytelling can be a bridge to sustainable DEI training because it encourages both perspective taking and goal setting.

Let’s explore how:

Perspective taking means acknowledging and experiencing the world through the lived experiences of another person. Perspective taking requires us to engage in empathy. And storytelling can tap into three critical components of empathy: intellectual empathy, emotional empathy, and empathic concern.

Jamil Zaki, author of The War for Kindness, says that when you empathize with someone: “You take on their emotions, decode their thoughts, and worry about their welfare.” Storytelling helps us not only see the world through another person’s eyes, but it also taps into our own emotions as we experience the story and activates our care for others’ wellbeing. Quite simply, storytelling humanizes us to one another.

Goal setting provides individuals with a call to action and an opportunity to explore the question, “So now what?” Storytelling can be a way to share lessons learned and open the group up to explore what they will individually and collectively do to foster inclusive environments actively.

When we share our stories and listen to the stories of others, we have an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, to become aware of what unconscious drives/values/experiences may lead us to think and act the way we do. Sharing our own stories can be eye opening for us as well as others. It opens up opportunities for behavior change.

What Kinds of Stories Should We Tell?

Explore what is beneath the waterline

Storytelling is a powerful way to share what is often invisible about a person’s identity. There are dimensions of our identities that are above the waterline that are visible and known to others. Yet so often, what is visible only gives people a small part of a person’s story and can lead to stereotypes and labels. We need to be willing to share what is below our waterlines.

When we share our stories of what is below the waterline, we allow others in. We show them that there is always more to the story than meets the eye. And, by making ourselves vulnerable, we invite others to share more about their stories. I have often found that by sharing what’s under my waterline, people will reciprocate, enabling us to find commonalities we would never have imagined by just looking at each other.

Share Your Why

Storytelling can humanize us to one another even when we disagree or have vastly different beliefs and perspectives. We are so hard-wired to engage in us vs. them thinking when we disagree, we increasingly judge those who have different beliefs as not only wrong but “closed-minded,” “unintelligent,” and even “immoral.”

By sharing stories that explain why we believe and behave the way we do, we give one another insight into our values. We may still disagree on the issues, but we can acknowledge the human being on the other side with a little more compassion and understanding. For an illustration of the power of storytelling to navigate ideological differences, you can listen to my story of The Tale of Two Veterans at TEDx RoseTree.

Share Lightbulb Moments

Stories can be a powerful way to encourage new perspectives and inspire behavior change. Telling people what to do doesn’t typically go over as well! However, sharing memories of when you have gained new insight or when you changed your behavior and saw positive results is much more likely to elicit positive responses.

Consider moments when you received feedback from someone or learned something that the history books never told you as a child that reframed your perspective. By demonstrating your willingness to be curious, to learn, and to grow, you may inspire others to do the same. Respond to a comment with which you disagree by saying, “I actually used to think that way too. Here’s what made me change my mind…”

Leaders in any organization can build strong, thriving organizational communities by leveraging storytelling. Consider ways you can embed storytelling as an organizational practice to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Written by:
Maria Morukian
Leadership & Management



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