What if we’re working with people who like to tell long stories? They seem to go on and on… As long as we’ve already built rapport and have heart connection, there are plenty of ways to interrupt the storytelling. Telling the details is a strategy that people sometimes take when they want to be understood deeply or when they like their comfort zone and are avoiding taking action. Our job is to listen between the lines and discover what they really need. They might need clarity, information, self-trust, support, or any number of things that you can ask about.
Let me backpedal for a moment. Before we look at when and how we might interrupt, let’s take a look at why a facilitator might encourage storytelling:
- Stretch the imagination to envision a desirable future. “Tell me a story about an ideal day in the future.”
- Someone tells a series of stories that are connected to inner state of overwhelm. “You sound completely overwhelmed. What else is happening that is contributing to the pile up? As you think about all the ways you’re overwhelmed, can you slow down and notice what you are wanting?”
- Use story telling to uncover the life force, innate power, values, and vision. “Can you share an experience of a time when your values were fully honored? How can you honor those values more fully this week?”
- Encourage enjoyment of the inner-critic to uncover the beautiful need. “You sound angry – can you voice that anger fully to see what sweet desire of yours is fueling this fire?”
Those are a few ways to encourage storytelling, but what about when we want to interrupt long, boring stories? When people tell stories, they are usually connected to the past or are projecting into the future, and often they do both at once, by connecting what has happened with fantasies about what is about to happen. Some stories are life affirming, but many cut us off from the flow of life, which is when facilitators intervene. I’m giving a lot of examples here because interrupting seems to be one of the most difficult facilitation skills for people who grow up in cultures where interrupting is considered rude. Out of a desire to be polite, when we don’t interrupt, the session goes nowhere. Each of the examples below could be delivered judgmentally or with deep caring. I encourage you to connect energetically with the heart of each person portrayed and then read the interruption aloud.
- Paul tells the same story slightly differently several times. “I’ve heard you tell this story before. Will you relive the event one more time in silence and connect with what you need?”
- Shocked by someone’s actions, Gregg explains all the contributing factors. After empathizing, you suggest, “It sounds like you’re bewildered and want to make sense of this. Would you like to role play so you can understand where he might be coming from?”
- Nothing stops Kaylie from telling you all the details of the story and you’re starting to feel flat. “I feel a little flat, but it sounds like you really want to be heard fully. When you connect with what you’re wanting, can you give me the core essence of your experience in one sentence?”
- After identifying the needs and fully experiencing the energy of the need, Suzanne seems fully self-connected. But when asked about what actions or requests are likely to sustain the self-connection, she starts telling the story again. “Hold on. Are you sharing more details of the story because you really need more time to grieve before you can take action?”
- Giuseppe tells a story about someone’s actions that left him feeling helpless. Sensing his desire to move out of helplessness, you empathize silently and ask, “So what do you want to do about that?”
- Your energy drops as Jacques tells a story. “I notice my energy is dropping like a rock and I’m guessing your energy is also dropping. Can you connect to what’s missing?”
- By telling many details, you suspect that Carlos is avoiding the work of self-connection because of possible pain. “What are you not saying?”
- You want to express transparently. “It breaks my heart when I hear how much you value friendship, yet you explain repeatedly how impossible it is for you to have friends. When I hear how stuck you are, I want some relief – I’d like to connect to the energizing forces within you… You don’t want to be alone, so what would you like to change?”
- Circling back to the story becomes a habit. “I hear how discouraged you are. Here’s a challenge for you: What are five little things you can do to tap your courage and move you forward?”
- The inner critic is running wild. “Yes, you are so stupid… Or is it that your inner critic wants easy connection, and you also want to give yourself much more freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?” Or you can ask, “Would you like to reframe that story you’re telling yourself?”
- You’re overwhelmed by the details. “Can I stop you? That’s a little more than I can take in right now. I’d like to reflect back to you what I’m hearing to make sure I’m getting you. Okay?”
- You’re worried that the venting could go on forever. “Let me check something. It sounds like you’ve had a horrendous week and really need to vent. How about you take another two minutes to pour out all that’s bothering you, and then we’ll look at what you need and want to do about it.
- Ziggy complains about being wronged. “Hold on—let me see if I understand. You’re frustrated and you care deeply about integrity. Are you trying to gain insight that you can use in the future?”
- Rico analyzes multiple options tirelessly. “It sounds like you really value analysis and want to make a great decision; what do you need to do to get the information you need to move forward?”
- Sunita takes great pleasure in entertaining you with her story. “Telling stories seems to be something you really enjoy. To help you stay focused on what you want, would you like to tell a story about how you want things to be different?”
- Joanne shifts from one issue to another aimlessly. “Wait… Can you check in with yourself and get clarity about your purpose in telling me this?”
- Dave is speaking very rapidly, trying to fit a lot of information in. “Slow down… Would you like to take this a little deeper? What’s going on for you?”
- You start to wonder if all the details have any relevance. “What really matters here?”
When we create an alliance with a group, we can ask for permission to interrupt story telling so that our client expects us to intrude whenever our intuition moves us. When stories become a smokescreen, we can accelerate connection by helping people connect with two things: insight or movement. Continuously empathizing with the same story over and over serves no one. Likewise, being polite, holding back, or letting the story go on beyond your comfort level does not contribute to life. As Marshall Rosenberg suggests, “Interrupt as soon as you’ve heard one more word than you enjoy hearing.” As long as you’re self-connected and connected to the needs of the speaker, open your mouth before you know what you’re going to say and trust that whatever transparent expression comes out will enhance your connection.
What are some other ways to interrupt that empower people? Take a look at the list of interruptions and create a few of your own. There are many ways to interrupt, but connection must be in place first. If we feel any discomfort about interrupting, it’s probably because we have not built the connection. As long as we hold the essence of their agenda when we interrupt, and we tie our interruption to their need, value, agenda or goal, most people appreciate the interruption. If the person responds, “But wait a minute, I want you to know what she said and what I said so you can understand the context,” then take the listening even deeper, tuning into their presenting agenda (what’s on top), the deeper agenda (underlying needs), and the transformational agenda (emerging changes).
Even if they don’t respond immediately to the interruption, it can still have a big impact, although we may not know how until much later. We all get calls like the one I got last week, “Remember you asked me about my vision two years ago?” I didn’t. “Well I had no idea, which bothered me. But I figured it out and now my book is published.” In the same ways that I’ve had profound but delayed reactions to their comments, we’re all impacted by each other, even if we aren’t aware of it in the moment. Now we’ll look at a few other ways of interrupting the process that can have a profound impact – sharing our observations, making statements and giving directives.
About the author:
Martha Lasley is a founder of Coaching for Transformation, an accredited coach training program and ChangeMakers, a year-long facilitation training program. She creates results-oriented programs that inspire, motivate, and transform. “I surround myself with people who take risks and look for new ways of doing things; we explore both the solid ground and the edges of transformation.”
Martha is a certified trainer in Nonviolent Communication and is a professional member of the Indian Society for Applied Behavioral Science. She has written three books: Courageous Visions; Facilitating with Heart; and Coaching for Transformation.