“We Are The Stories We Tell”

25 days ago I started my new job.  20 lunches, 13 coffee dates and 8 dinner invitations later I feel, more strongly than ever, that the story each individual choses to share (with a virtual stranger) offers so many clues to who they are, what they need and the kind of person they aspire to be.


At each of these meetings I ask them to tell me what has led them to this point in their life.  It’s intentionally vague.  They can share anything personally or professionally and it lets them decide their level of comfort with disclosure. 


Some people situate their story in a geographical place, in a cultural context, or at a particular point in their life.  I am intrigued by people who tell me about their life since birth–it’s one whole complete story to them.  Yet, others opt to share their story starting from the college years because that is symbolic (to so many of us) of when they first truly recognized who they are. 


I ask this question because building relationships (in a new position, in a new state, in an entirely new part of the country for me) is critical.  I cannot offer any assistance to them professionally (and certainly not personally) if I don’t understand their path, their aspirations and needs.  We can’t build a meaningful relationship without a solid understanding of where we come from and how our values define our path. 


What I heave learned is that while each story is incredibly unique, some common themes emerged.  These themes serve as a reminder to me that when I work with an 18 year old freshman, 50 year old professor or 70 year old community member, we are all connected by the human experience.  The story of our journey teaches many lessons on how to persist through adversity, have empathy for each persons’ story and respect how those circumstances have shaped who they have become.  


1)   Kindness Matters: We are profoundly shaped by how others treat us: during childhood:  Time and time again I heard painful stories.  Bullying, rejection, feeling unloved.  While people do grow up they may still profoundly feel the pain from those formative years.  I was reminded about how powerful words can be when these adults shared their stories and could repeat, word for word, hurtful phrases or conversations that have stuck with them for many years.  We never fully know how people experience and manage their pain.   How can we restrain judgment and demonstrate care more freely to each person in our organization? 


2)   Community Matters: People thrive when they feel connected to a greater community:  I heard many joyful stories when people were discussing their family, church or local communities.  Human connection is so important and it is clear that people feel empowered to become the best versions of themselves when they connect to a group that fill an important need in their life.  This summer many of us will have new staff members join our departments.  How are you welcoming new people into your various communities?


3)   Stability Matters: Many people struggle with change so build trust first: As the leader of my unit, my very entrance into this established organization raises all sorts of questions and apprehension.  In my meetings with every professional staff member, the word “change” was always mentioned.  It appeared to be on everyone’s mind.  What was going to change?  When? How?  What if it’s not like it was before?  My priorities are to learn about the people within the organization, understand the context of the university and the individual department. Then I will work with others to create a vision of what our department could be.  Reassuring people that they are valuable members of the team and that everyone will be involved in future changes is key.  How can we work together to ensure transparency when working with change in our own organizations?    


I am incredibly privileged to have heard these stories.  They are wonderful reminders that we are all flawed human beings working hard every day to be better people, partners, parents and employees.


What tips do you have when coming into a new position?  How are you mindful of the history of the organization while keeping an eye on the future success of the organization?  


About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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3 Responses to “We Are The Stories We Tell”

  1. Melissa Robertson says:

    Appreciate all your points, but especially agree with the first. I’m so very grateful for the support system that was around me growing up, despite the difficulties we experienced. Both those lessons, as well as those acts of kindness, shaped me into what I am today. Wonderful post – thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Melissa! Support is key and we need to be mindful that the experiences that people had before they worked with us have shaped them in ways we can never imagine.

  3. Kathy Hobgood says:

    Thank you for sharing! I’ve been trying to rejuvenate my work world view this summer after a large scale reorganization last year (change that we choose is challenging none the less!) and it now occurs to me that it may be helpful to embark on a listening tour to hear more 1:1 about the impact on each member of the team and to invite each to “pretend like we’re new”. All the best to you!

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