Lessons learning: getting your colleagues to tell their stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 11, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling, Collaboration

One of the best ways to share knowledge in an organisation is to put people who wouldn’t normally work together on the same project. On projects people have time to get to know one another, have real problems to apply their knowledge and see their colleague’s knowledge in action. Learning (which is the same as knowledge sharing) occurs when there is time (or you make time) for reflection, when you and colleagues have time to discuss what happened. The project approach to knowledge sharing is the basis for the action-oriented community of practice model.

Despite the time we spend with our colleagues on projects, we waste the opportunity to learn from them. We rarely ask them about their experiences and elicit their stories. “Just give me the facts,” seems to be the project mantra. But hearing someone else’s story is the next best thing to experiencing something for ourselves. If we don’t seek our our colleague’s experiences we are missing a huge opportunity.

There’s one good reason why we don’t typically hear our colleagues stories: as a general rule we don’t ask the type of questions that prompts stories.

Everyone should develop a story eliciting competency. Organisational learning would sky-rocket if we all had it. It’s simple really. When your experienced colleague suggests a way forward, makes a decision, starts to apply their knowledge, simply ask them: you look like you’ve done something like this before. What happened last time?

If you’re lucky they will tell you a story of how they tackled a similar problem but I’ve found that really experienced people tend to encapsulate their experience into pithy aphorisms, rules of thumb and principles and will likely tell you these in the first instance. You must be persistent. “Can you recall a specific moment from your experience that would help me visualise the situation?”  Here are a bunch of questions (and here, and here) you should have up your sleeve in preparation for encourage storytelling.

Sometimes the experienced practitioner will be a reluctant storyteller because that’s not the way we talk at work. You need to show you’re interested in her experiences. Genuine interest will also help them feel comfortable in telling you the whole story and perhaps even the things went badly that they would never do again.

I’m certain that the skill to elicit stories from colleagues, especially colleagues more experienced than yourself, will become an essential lessons learning competency as the world becomes even more complex. Stories provide the details from which we extract and remember principles and principles help us deal with totally new situations.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Brad says:

    I think stories from colleagues can be elicited more easily when the context is informal. For example, today I interviewed a colleague for a learning log about an event she had just managed and completed. Over coffee and a chat (and plenty of open-ended questions), the story was told with nair a rule of thumb or pithy aphorism to be heard. The problem in eliciting stories, IMHO, is in the formaility of the “interview” process where “just the facts, ma’am” is the inherent structure of the conversation.

  2. Tushar Panchal says:

    I have tried a similar approach, albeit with naivety. Based on my personal experience here are my thoughts:
    1) It is very important that the person asking the questions is genuinely interesting in hearing the stories. Any superficial attempt at getting the other party interested usually doesn’t work. It is important that you start engaging the person at a more humane and deeper level rather than using the other person to google knowledge.
    2) You are asking questions because you believe that it is going to help you, personally and professionally, and not make it an administrative task on your cognitive abilities i.e. I have an experienced person in front of me and so I am going to ask questions to elicit a story. Enjoy the story and all the peripherals that goes with it.
    3) Eliciting story from the other person may not necessarily increase your knowledge per say. But it does help build a more confident, relaxed and trusting relationship that leads to the flow of knowledge in the future.
    4) Lastly, there are no specific set of question that will elicit a story. It is something that I have learned through experience and I am still learning. If the desire is there, the questions come naturally. Also, there might be times when you don’t ask any further questions. Just let the moment linger. It is a very strong bonding feeling

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