Career Coaching

Language & Listening in the Storytelling Arena

How often do stories become trite or less accurate each time they are retold? Human history began with oral traditions passed down through generations and the nuances of culture. Language and listening skills have always been important in the storytelling arena. The speaker, bard, or storyteller shared their slant on events of the time; and more often than not, that story’s accuracy declined with each telling.

Have you found yourself repeating some “old wives tale” as the truth when it was just a story passed along? Who tells the story, and how we listen to it, helps us to understand events in terms of the story’s language and lens. “History is written by winners” is the saying; and throughout human history, this cliche has been proven true. 

In the words of Lin Manuel, “History has its eyes on us” and we have a responsibility to remember it inclusive of everyone’s versions. I challenge you to pause this month and evaluate your communication style (verbal and non-verbal) in storytelling arenas. What language do you use as the narrator to create space? In the audience, do you listen openly to understand the speaker’s perspective, or with reservation? Do you use tools (even unconscious ones) to become a better listener?

Maybe we can shake things up one at a time, person to person, and rebuild the art of civil conversations. Wouldn’t we all benefit?!


When I lived in Guatemala, (before GPS) we would ask for directions when we traveled to the countryside to visit an in a small when we traveled to the countryside to visit an “Aldea” or small town. I found that if I asked three people then the correct way would be somewhere in the middle of all the suggested routes. It became apparent that the true “way” came through research, but also through my own evaluation and instincts.

In the digital era, there are so many news media resources all vying for your attention. Some may resonate more than others while you evaluate information to understand the whole picture. Exposure to different sides of every story presents an opportunity to collect all the information before you derive the truest “way” forward. 


Diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of conversations about workplaces and social environments. I am proud of my passion for culture and living an international lifestyle (at home or abroad!) The more people that I meet, the more I value our differences. While it’s true that all human beings have lots in common, we also have beautiful and meaningful differences. The language(s) a person grows up speaking shapes brain development and ability to reason. Different languages approach communication differently, in their structure and subtexts, and a team that can call on a range of approaches to problem-solving is valuable for an entire organization.* Not to mention, the mashup of problem-solving skills can lead to innovation! Cognitive psychologist, Lera Boroditsky, explains this concept in “How Language Shapes the Way We Think” (2018, TED)

Seek out the stories and voices that are different from our own; because we need to be stronger, smarter, and more resourceful every day. 


Diversity makes sense for the future of business. A spectrum of differences within a company culture can bolster workforce engagement and promote innovation. I discussed the “Future of Work” over lunch with a colleague recently. His firm asked him to participate in a committee determined to gain insights on the topic. We talked about Myers-Briggs and the value of 360 reviews. How leaders should rely on their teams for vital information on trends, and mentors can “pay it forward” by passing on wisdom to junior peers.  If we build respectful places where active listening, reflection, and teamwork grow, then organizations will be stronger, more collaborative, and drive towards better solutions. 

How can we go to work with the objective being to deliver high-quality results from effective listening? What stories do we choose to share and listen to?

Listen to receive, without judgment, stories told from diverse perspectives. Make the effort to truly listen, pause to understand, reflect instead of devising an immediate reply.


I took part in a course at Leadership Greater Washington where an improvisation trainer came to host a session on effective listening techniques. As participants, we broke into pairs and with our partners, began to tell a story. It was a storytelling volley with each person contributing the next line in the tale. The catch: each new sentence had to begin with the last word of the previous sentence (hard!!) Forced to listen to our partners all the way through in order to catch their last word, we learned to pause and mull over a response before adding the next line.

That simple but effective exercise proved how often we all can’t wait to jump in and command the story through our own lens. When I get excited I do this all the time! Do you? Lately, I engage people by asking them to expound on their opinions, rather than challenging them (or saying that they’re stupid). No one likes an arrogant conversationalist. 

Without creatives and thinkers, the world would be colorless, quiet, and lacking originality. Without engineers/farmers/scientists we might not eat, survive disease or have a place to live. We all want to do better than being cogs in the proverbial wheel. We want to thrive! The language we choose and how we listen to others will have an impact on how we end the story too.


My passion for diverse mindsets is part of why I like to read several books at the same time. Right now, I’m reading 3: Colson Whitehead’s new book, “Harlem Shuffle”(fiction) set in NYC; journalist,  Sandy Tolan’s book “The Lemon Tree”, a 1998 true account about a Jewish and Palestinian family; and just got the new book, from my favorite, Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart!    Reading different authors, I learn to hear, enjoy and gain insight into the different ways that different people think. 

Join me in a challenge to your use of language and listening in the storytelling arena! Evolve your perspective by entering the storyteller’s arena with an open mind and willingness to pause, reflect on finding solutions in an entirely new “way.”