If You Want to Build a Trusting Team, You’ve Gotta Break a Few Conversational Rules

by Liz Marasco

You know those couples who are always finishing each other’s sentences? Although we may occasionally feel a tinge of irritation (maybe jealousy?) when they do it, they’re actually engaging in a really important bonding mechanism – and it’s one you should consider using with your team. 

As we acquire language, we also learn the rules of engagement for conversation. These rules include things like: only interrupt at certain times when it’s “allowed”, or don’t step on someone’s toes if they’ve indicated they’d like to tell a story. 

Occasionally we bend or break conversational rules to achieve a certain social objective. Sometimes we flout those rules to make a joke or express frustration, or to claim territory as in mansplaining (more on that in a forthcoming article). Other times, we use this strategy to generate affiliation – or feelings of trust and connection – between ourselves and another speaker.

That’s the case with collaborative storytelling. It lets us break the rule that says conversations are typically turn-based, like a board game, and invites a more dynamic and creative way of sharing – but only if there’s trust. 

Telling stories together creates shared vulnerability – which makes it a great equalizer for your team.

Normally if you want to tell a story, you must somehow ask permission to speak longer than a standard conversational turn. You do this with phrases like, “I wanna get your opinion on something,” “Oh, I have a story about that!” or “So I talked to Michael yesterday…”

At that point, the other participant(s) will either grant or deny you permission to take a bit of extra space in the conversation – and if someone wants to overlap with your awesome story, then they are now the deviants and will suffer the social consequences (unless it’s a continuer such as uh-huh, wow or yeah).

Collaborative storytelling allows more than one person to take that space – and that’s a sacred thing. When sharing the storytelling space, you’re implicitly trusting the other person to report the correct details of a shared experience, cast you in a flattering light and allow you to share the social reward of an entertaining story. In short, telling stories together creates shared vulnerability – which makes it a great equalizer for your team.

Avanoo’s StoryApp makes it easy to share stories together as a team. Join us or a virtual town hall or schedule a 1-on-1 demo to learn more.

Don’t take it from me. Take it from narrative linguist Michael J. Toolan. He calls group storytelling an “admirably democratic storytelling mode, built on a heightened degree of interdependence.” 

He continues, 

“The division between tellers and listeners falls away, as does anxiety over tellability, and a spirit of benevolent mutual indulgence may prevail: all are contributing to a story that each already knows.” (Narrative: A Critical Linguistics Introduction, 1988)

So, go give it a whirl! During your next department-wide meeting, invite one of your team members to tell a story with you, even if it seems tiny and insignificant – and note how you and the other person feel during and after. 

Perhaps it will inspire a spirit of benevolent mutual indulgence on your team. Who wouldn’t want that?


—Liz Marasco, Avanoo Marketing Manager

About Liz

Liz Marasco has a Master’s in Linguistics from the University of Colorado Boulder and works in the marketing department at Avanoo. Her work has been featured on the TEDx stage and Mental Floss. When not thinking about words, she can be found ogling birds on the Front Range or hiking up a local trail.

About Avanoo

Avanoo brings together the world’s oldest artform – storytelling – and the world’s newest technologies – AI, machine learning – to support teams in experiencing more connection, belonging, and performance. Our app makes it easy for employees to share and listen to each other’s stories wherever they are, and our insights dashboard makes it easy for leaders to understand where and how stories create lasting impact on their teams. Learn more: Avanoo.com
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