Stories – better than caffeine

I spent a week in Calgary recently, facilitating the first part of an Appreciative Inquiry for faculty at a polytechnic to enhance teaching excellence. The AI method was quite new to some on the strategic team that hired me and they were uncertain about its effectiveness – so I was under considerable pressure to make it work. In addition, many faculty were jaded about such interventions, feeling that they had tried it all before, to no avail. One of my clients summed up the collective nervousness nicely, when he said, “If this bombs, the blast will be heard across campus in seconds.”

We organized 3 bite-sized sessions a day (1.5 hours) to make it possible for faculty with busy schedules to participate. The first session was at 7 a.m. on a snowy Monday morning. I was worried that no one would show, given the circumstances. But I trusted the process – and started to set up in the pre-dawn hours.

The catering folks were due to arrive at 6:45 with coffee, drinks and food. They didn’t. The early bird faculty members did though. By 6:58, I had a room full of 35 hungry instructors, all seeking caffeine – and there wasn’t a Tim Horton’s for miles. Our coordinator scurried off to “fix” things and I put my happy face on. (They weren’t the only ones aching for a fix!)

To distract them from their rumbling stomachs, I had them dive right into the storysharing – pairing up to recount experiences of excellent teaching and learning. What made those memories outstanding, and worth re-telling? I explained the task, shut my mouth and stood back to wait for the magic.

There was a minute of chair scuffling and how-do-you-do’s: then it came. Growing from a murmur to a buzz to a roar, a wave of energy washed over the crowd as they engaged – stranger to stranger – sharing personal memories. Trust, fellowship, shared knowledge, curiosity and genuine interest chased misgivings and uncertainty from the room. Just by swapping stories, the group became open, energized and empowered – in less than five minutes.

It was even better than caffeine.

The best part for me was that I got to do it again and again over the course of the week. In the end, we co-created a vision of teaching excellence that went on to inform key components of the institution’s strategic plan. Just another reminder of the power of story to overcome barriers and build trust.