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How To Use Stories To Transform Relationships

Photo by Patrick Tomasso

This article was based on episode 034 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Relationships are the foundation of work. When these relationships are strong, work is more enjoyable, people are more willing to share their thinking, and conflicts are managed productively. But how do you develop relationships that foster trust and psychological safety?

This week, I speak with Ann Kowal Smith, Executive Director of the non-profit Books@Work. Books@Work partners with employers to break down barriers, build connections and foster openness, trust and respect.


Books@Work was designed as a method to bring people from every level of organization, from the C suite to the front lines, together to share ideas, challenge assumptions about themselves and each other, and co-create a culture of trust, belonging, respect and inclusion that many people crave.

Books@Work uses carefully chosen narrative works of literature to tee up the kinds of questions that humans have grappled with since the beginning of time. They never use business or self-help books. Narratives bring up human stories that attract participants to share their own experience.

Through professionally facilitated discussions, participants connect with the text, share their perspective, and grapple with big questions. Groups are able to engage in topics as potentially challenging as race, and gender, and politics as a way to build the relationships and skills to effectively tackle more common workplace issues.


Regardless of the industry or organization, whether trust exists among the participants already or it’s a group of relative strangers, every conversation fosters new understandings. Ann reflects that “what we've found is that there's almost no organization where the ability to connect more deeply with other people isn't relevant and profound.”

The Books@Work approach is uniquely capable of creating conversation that:

  • prepare people to tackle difficult issues like inclusion

  • create an atmosphere of social wellness

  • support larger culture change initiatives

  • tighten and intensify relationships among team members

By using a story that is unrelated to work, participants are able to practice the skills needed to address the harder kinds of conversation that require trust and psychological safety. The story creates an alternate reality to discuss, often leading to deeper and more authentic sharing. After the session, a person’s appreciation for and sophistication in dealing with each other increases tremendously.


Books@Work works has identified a books and short stories that spur conversation. When deciding what’s right for your team, consider how much time you have to devote to the process.

  • If the group works with a book, select one that is no longer than 400 pages. Expect to meet four times over the course a 1-4 months, with a quarter of the book discussed at every session.

  • If the group works with a short story or single chapter from a book, it can range from a just a few pages to up to 30. The entirety of the story or chapter is discussed and explored in one session.

After selecting the story, the team reads the content and meets for a 90 minute discussion. The process works for in-person and virtual teams alike.

Ideally, a trained facilitator will support the discussion. The facilitator allows people to peel back the layers of the onion so that you can go deeper and deeper into the story and the implications for people. This is especially important if you're engaging in topics that are challenging, or for which people have very different life experiences or points of view. The facilitator helps to balance those perspectives and create opportunities to have deep, respectful discussions.

The key is to use questions to guide the conversation. Rather than asking yes-no questions or questions of preference, such as “did you like the story,” focus on questions that take you a little bit further from the topics that are on your mind every day.

Start with fundamental human questions and then ask more essential, topical questions.

  • What are the actions that this character took that really intrigued you?

  • What are the actions that the character took that gave you pause?

  • Is there somebody that you identify with?

  • What does it take for human nature to be innovative?

  • Would you make the same choice as the character?

  • What is responsibility? To whom? For what?

  • What is strength?


At the end of the day, Books@Work is not really about the books; It’s about the people that are sitting around the table. The story provokes the conversation. It is only one point of view. Each person brings their own perspective from their background, life experiences, and culture.

Ann shared that one client of Books@Work explained the process as a way to practice “discussing the undiscussable.” These seemingly unrelated discussions become this incredible fodder for having difficult conversations about work topics such as talent management, performance issues, and cost-cutting–the kinds of conversations that can be painful and emotional.

Whether building new relationships or strengthening existing ones, the Books@Work approach has impact any place that the human relationship lies at the core of being successful.

If you’re interested in bringing Books@Work to your organization, you can learn more at Join the Modern Manager community on Patreon and get 3 stories from Ann to use with your team, along with other guest bonuses and resources to support your journey to rockstar manager.

This article was based on episode 034 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


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