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Using stories to build relationships

Explore the science behind why sharing stories can build trust and connections to significantly help you improve and strengthen your professional relationships.

Dale Carnegie, author of the classic business book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, said, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion.”

Relationships, whether they are personal or professional, are based on emotional connections and built on trust. Sharing stories can have a significant impact on building relationships as they have the ability to fast-track trust. And while we may intuitively know this makes sense, there is science to back this up that is to do with our brain.

Our brain has different parts, and each part has a different job. The left side of our brain, for example, helps us think logically and organise our thoughts, while the right side helps us experience emotions and recall personal memories. We also have a ‘reptile brain’ that makes us act instinctively and a ‘mammal brain’ that helps us to connect in relationships.

Our brains also have a neocortex, which is connected to a complex series of nerves and networks called the ‘limbic system’. This is responsible for the development of the bond we feel between ourselves and another (like the mother–child bond).

When we tell stories all the different parts and areas of our brain are stimulated and start to work together, combining words and logic and emotions and sensory images, so we see the whole picture and communicate our experience. Essentially, with all this activity going on, our emotions go into overdrive.

This means that stories provoke our emotions. Good stories make us feel something as we listen to them –excitement, anger, sadness, empathy or enthusiasm. Consequently, feeling these emotions means we feel something towards the person telling the story, which helps to create connection and build relationships.

In the 2014 Harvard Business Review article, ‘Why your brain loves good storytelling’, neuro-economist Paul Zak revealed the powerful impact the love hormone oxytocin has on the brain when we tell stories.

Oxytocin is also often referred to as the ‘trust hormone’. Our bodies release it when we are with people we love and trust, when we hug, or even when we shake hands in a business meeting. And it’s released when we listen to stories. Oxytocin being released signals to the brain that everything is okay and it is safe. In other words, we have a higher level of trust than we did before hearing the story.

So not only does a good story make us feel different emotions and a connection to the storyteller but, at the same time, the love hormone oxytocin is also signalling that we can be trusted, which is critical to building and maintaining relationships. As American poet Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel”.

The business world is increasingly seeing the power of training their leaders and sales people on how to share appropriate and authentic stories. Ultimately, good storytellers can fast-track trust and create an emotional connection with people that will build and strengthen professional relationships.

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