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What’s your story?

How well do you know what your friends or members of your family do in their jobs? Or, if they have retired, what they did during their working lives? I’m sure you can say something like “She’s a doctor”, perhaps adding “Specialises in paediatrics”. Or maybe you can give a title, field of activity, and a company name - “marketing director at GSK”, “human resources manager in a French bank”, “managing partner of a law firm”. But what more can you say about what they do at work, what problems they wrestle with, what gives them joy and what makes them despair? After all, most of us spend about 40% of the hours that we are awake from our twenties to our sixties doing paid work. And many will say that at least another 20% of our waking time in those years is spent thinking about our work. So why can so few of us do much more than give a bland label when describing how our friends or family live so much of their lives? Because we don’t know and we don’t seem to think it’s important to know.

Perhaps I am wrong after the year many of us have just had to accuse you of being ignorant of what your spouse or partner does while at work. After all she or he has probably been Zooming or Teaming with colleagues in the spare bedroom and telling you all about it in the ten-minute break in the kitchen that you have both managed to schedule. But what about the working lives of your friends and more distant relatives?

Something happened recently which has made me ask myself yet again why we know so little about people we regard as friends. The committee of our street’s residents’ association had prevailed upon me to host a socially- distanced, bring-your-own-drink-and-utensils afternoon tea session for five neighbours in our garden. My wife was across town on grandchild-care duty. So, I was free to do what she has long criticised me for being: “too nosey.” One of my five guests was new to the street. This made it easy for me to suggest that we each told something about ourselves to him in the hope that he would reciprocate.

I started off, followed by M to my right. M is, like me, on the committee but I don’t know her well. At our last meeting she had apologised for having to leave early; she had to get to her Arabic class. “Why Arabic?” I asked her now. Her answer was illuminating.

The third person to introduce herself divulged that she was now retired and had lived in the street a few years. “What did you retire from?” I asked. She looked startled and said something like “Oh, different things”. I persisted. She referenced something I had said: “I wanted to be a V.S.O.* like you, Richard. I wanted a complete change. But my daughter talked me out of it.” There was enough in those three short sentences to enable me and the others to extract a biography worthy of an entry in Wikipedia. When she had finished speaking, her friend M, someone with an equally interesting curriculum vitae, said: Richard, I’ve known R for years and I’ve never known anything about what she did at work. How did you make her talk?

The fourth to speak had been a “trailing spouse”, following her husband around south-east Asia. She seemed to think that we would only be interested in what he did. We disabused her of this sexist notion. She revealed that her voluntary work in Hong Kong had included setting up and running the zoo of an international school. We heard about a child’s four-foot long iguana, lying uncaged on the back seat of her car which had decided it preferred occupying the front passenger seat just as she was weaving through the city’s densest traffic.

The fifth, like her predecessors (bar over-talkative me), was reluctant to say much at first. She seemed to think that telling us that she worked for many years at the UK’s National Orthopaedic Hospital would be enough. But we were no longer satisfied with such paucity of information. A few minutes later we all knew what she thought about the practitioners of one branch of medicine. She also told us stuff about back pain which I for one would have liked to have known years ago. She continues to work from home as a consultant.

We failed to learn much about the newcomer other than that he continues to offer investment advice to his clients. And that he and his wife have downsized to one of the largest houses in the street. He batted away my nosey questions with practised ease.

For much of my own career – training and coaching business people – I have needed to know what my clients did in their companies. How could I help somebody hone their negotiation skills or deliver a persuasive presentation if I didn’t know what they were negotiating or presenting about? How could I help someone work successfully in, say, Japan or France if I didn’t know in detail what work they did. I learned early on what kind of questioning would yield the information I needed.

I carried this skill (or, as my wife sees it, annoying habit) into my private life and learned what not to ask when meeting a stranger. I realised that “What do you do?” as a first question would likely get a one-sentence answer, e.g.“I’m an accountant” or “I work in advertising.” Many for whom English is a foreign language found the question incomprehensible and would ask me to repeat it. I would switch to “What is your job?” but I’d get the same short answers. I noticed that other people were satisfied with just being given a job label; the conversation would either die or turn to the price of houses, the iniquities of our politicians or the likely winners of a sports match. This has always seemed to me a missed opportunity to learn about stuff one doesn’t know.

It was a Dutch colleague in Japan who showed me a better way of getting someone to open up about themselves. “So, what’s your story?” he would ask some expatriate manager in his cheery, direct way. His interlocutor, whether native English speaker or not, would always looked baffled. That was the aim. It allowed Sytze to follow up with something like “I mean... Why are you here in Japan?” It is almost impossible to give a one-sentence answer to a Why? question. Plus you begin to find out about a person’s motivations and emotions. But that is why it’s not a good idea to lead with a Why?; it can sound aggressive (especially from the mouth of a Dutchman).

I have often used “What’s your story?” since. I used a version of it at that afternoon tea: “I know so little about any of you. Let’s hear each other’s stories.” Provided you follow it up with other tricks of the questioning trade – repetition of a key word or two from someone’s answer - “Why Arabic?”, “a change from what? - or those baited hooks, delivered with as questioning a tone as you can muster - “How come?”, “Really?” “Why so?”, your interlocutor will usually tell your their story.

Why, you may be asking, is it so important to know the nitty-gritty of somebody’s job? Because you learn so much about what really goes on inside industries, professions and work activities different from your own. It has helped me form, confirm or change my opinions on a host of subjects, everything from “Should we abandon nuclear power?” (No; my mind was changed) to “Are open-plan offices a bad idea?” (No; my opinion was confirmed).

Plus, as any successful salesperson will tell you, asking questions about someone’s work, getting them to share with you their expertise, flatters them. It makes them feel good about you. It makes you persuasive. I could give you so many examples of this but one I spotted in this week’s Economist will do nicely.

Stacey Abrams is the African-American, Democrat politician who campaigned over the past four years to get blacks in the state of Georgia to vote. It was she, more than anyone, who put Joe Biden in the White House with the US Senate tied at 50-50. She is also a novelist. In their review of her latest book, The Economist describes how she managed to persuade “an ardently pro-life” Republican in the Georgia House of Representatives “to vote against an abortion bill he was expected to support.” This came about after “they swapped life stories early in the morning in an empty chamber.” As Abrams says herself: “I used my storytelling, but also by listening to the stories of others. You cannot influence behaviour if you dismiss the core ideology that people hold.” She added that you can only understand that if you “inhabit” their point of view (music to this writer’s ears - see Why don't we do what Atticus Finch advises? (

I make no apology for ending with a story I told in an article in Shaw Sheet some three years ago. In the previous issue of Only Connect, I described a superb sales pitch. Here is the best example of selling yourself when answering “What do you do?” that I have ever heard.

It was close to forty years ago in my early days as a trainer. Jean-Philippe had listened intently to the other five businessmen in the group I was teaching. They were French, German or Italian and told of their work in marketing, finance or R & D in various European companies. They were all white. He was black. And huge. When it was his turn, he stood up and faced us. He thrust his right arm out:

“I am Africa!”

He waved his left hand over different parts of his body.

First, along his extended right arm:

“West Africa and the Sahel,”

Over his stomach:

“Congo. Too, too big.”

Over his crotch:

“South Africa.”

He pointed to his right armpit and paused:

“Gabon. My country.”

Another pause as he looked around at all of us, smiling broadly, his finger still pointing at his armpit:

“And you are all thinking: ‘Here, it is too, too hot. And sweaty. And too, too smelly.’ And you are right, my friends! This is where I work. For Shell in north-west Gabon. The armpit of Africa! I am responsible for maintaining the oil pipeline. Through to the coast. My biggest problem?”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. When the rest of us realised this, several possible answers came tumbling out. As did further questions. Jean-Philippe continued to beam and why not? He had succeeded in doing what few of us ever achieve: making others genuinely interested in what we do for a living.

*Voluntary Service Overseas, the British equivalent and part-inspiration of the U.S. Peace Corps.



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