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“Mrs. Carlson is a good person,” Zhang Li said as the 41-year-old attorney stood before the judge. “She’s taking responsibility for her own healing. And having quality time with her children is part of that healing process.”

The Hon. Maria Santos, in her late 50s with cropped, silver hair, studied Zhang Li for a moment and then glanced over at the defendant, Shelly Carlson, 39. Shelly looked nervous, awaiting the outcome. Would the judge retain her parental rights or terminate them?

Here, thought Maria, was another sad case of opioid addiction in a person who’d never had a drug habit beforehand. Who’d never been in trouble with the law; not even close. Until a car accident created constant physical pain and the desperation to manage that pain. 

Storytelling to Elicit Change

Zhang Li was wrapping up what she does best when advocating for one of her clients. She was telling a powerful story, regarding how Shelly was so much more than her recent addiction. Shelly Cavanaugh was a high school and college honor student who was successful in her career as a middle school teacher, entered into a loving marriage, and was a nurturing, responsible mother to her two daughters. 

Until the distracted driver rear-ended her at 45 miles per hour. Until the neck injury that ensued. Until the pain and the desperation.

Zhang Li had already seen it all in less than 20 years of practicing family law. Spouses who’d transitioned from lovers to enemies. Children struggling to cope with household, school, and peer stress. Deadbeat dads. Entitled exes. Domestic violence. And the suffering of good people who gradually fell into addictions in efforts to ease physical or emotional pain.

Storytelling is an undervalued, under-utilized tool. It’s the art and science of influencing others through skillful communication and personal brand; not just telling great stories, but being a great story.

And everyone loves a great story–including Ana, a college student and part-time receptionist at the office complex where Zhang Li leases space, who loves when Zhang Li stops by to chat because the lawyer always shares an interesting anecdote from her day.

Zhang Li is a change catalyst: she helps people elicit change for the better, and influences others such as opposing attorneys and judges like Maria to be partners in that change.

The best change leaders, in any profession or setting, invest the time to learn storytelling skills and develop ideas and initiatives that solve problems that matter to people. For Zhang Li, it’s solutions for parents, children, and guardians, among others. For many business leaders, it’s solutions for internal employees and external customers, such as a stronger organizational culture, better processes, and more relevant products.  

Seeing Ourselves in the Story

And when change leaders tell stories about real pain points, including how, exactly, they’ll make things better, something transcendent happens. Those of us hearing the story don’t just “get it” in our heads but “feel it” in our hearts. We see ourselves in the story–which is what the best stories, whether in courtrooms, business, movies, books, songs, or sharing around the bonfire, have been doing for us for ages. 

This Medium article asserts that “the skill of storytelling to get employees buy-in on change” involves elements such as transparency, a sense of belonging, positive emotions, and authenticity. “Despite living in a world of technology driven change we have to approach it as human beings.”

The Verdict

“Mrs. Carlson, I am giving you the second chance your attorney has asked for,” Maria said, and tears formed in Shelly’s eyes as she stood, nodding, feeling Zhang Li’s arm wrapped around her. “You’ve got a long road ahead with important, specific milestones, but you can choose the outcome. You’ve already started making the right choices. This court will ensure your accountability to continue to make those choices.”

Zhang Li and Shelly hugged for a long time. The assistant state attorney, Marla Lang, even came over and hugged Shelly as well, wishing her good luck. And then, finally, Shelly’s estranged husband Andrew approached her and they cried together in their long embrace.