Insight article

Gail’s Story

This is a very personal story of change which is, er, about as profound as it gets…

I was speaking at a conference last week on the power and influence of storytelling to drive change. In particular, I brought up the subject of how storytelling ignites parts of the brain that release chemicals which stimulate feelings of empathy and emotion.

To make the point, I recounted the time not so long ago when I hailed a black cab in central London. The driver was a big man. So big, in fact, that his head practically touched the roof of the cab.

There was something a bit odd about this particular driver. He was wearing a bright orange ladies’ wig, with full make-up, painted nails, women’s clothes and jewellery. Still very clearly a man, but dressed up as a woman.

Taped to the glass partition that separates driver from passenger was a note: ‘Hi, I’m Gail. I’m going through a gender change at the moment. I’m not doing it for kicks so please don’t make fun of me. Feel free to ask any questions you want.’

I was intrigued, and asked him what kind of a response he’d been gettting from his customers. He explained that he was just months into a two-year programme of living as a woman before he could have the operation. And that I wouldn’t believe the kind of abuse he got on a daily basis, particularly when his passengers had had a couple of drinks. It was awful, he said. Made him feel terrible.

I asked him what made him persevere with the job. After all, driving a cab around London can be dodgy at the best of times.

His answer was simple and clear. He kept going because being a cabbie is what he does. And he put up with all the abuse because he knew how great he was going to feel at the end of the process. He had a very clear purpose and vision of what success would look and feel like, and it was worth pursuing and putting up with the daily struggle he had to endure. All the bumps and hassle along the way were going to be worth it.

I must say I felt very humbled by this man. It was an incredibly personal story of endeavour and pain which sparked a real sense of emotion and empathy on my part. I could imagine the scenarios that he would be going through, and felt very touched. We often tell our clients that stories that involve an element of struggle or endeavour are the stories that inspire trust, support and empathy. In a business context, stories about leaders, colleagues and customers can be used as a kind of Trojan horse to build trust and a desire to support individuals during difficult times of change. Stories spark the imagination and stimulate all sorts of senses: colour, smell, sound, language processing, emotion, empathy…the list goes on. We are particularly receptive to stories, and their power of emotions in changing mindsets should never be underestimated.

What struck me about Gail’s story, however, was the fact that this man had a very clear vision of success, and he was sticking to his route to success despite the obvious pain it caused him along the way. I’ve told this story many times and it teaches us many lessons. I often wonder where Gail is now, and if he feels he’s making progress. Change, eh?

Nailia Tasseel