In the Spotlight: Kyle Christiason at UnityPoint Health on Storytelling

This month, we are joined by our good friend and Experience exemplar Kyle Christiason, MD, Medical Director at UnityPoint Health, to understand how he has made Storytelling a vital component in his practice and why it matters.

What does the principle of Storytelling mean to you at your organization?

Storytelling is a vital, innate skill for humans. We are all Connected by Storytelling through history — it is in our DNA to Connect with one another and is core to our survival. Storytelling and Story listening inspire us to become passionate about something or someone, and allows us to understand someone else’s Experience just by LIVING through their Story and the feeling.  

Some of the most transformative Stories we share — both tragic and wonderful — occur in health care. They are often major mileposts — before or after the diagnosis…the surgery…the birth. And our life Stories are anchored to those milestone Moments —those are the Stories we all tell and share. They remind us why it matters that we make every Moment more special and meaningful.

How do you, as a leader and in your organization, use Storytelling as part of your Experience journey? 

In the clinical space, Storytelling is a powerful and learnable tool. It helps teams focus on the privilege to care for friends, families, and neighbors. We start each day at the clinic with reflection, reminding one another why we are here and sharing Stories of a few memorable Moments. This Story practice becomes a call to action for our team to show up in the narrative and care for and with patients in a meaningful way. 

We end our days with a two-step debrief practice. First, sharing any pain points of the day. What happened today that might we be able to do better tomorrow? Practicing, asking, challenging, and solving with each other on a regular basis has become a part of our culture. Then, we finish by asking each person to share their “joy bombs” — those special Moments that brought Joy to their work, large or small. Through this Storytelling practice, our care teams are now Intentionally LOOKING to create and remember those special Moments. The times that give them Joy — I think that helps them reduce their risk for burnout, helps them Stage Experiences for each other and for our patients, and sends them home each day with these Stories on their minds and in their hearts to help them feel positive and inspired from their day.

What Advice do you have for Lab Partners? 

Lean in. I love the quote from Michael Margolis, “If you want to learn about a culture, listen to the stories. If you want to change the culture, change the stories.” As leaders, we should practice Storytelling. It’s okay to not feel natural, lean into the discomfort. When we practice Storytelling such as the dedicated time for Stories in my clinic, we can become more comfortable and when we listen we become more meaningfully Connected 

Be the best Story gatherer in your organization. Seek out Stories from different people, departments, and regions. Regularly engage in Story rounds by simply asking a few questions: What do you LOVE about what you do? Tell me one thing you did to improve the life of another person this week? What’s one thing someone else did that made you feel special? Be a role model for others to see how easy it really is. Sometimes we make it harder than it should be. By modeling Storytelling and Story gathering you can take down the barrier of it feeling overwhelming.

Become the best pollinator of Stories in your organization. When we hear something special, share it with someone else. Not only can we be touched by someone’s Experience, we will be more likely to LOOK for those special Moments in our own life. Listening and sharing creates a culture of caring for one another, celebrating what is good. When it’s part of your culture to practice this, everything else becomes easier.

Sometimes there are Stories we should stop telling. Not every Story and not all words or phrases need to be used. It’s amazing how many warfare terms there are in health care. There may be a “war room” for developing strategy. We refer to our caregivers as the “front line.” We talk about providers being “in the trenches.” When we launch a new initiative, we call it “pulling the trigger.”

When we refer to health care as being the same as warfare, we are destined to subvert our goals. However, we can Joyfully embrace being a part of what I consider to be a sacred and noble profession by using terms that are more appropriate. Rather than “frontline,” consider  “face-to-face caregivers.” Instead of helping a “non-compliant patient,” consider “let’s support this person to be their most successful self.”

Consider nonverbal Stories. We can also change our Stories through our non-verbal language. When we leave the examination room and LOOK at a person with our hand on the doorknob asking, “Is there anything else you want to talk about today?” we are sending a message that screams “I am done with our conversation even if you are not”.

Remember the power of small.  In leadership, we can focus on changing the game by focusing on the small details. A genuine smile at the check-in desk. A nurse remembering my child’s name. A physician who calls me at home to ensure I’m safe and I understand my medications. A culture of introducing every member of the care team during a hospital stay. It’s taking a Moment to address “me” before addressing the health record.   

Transformation doesn’t happen in a cataclysmic Moment but rather the millions of tiny miracles that happen every day and each of those Moments is a Story waiting to be shared.