The Stories We Tell

A few months ago I took a training for Crucial Conversations at work.

We spent one third of the training learning how to set ourselves straight, one third on what to say to start the conversation, and one third learning to recognize insecure behaviors in others.

In the first third we did several exercises to help us recognize our emotions and break down where those emotions are coming from. This sections was called “Master My Stories.” And it’s stayed with me since that training.

To master our stories we were told to first separate fact from fiction, watch for the three common stories of victim, villain, and helplessness, and then challenge those stories.

Separating fact from fiction was the hardest part. It made me realize how quickly our brains formulate the stories we tell ourselves.

According to Merriam-Webster a fact is “an actual occurrence; a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”

A fact is: you were late to our meeting three times. A fact is rarely: you are always late to our meeting. A fact is not: you don’t care about our meeting.

The third statement above is a story, a story our brain crafts to simplify and explain someone else’s behavior. When unchecked, stories (like beliefs) can run our lives without our consent.

“Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories.”

That statement is what really blew it wide open for me.

The truth is, once our brain creates a story it will (through confirmation bias mainly) gather all the facts it needs to make that story true. It won’t discard others, but it’ll notice them less, focus on them less, it won’t store them nearly as readily.

That means that while we’re busy telling ourselves “He doesn’t care about this meeting.” The truth might be “He always has a meeting on the other side of the building before this one.”

What I’m saying is: if unchecked, your brain will pick one story and it’ll hold on to it for dear life, discarding the other infinite possibilities to the wayside, and proving to you how true the chosen story is.

There are stories we tell ourselves and quickly forget, but there are also stories we carry with us our entire lives, unchecked, hoarding decades worth of self-confirming data.

The trick then is to recognize the stories we tell ourselves and to learn to present them for confirmation. Instead of assuming “He doesn’t care about this meeting” and letting that paint our behavior, we can say “this is the third time you were late to this meeting, this makes me think you don’t care about this project, is that true or is something else going on?”

Notice, this is different from saying “you don’t care about this meeting.” That is accusing someone with no room for them to respond and no explanation of your assumption.

Of course, the world isn’t perfect, and people are complicated. I can’t promise that someone will respond with kind understanding when you explain your story. I can’t promise that people won’t get defensive. But that’s a whole other part of the training.

I highly recommend this training or reading the Difficult Conversations book.

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