Monday, October 16, 2017

The Facts and the Stories We Tell Ourselves Based on the Facts

I've been planning to write this post for the past two years. That's right. It's been that long. I'm not sure why I didn't write it sooner. But the events of this weekend swiftly and certainly moved these ideas off the sidelines.

Friday night we had home football. There is always some stress associated with each home game. Our admin team often jokes about how much easier the road games are. There are just so many things that can go wrong with large crowds. On top of that, I was at the end of a long week and physically tired. That's typical for Friday night, right?

So I noticed a Twitter post after halftime that tagged our school. I knew the individual who posted it and have a very good relationship with him, although we haven't interacted that often. 

But I quickly became offended by the post. How could this person publicly criticize the school? He should know better than that. He manages people and events and must understand the challenges that come with that. Social media is not the place to air your concerns, at least not initially. Come talk to me. Give me a chance to solve the problem.


I quickly fired off a text message to the individual expressing my frustration and disappointment.

Then came the reply, "Should I delete it?"

"Well, of course you should," I thought.

I responded in another message ramping up my indignation.

And then when his next reply came, I got it. He clarified and all of the sudden, it was clear. It hit me all at once. It almost took the air out of me. He didn't mean it that way! I took it wrong!

In my haste, I completely misunderstood the comment. I missed it completely.

I went back and read it again. Any other person reading the Tweet would NOT have taken it the way I did. I had started climbing the assumption ladder and had gone straight to the top rung.

Time to own my mistake. My very embarrassing mistake.

I sent my apologies. I tried to explain. I told him he did nothing wrong. I should know better. It's totally on me. I'm sorry. I felt terrible.

Fortunately, the person on the other end was gracious in accepting my apology. Looking back, I can't even believe I made this mistake. I practice these skills every day. Not assuming. Trying to understand the other person's perspective. Not jumping to conclusions.


So how does this happen?

A couple of years ago I read the book Crucial Conversations. It is the best thing I've ever read about effective communication when the stakes are high, when there might be strong opposing thoughts or opinions.

One part in particular is so important for us in keeping conversations safe. We have to be careful about the stories we tell ourselves. Here are a few of the big ideas I took from the book.

Stories Cause Feelings

Someone else doesn't make you mad. You get angry because of the story you tell yourself. "I feel bad because of my story, not your actions." Emotions don't settle in like fog. Others don't make you mad. You make you mad. You tell yourself a story, and the story leads to the emotional response. Once these stories take hold, they have a life of their own.

Avoid Silence or Violence

To keep good dialogue, we have to keep safety in the conversation. If we lose safety, the conversation will turn to one or the other or both parties holding back and not being honest or lashing out and taking cheap shots. Neither silence nor violence is a healthy response. We want to develop shared meaning and be totally honest. We want to learn from the conversation, not be right or wrong.

Stories Are How We Explain Why, How, and What Is Happening To Us

So even when presented with exactly the same set of circumstances, we will determine if it is positive or negative based on the story we tell ourselves. Our story is how we attach significance to these events. We decide the level of significance based on the story we tell.

Many Possible Responses

For every set of circumstances, there is not just one way to respond. My emotions are NOT the only valid response. So just because such and such happens to me doesn't mean I have to respond in a certain way. There are many possible responses.

Slow Down

The thing that got me in trouble was how quickly I settled on the story in my mind based on the Tweet I was reading. I attached a certain meaning almost immediately. I didn't consider any other possibilities. Several things had happened earlier that primed me for this response, but no matter, I still wouldn't have failed in communicating if I would've slowed down or even consulted with someone else before drawing conclusions.

Three Stories

We tend to tell ourselves three types of stories to explain things we don't like. We also use these stories to justify our own bad behavior.

Victim Stories - "It's not my fault."
Villain Stories - "It's all your fault."
Helpless Stories - "There's nothing else I can do."

Stories Result in a Path to Action

1. See/hear (facts)
2. Tell a story (interpretation of facts)
3. Feel (emotions)
4. Act (choose a response)

Our path to action may seem reasonable and certain, but if it is based on a story and a feeling, we may act in ways that are not helpful. I saw the Tweet on Friday night and immediately told myself a story. Then I felt upset and even angry. And that led to the awkward text message conversation that ensued. Oh my...

So this is really practical stuff that we can apply daily. In fact, the entire book has great wisdom for educators. We deal with so many crucial conversations. It happens all day, every day. It's important to develop these skills.

It's so important to remember there are the facts and then there are the stories we tell ourselves based on the facts. To close, here are four questions to ask that can help to avoid the crazy dance of some of our stories.

1. Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?
2. Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this? This one would have stopped me cold on Friday night.
3. What do I really want?
4. What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?

I encourage you to read Crucial Conversations. I still mess it up sometimes (obviously), but the book was really helpful for me in dealing with difficult situations. Have you noticed yourself telling stories and jumping to conclusions? Maybe with student behaviors? Or colleagues? Are you retreating to silence or resorting to violence in your conversations? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

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