The Stories We Tell

View Of Female Hands Writing Her Life Goals In A Journal

Whether you realize it or not, you are a storyteller. I’m not talking about the ability to draw others in with a compelling narrative, or perfectly timing a punch line. I am talking about the stories we tell ourselves . . . our perspective of a situation that impacts our beliefs, actions, and responses. Those plot lines may be based on accurate, one sided, or totally erroneous information, and yet when we are crafting them in our mind, they inevitably feel as if they are true. Have you ever noticed, however, that gaining additional nuggets of information can totally change how we view the same set of “facts”?

An example of this I heard many years ago was of a man who boarded a bus with three young children. The man slumped down in his seat, seemingly oblivious to the rowdy behavior of his children who were bouncing around and disturbing those near him. Finally, one frustrated passenger spoke up, telling the man his children were bothering others. The man wearily looked up and apologized, explaining that they were heading home from the hospital where his wife had just passed away, and he guessed none of them quite knew what to do. Wow. Can you imagine how differently the passengers felt about the children’s behavior in that moment? The “facts” of the behavior didn’t change . . . it was the understanding of why they were acting as they were that changed the passengers’ perspective.

It is so easy to assign intent to a person’s behavior, decisions, or beliefs — intent that is consistent with the storyline we have already constructed in our mind — which may or may not bear any resemblance to what is really motivating the other person’s actions. There are two aspects of this “storytelling dilemma” that leaders should consider . . .

  • How can you improve the accuracy of your own internal storytelling?

Learn to consciously separate people’s action (behavior) from the why of their actions (their intent). How? The simple phrase “Help me understand . . .” is a nonjudgmental way of opening the door to greater insight into what is driving a person’s actions, and allows you to respond in a way that takes multiple perspectives into consideration.

  • How can you influence others’ internal storytelling?

Start by clearly articulating your intent. We tend to assume that others know what is driving our beliefs/decisions/actions — because it is so clear to us — but that is often not the case. The bonus benefit of routinely sharing your intent — beyond giving people a sense of context and making it less likely that they will “fill in the blanks” with a faulty storyline — is that it also opens the door for them to offer input that could ultimately help you more effectively reach your goals.

As a leader, you are a role model for how to develop a narrative that effectively guides your actions, and those of your organization. So, what’s your story?

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