I was walking with my friend and she read me a text from her ex-husband. She read it with great vigor and emotion and emphasis in particular places. Understandably, there has been pain, and she had some difficult past experience with him. And, we can often get stuck in stories/scripts of "how this person always is'' when it may not be the case in this moment. I re-read the same text and it felt more benign to me. (I was also likely ''making up a story'' that it was benign.)
We are storytelling creatures. Continually making up stories of what the facial expression from the server meant; what the lack of email response from a client or colleague means.
If we are not aware of this dynamic it can lead to assuming that we know what the other person meant. And then even taking action based on assumptions that may or may not be correct.
My boss gave me some critical feedback, she must think I'm not doing a good enough job.
For a nonprofit fundraiser:
I haven't heard back from that potential donor. I must have done something to offend them.
There is so much I have to do today.
In all these cases (even the last one) we are making up stories.
The Ladder of Inference is a helpful schema to look at what is a common human pattern. We observe the world > We add cultural and personal meanings to this data > We then make assumptions based on the meanings > leading to the drawing of conclusions from our assumptions. Then our beliefs about the world are formed from this dynamic > And we take actions based upon our beliefs.
What also occurs is that our meanings, assumptions, conclusions, beliefs (and even actions) loop back and inform what we are able to SEE or not see.
I believe (yes I believe) that this matters because when we we are not aware of this dynamic it can have disastrous effects. When we start taking actions based on faulty assumptions, things can go awry quite easily. And then when we come together and start in to conversation treating our ''story'' as fact, we are not noticing that we have welded the two together.
Given this pervasive dynamic, what can we do. I'll suggest two things.
1. Practice regularly (aka make it a habit) to have conversations first about the ''observable data''
"I noticed that you came 10 minutes late to our meeting," which is quite different than "You have no respect for our start time." or even thinking, "She must not respect my authority.")
2. Start acknowledging out loud that you are making up stories (all the time).
One of the podcasts I enjoy listening to is called Dare to Be Human. (It's about improv and applied improv and all manner of connected realms of thought)
I appreciate how, Kat Koppett (one of the co-hosts) says frequently, in response to what her guest is saying, "So the story I'm making up is...." Kat realizes that she is likely making up a story (aka making an interpretation) based on what she just heard. This is an act of ownership that acknowledges the reality of her part in the meaning-making. AND it gives her guest an acknowledgment akin to, "I'm not sure if this is what YOU meant, but here's the story I'm making up about it."
Even if you don't fully buy what I'm saying, experiment with acting ''as if'' we are storytelling creatures, and begin saying (even to yourself), "Okay, the story I'm making up about this cashier is...." and "The story I'm making up about X is...."
And when your daughter is late for school, ask yourself... what story am I making up...and then try it out on her when you have a chance to talk....
Hey honey, I noticed you've been late to school a few times this week. (Give space for her eyerolling, grunting)
So the story I'm making up is that you don't care about getting there on time... Is that true? Or am I making up a story that doesn't align with your experience?
Of course it doesn't have to be exactly like that.
Here's the value I'm driving at... When we realize we make up stories, we have the opportunity to come into conversations:
1. more curious. Hmmm, I wonder what more closely aligns with reality.
2. more open to learning and
3. with a greater ability to connect.
... which leads to
the cultivation of Trust and Collaboration which are absolutely vital in our changing and uncertain world where we are dealing with complex problems on many fronts.
I'd love to here your thoughts. Please drop me a line at david@BePresentDiscoverJoy.com
p.s. Check out the Dare to be Human Podcast by clicking on the link here
Also, A helpful tool for this is the Liberating Structure called W3 or
What? So What? Now What?. It can be used for many different scenarios and it highlights the importance of breaking a part each piece.