Master Your Stories

Note: This blog post was originally published on August 4th 2017 as a bonus chapter in my book “The Power of Positive Intent: An Inspired Way to Deal with Change in Any Business.” Last year, I expanded the book and published it as, "The Elegant Pivot: An Inspired Move for Navigating Corporate Politics"

I ended my TEDx talk with this sentence: “You can become the co-writer of an entirely new story for your life.” If you are looking for a new source of power in your life, look no further than the truth of this sentence. Now for the difficult part: implementing it in your daily life.  

Master your stories and you virtually remove the ability of others to get to you.   

Notice, I said “your stories”, not “the story.” Mastering your stories is super challenging, because most of the time, our story is invisible to us, hidden in the background informing what we see, hear and feel.

We don’t realize that we are telling ourselves a story about a situation. We just assume we see the whole truth and nothing but the truth, when in reality, we have just a few teeny data points.

Our stories determine how we act in any given situation. Because our stories are so automatic, we rarely notice that they are stories instead of facts.  Our story is certainly not “the story”.

Those stories create a cascading effect.  When you choose negative stories, filled with inferences about how someone is mistreating you or disrespecting you, or how your employees don’t know what they are doing or the board member is out to get you, you set certain things in motion.

These kinds of scenarios play out every day in business:

  • You’ve told that manager seven times to reorganize his department in preparation for the huge changes coming and it’s still not done. He must be miffed at something you did.  
  • The boss failed to include you in the latest board meeting. She must have lost confidence in your ability to present at a high level.  
  • One of your peers is contradicting everything you say in the monthly review meeting. He is clearly trying to undermine you. 

Notice how quickly we see a situation and decide what it means. We see a behavior, an expression, some body language and we quickly fill in the blanks with a story. We have minimal data points and suddenly, we KNOW what is going on. We believe our story as if it were handed to us in a certified document with the “truth seal of approval.” We just don’t realize that it’s a STORY, made up by our minds to solve for discordance and discomfort. We just move on.

Epictetus, the philosopher from Rome said:  “He was sent to prison. But the observation ‘he has suffered evil,’ is an addition coming from you.”

The “addition coming from you” refers to the stories we tell about why things happen.

Our stories are fertile ground for learning about ourselves and they are the pivot point for assuming positive intent.  

Any intent that we assume on another person’s actions is based on a story that we are making up. We simply cannot know all the facts.  Even a “Fighting Francis” can be disarmed by sticking with the facts and not adding fuel to the fire.  

Have you ever had someone not answer an email and you start telling yourself stories about why that is?

  • “He is upset because I got the promotion and he didn’t.”  
  • “She doesn’t want to do the work I asked.”  
  • “She doesn’t want to talk about this sticky subject.”  

The stories are endless, and chances are, your email is in the other person’s spam box. However, if you stick to the story that makes them a villain and you a victim, you have injected an element into the relationship that can cause damage. Your resentment might just show up next time you meet in the hallway or at a critical meeting.

Why is all of this so important?

Your stories are a window into YOUR internal operating rules and beliefs 

They reflect a compilation of your victories and defeats, your happy moments and your despair. They also create the roadmap for how you write the story for your life, and when you couple the tendency of the survival brain to see the worst in everything, your hidden stories create negative outcomes. 

I’ve hurt myself more times than I can count by telling the wrong story.

I had a simple, funny and embarrassing incident recently with my husband and the bottle of soy sauce. He brought home some chicken fried rice from his favorite Chinese restaurant. The day he brought it home, he made a point of asking if we had soy sauce as he opened the refrigerator looking for it. Before I could answer, he held up a full bottle and said, “Never mind – we have a brand-new bottle.” Strike that one from the grocery list. I thought, “If I decide to make the dish needing a soy sauce marinade later in the week, we are covered.”

The next morning, he had finished his breakfast before I came into the kitchen. The first thing I noticed on the counter was an empty bottle of soy sauce. Now, let me tell you – I don’t think of soy sauce as a condiment for anything involving breakfast. So, I had to ask, “What happened to all the soy sauce?” My incredulousness touched his impish button, so with a twinkle in his eye, he said “I used it all.”

Now my crazy self-talk started. I was thinking “How could he have used a whole bottle? What is he cooking that might need a WHOLE BOTTLE of soy sauce? What about me – what if I need soy sauce? How am I going to make my dish? He is making more work for me. Is he trying to be wasteful on purpose?” This thoughts came one after the other, at a speed that would get me arrested for going double the speed limit.

The stories I started making up were epic. One involved my husband suddenly deciding to cook and something delicious was marinating in the fridge as we spoke. Another involved him emptying the bottle into another container just so he could mess with me. The most ridiculous involved him actually eating the whole bottle on a single serving of rice. The more stories I made up, the more my mind closed in on finding an explanation for how a full bottle of soy sauce was now empty.

I wish I could tell you how funny this all was – but I can’t.  

I actually got quite annoyed when he refused to explain the empty bottle to me. My wise husband stopped the nonsense by opening the door and pulling out the still full bottle of soy sauce. “I found another one that was almost empty and decided to use that one first. You leapt.”

What a simple explanation! It never occurred to me that this might be a different bottle. Now I felt relieved and embarrassed. Relieved that there was a good explanation and embarrassed because I let my mind run away with making up stories. Again. I leapt.

The stories we make up are a significant barrier to assuming positive intent. Our minds love to find a reason for things. In the absence of a full explanation, we will fill in the blanks and not even realize we are doing it.

Artists use this tendency to leave something to the imagination in their work, knowing that the brain will fill in details, often in a way that is pleasing to the viewer. Writers do the same – often the passages that set up a gripping scene and stop short of giving every detail are the ones that we enjoy the most.

We have the same power to generate more empowering stories in our day to day lives. However, our survival brain, personal history and context tend to send our stories in the “OMG, I’m about to get screwed!” direction. Because it happens so fast and is so reflexive, we take those stories for true. We often don’t consider that something else might be going on.

Understanding the stories we make up is incredibly fertile ground for developing deep self-awareness – transformative awareness of our own personal patterns, habits and operating rules.  

These patterns, habits and rules operate in the background, taking over our decisions without us even being aware of it. Your mind is lovingly offering you an “easy button” to create shortcuts that make your thinking automatic. Ever feel like you just keep doing the same thing over and over again? That’s your background operating system at work, making life “easy” for you. The stories you make up are not based on the facts of the situation. They are based on your personal filters much more than on what is really happening.

I will say this.  I find it really hard work – hard personal work – to make up a better story.  With the help of my coaches over the years, I’ve learned more about myself by learning to assume positive intent than almost any other practice that I have implemented. (Meditation is another regular practice I have found extremely useful.)

In some ways, it’s more fun to act on those negative stories, filled with ill-informed assumptions about how others feel and think. More often than I can count, I have set off a cascade of unwanted consequences, which predictably enough, actually magnifies the negative stories.

When you watch my TEDx talk, you will hear the stories of the ways those other stories negatively impacted me in my career, sidelined my goals, isolated me from others and left me feeling pretty angry at myself and the world around me. 

My negative stories caused me to co-write a story for my life that did not work very well at all. 

Alternatively, when you assume a position of positive intent, you set a completely different set of cascading possibilities into motion.  When you become aware of the stories you tell yourself, and decide to change those stories, you inspire a new direction for your life and create true strength in yourself.

The first step in learning to change the story is to start with a question or two. Rather than leaping to a conclusion, take a step back and gather more data.

Here are some questions that you can ask someone who is acting in inexplicable ways:

  • Could you take me through your thinking about why you chose to (fill in the blank)? 
  • I feel like I am missing some key information here – what are you seeing that I might not be? 
  • What alternatives did you consider before making this decision? What made you choose this route? 

At a minimum, it’s useful when you are making up stories about why something is happening to ask yourself this question: “What would explain this behavior that also fits the facts of the situation?”  

Make a note of that question, highlight it, write it down.  Because that question will help you make up a better story on which to act and can set things off in a much more productive direction.
The second step is the beginning move of a deep journey of self-discovery. You do not have to tell the stories that you have been telling – you can change the stories.

Assuming positive intent is that simple, pivotal action that empowers you to become aware of your own motivations, hurts, patterns and operating rules. When you can’t assume positive intent by telling a better story, it’s because of something operating in you that is NOT YOU. It’s an old story that you adopted. It can be changed.

Imagine being the master of your stories. You don’t have to “buy” this idea – instead, rent it for a while and experiment for yourself.  

The third step is to practice, practice and practice some more. When you get stuck, ask for help.  

Learning to tell a new story has changed the trajectory of my life. It can change yours too.  

With practice-and sometimes the support of a friend or coach- you can truly become the co-writer of a new story for your life. 

If you want to dive even deeper into this concept, you can listen to the podcast Jennifer (my daughter) and I did on this chapter.

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