“Crucial Conversations” – Master my stories

The worst at dialogue fall hostage to their emotions, and they don’t even know it.
The good at dialogue realize that if they don’t control their emotions, matters will get worse.

So they try something else. They fake it. They choke down reactions and then do their best to get back to dialogue. At least, they give it a shot. Unfortunately, once these emotionally choked folks hit a rough spot in a crucial conversation, their suppressed emotions come out of hiding. They show up as tightened jaws or sarcastic comments. Dialogue takes a hit. Or maybe their paralyzing fear causes them to avoid saying what they really think. It’s never pretty, and it always kills dialogue.
The best at dialogue do something completely different. They aren’t held hostage by their emotions, nor do they try to hide or suppress them. Instead, they act on their emotions. That is when they have strong feelings, they influence (and often change) their emotions by thinking them out. As a result, they choose their emotions, and by so doing, make it possible to choose behaviors that create better results. This of course, is easier said than done. It’s not easy to rethink yourself from an emotional and dangerous state into one that puts you back in control. But it can be done.

Stories create feelings

As it turns out, there is an intermediate step between what others do and how we feel. There’s always an intermediate step because actions themselves can’t and don’t cause emotional reactions. That’s why, when faced with the exact same circumstances, ten people may have ten different emotional responses.
What is this intermediate step? Just after we observe that others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. We add meaning to the action we observed. We make a guess at the motive driving the behavior. Why were they doing that? We also add judgement – is that good or bad? And then, based on these thoughts and stories, our body responds with an emotion.
We call this model our Path to Action because it explains how emotions, thoughts, and experiences lead to our actions.
You’ll note that we’ve added telling a story to our model. We observe, we tell a story, and then we feel. Although this addition complicates the model a bit, it also gives us hope. Since we and only we are telling the story, we can take back control of our own emotions by telling a different story. We now have a point of leverage or control. If we can find a way to control the stories we tell, by rethinking or retelling them, we can master our emotions and, therefore, master our crucial conversations.

Our Stories

Stories provide our rationale for what’s going on. They’re our interpretations of the facts. They help explain what we see and hear. They’re theories we use to explain why, how and what.
Of course, as we come up with our own meaning or stories, it isn’t long until our body responds with strong feelings or emotions – after all, our emotions are directly linked to our judgements of right/wrong, good/bad, kind/selfish, fair/unfair, etc.
Even if you don’t realize it, you are telling yourself stories. When we teach people that it’s our stories that drive our emotions and not other people’s actions, someone inevitably raises a hand and says, “Wait a minute! I didn’t notice myself telling a story. When that guy laughed at me during my presentation, I just felt angry. The feelings came first; the thoughts came second.”
Storytelling typically happens blindingly fast. When we believe we’re at risk, we tell ourselves a story so quickly that we don’t even know we’re doing it. If you don’t believe this is true, ask yourself whether you always become angry when someone laughs at you. If sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t, then your response isn’t hard-wired. That means something goes on between others laughing and you feeling. In truth, you tell a story. You may not remember it, but you tell a story.
Any set of facts can be used to tell a infinite number of stories. Stories are just that, stories. These explanations could be told in any of thousands of different ways.

If we take control of our stories, they won’t control us.
People who excel at dialogue are able to influence their emotions during crucial conversations. They recognize that while it’s true that at first we are in control of the stories we tell – after all, we do make them up of our own accord – once they’re told, the stories control us. They first control how we feel and then how we act. And as a result, they control the results we get from our crucial conversations.
But it doesn’t’ have to be this way. We can tell different stories and break the loop. In fact, until we tell different stories, we cannot break the loop.
If you want improved results from your crucial conversations, change the stories you tell yourself – even while you’re in the middle of the fray.

Retrace your path

To slow down the lighting-quick storytelling process and the subsequent flow of adrenaline, retrace your Path to Action – one element at a time. This calls for a bit of mental gymnastics. First you have to stop what you’re currently doing. Then you have to get in touch with why you’re doing it. Here’s how to retrace your path:

  • [Act] Notice your behavior.
    Am I in some form of silence or violence?
    [Feel] Get in touch with your feelings
    What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?
  • [Tell story] Analyze your stories
    What story is creating these emotions?
    Don’t confuse stories with facts. Sometimes you fail to question your stories because you see them as immutable facts. When you generate stories in the blink of an eye, you can get so caught up in the moment that you begin to believe your stories are facts. They feel like facts. You confuse subjective conclusions with steel-hard data points.
  • [See/hear] Get back to the facts
    What evidence do I have to support this story?
    Separate fact from story by focusing on behavior. To separate fact from story, get back to the genuine source of your feelings. Test your ideas against a simple criterion: Can you see or hear this thing you’re calling a fact? Was it an actual behavior?

By retracing your path one element at a time, you put yourself in a position to think about, question, and change any one or more of the elements.

Watch for 3 “clever” stories

Either our stories are completely accurate and propel us in healthy directions, or they’re quite inaccurate but justify our current behavior – making us feel good about ourselves and calling for no need to change.
It’s the second kind of story that routinely gets us into trouble. For example, we move to silence or violence, and then we come up with a perfectly plausible reason for why it’s okay. “Of course I yelled at him. Did you see what he did? He deserved it.” “Hey, don’t be giving me the evil eye. I had no other choice.” We call these imaginative and self-serving concoctions “clever stories.” They’re clever because they allow us to feel good about behaving badly. Better yet, they allow us to feel good about behaving badly even while achieving abysmal results.
When we feel a need to justify our ineffective behavior or disconnect ourselves from our bad results, we tend to tell our stories in three very predictable ways. Learn what the three are and how to counteract them, and you can take control of your emotional like. Fail to do so and you’ll be a victim to the emotions you’re predisposed to have wash over you at crucial times.

  • Victim stories – “It’s not may fault”
    • As you might imagine, this type of stories, make us out to be innocent sufferers. The theme is always the same. The other person is bad, wrong, or dumb, and we are good, right, or brilliant. Other people do bad or stupid things, and we suffer as a result.
      In truth, there is such a thing as an innocent victim. You’re stopped in the street and held up at gunpoint. When an event such as this occurs, it’s a sad fact, not a story. You are a victim. But all tales of victimization are not so clear-cut and one-sided. Within most crucial conversations, when you tell a Victim Story, you intentionally ignore the role you have played in the problem. You tell your story in a way that judiciously avoids whatever you have done (or neglected to do) that might have contributed to the problem.
  • Villain stories – “It’s all your fault”
    • We create these nasty little tales by turning normal, decent human beings into villains. We impute bad motive, and then we tell everyone about the evils of the other party as if somehow we’re doing that world a huge favor. In Victim Stories we exaggerate our own innocence. In Villain Stories we overemphasize the other person’s guilt or stupidity. We automatically assume the worst possible motives or grossest incompetence while ignoring any possible good or neutral intentions or skills a person may have. Labeling is a common device in Villain Stories.
      When we fail to get the results we really want, we stay stuck in our ineffective behavior because, after all, look who we’re dealing with!
  • Helpless stories – “There’s nothing else I can do”
    • In these fabrications we make ourselves out to be powerless to do anything healthy or helpful. We convince ourselves that there are no healthy alternatives for dealing with our predicament, which justifies the action we’re about to take. A Helpless Story might suggest, “If I didn’t yell at my son, he wouldn’t listen.” Or on the flip side, “If I told the boss this, he would just be defensive – so of course I say nothing!” While Villain and Victim stories look back to explain why we’re in the situation we’re in, Helpless stories look forward to explain why we can’t do anything to change our situation.
      For example, when we decide our colleague is a “control freak” (Villain story), we are less inclined to give feedback because, after all, control freaks like her don’t accept feedback (Helpless story). Nothing we can do will change the fact.
      Helpless stories stem from Villain stories and typically offer us nothing more than Fool’s Choice – we can either be honest and ruin the relationship or stay silent and suffer.

Tell the rest of the story

The dialogue-smart recognize that they’re telling clever stories, stop and then do what it takes to tell a useful story. A useful story, by definition, creates emotions that lead to healthy action – such as dialogue.
And what transforms a clever story into a useful one? The rest of the story. That’s because clever stories have one characteristic in common: They’re incomplete. Clever stories omit crucial information about us, about others, and about our opinions. Only by including all of these essential details can clever stories be transformed into useful ones.
What’s the best way to fill in the missing details? Quite simply, it’s done by turning victims into actors, villains into humans, and the helpless into the able

By asking what role you’ve played, you begin to realize how selective your perception has been. You become aware of how you’ve minimized your own mistakes while you’ve exaggerated the role of others.

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