Thursday, January 14, 2016

Those Stories in My Head

Yesterday I finished reading the book "Crucial Conversations."  There is a lot of good stuff in the book, but one concept is significant enough that I feel it is worth sharing with you.  Not recognizing this has messed up a bunch of my relationships in the past and probably has hurt my parenting.   it's the concept of Stories.

I first heard about this when Brené Brown spoke at the leadership summit this past summer, but having listened to so many people over the past few weeks give me a glimpse into the relationships at my new job, the whole idea is making even more sense.

When we observe another person's behavior we develop a story as to why they are acting that way.  For example, one of my kids comes home from school.  I ask him if he has done his chore, and he glares at me and walks into his room, slamming the door hard.

The following is the story that immediately develops in my head.   "Good grief, I am so done with kids being defiant about their stupid chores and then getting so mad at me when I remind them to do them.  I'm also sick of being disrespected and hated at every turn.  He hasn't done his chore more than three times in the last two weeks because I haven't been home to make him do it.  He is way too old to have me have to tell him to do it over and over and over again.   He is just taking advantage of how busy I am and the fact that I'm not paying attention.   I wonder how he can live with himself being so selfish as to ask for more than anyone else and do less."  (OK, OK, so my stories in my head get kinda lengthy.)

The reality is that I am making a whole lot of assumptions.  It could be that the glare and the stomping off to his room could be because something awful happened at school that he doesn't want to talk about.  It doesn't have to be about me.  Or it could be because he got up early that morning and did the chore and someone has messed it up and now he is getting yelled at for something he shouldn't (highly unlikely, but for the sake of making a point.....)

Or maybe he IS angry with me, but it is about something completely different.  Maybe I was supposed to give him cash that morning for an event at school and I forgot and he had to go without lunch.  Maybe it is because he found out that I made plans that didn't include him.  There could be a million different scenarios here.

The problem is that we don't even try to understand the real story before we react.   We make assumptions and don't ask questions.   And then we respond to the person based on a story we have written that might be completely untrue.

I know this happens in marriages and in the workplace and in churches often.   There is a second part that makes this even more damaging.  It's the "That's my story and I'm sticking to it."  Once the story
we have written about another person is in our head, then we interpret everything that person does based on a story that may or may not be true.

If the story we have written is that someone at work is lazy and avoids their work, we notice every time that happens and it confirms our story.   The times we see them diligently concentrating on a task we dismiss it and consider that to be unusual.  If we have written a story that says that someone disrespects us because we are female, every action is perceived as discriminatory.  You get the picture.

Wouldn't it be great if we could erase parts of our brain like you do sections of a hard drive?  Wouldn't it be awesome to have a completely blank story for each person?  Wouldn't it also be helpful if we didn't have others around us trying to write the story about others before we even get to know them?  But that isn't possible so we have to consciously choose to do things differently.

In some of our more difficult relationships, we may just need to do a refresh to our story web page and see if it has changed.  Maybe sharing your version of the story with the other person could be healing.  Something like, "Hey son.  When you come home and don't talk to me and then slam your door, I think it is because you are mad at me about asking you to do your chores.   It makes me feel bad that me asking you to do something simple causes you to be so angry."   The response in those conversations might surprise us.

Think about the relationships in your life.  Think about the ones where there is conflict or the relationship is strained.  Ask yourself what story you have in your head about that person and tell them the story, asking them if they see things the same way.   Whether your story was mostly wrong or mostly right, the result of the conversation would probably be surprising -- and beneficial -- to both of you.

Because after all, if I respect you, I should at least allow you to participate when I write the story of you in my head.


  1. Great post! Now I have another book to add to my list :)

  2. I haven't gotten past the first "story in your head" yet. I was laughing out out during the first couple sentences. That's me and my daughter. I can't wait to see your advice...and then try to implement it. (Your family systems stuff is interesting because my Mom has done that, even took a long series of seminars near DC a few years back. She was the Family Life Director for a couple Catholic dioceses until she retired a couple years ago. She'd talk about it with me just like you are blogging.)

  3. Two stories now of now the stories in my head were not what’s going on!
    A) I asked my daughter last night what is going thru her head when I remind her of chores. What do you know, it's NOT "What a NAG Mom is! She’s so annoying and I hate her." Instead, she's annoyed by the chore itself. So we’re going to work on making chores less annoying. (And on not being annoying to Mom, because it’s still poor manners to act that way!)

    B) Not due to your post, as this occurred earlier in the week, but it fits perfectly. My husband and I have different sleep schedules. I often have to go into the room while he's sleeping to get something or use the bathroom. He usually mumbles or asks what’s going on. I often don’t respond—because when I’m sleeping, I don’t want to have to talk and I assumed he doesn’t either and only wanted me to respond if I needed something from him. Turns out he’s the opposite—when I don’t respond, he then thinks something must be wrong and he wakes up more.

  4. Great examples AnnMarie! And yes, Judee ... it's a great book.