The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Last week at HOW Design Live I was lucky enough to see Dr.Brené Brown speak.

This was A Big Deal for me.

I’ve been fangirling over Dr. Brown’s work since I discovered it about a year and a half ago. I was so excited to see her speak I forgot to tell friends I was going to the conference because I was speaking.

I promised my wife that if I had the chance to meet Dr. Brown during the conference I’d introduce myself, thank her for her inspiration, and ask for a picture with her. I’d be brave.

Well, guess what?

I met Brené Brown!

I met Brené Brown!

What was even more amazing is that she spoke about something I’ve been thinking and talking about a lot recently: the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of situations.

In particular, the stories we tell ourselves about conflict. “That guy’s a jerk” or “she’s always difficult.” The way we fill in the gaps of our knowledge with seemingly helpful information that actually makes it harder to resolve the conflict we’re faced with.  Who wants to compromise with a jerk or let someone get away with bad behavior again?

These stories happen so naturally that often we don’t even notice that they’re stories and not facts. We automatically assume the reason they sent the email at 4:58pm was because they wanted to avoid our response. Or we fervently believe that Sue in accounting is just plain lazy because we’ve never been paid fewer than 15 days late.

And yes, some people are jerks; some people are lazy. But running off of these assumptions, instead of checking in and asking what’s up, can actually get in the way of our ability to resolve conflict. Too often than not, it fosters conflict. We take our assumptions of jerkitude or laziness and act on them as if they were fact.

Next time you’re in a conflict that seems to have no end, or is jarring and seems to come out of no where, do these things:

  • Step back and figure out what you know. Just the facts, ma’am. No assumptions, presumptions or suppositions. A fact is “They rejected my rate of $120/hour” not, “They rejected my rate of $120/hour because they’re stingy.” They might very well be stingy, but that’s not your focus at the moment. Just the facts.
  • Write out what your assumptions are because of those facts. This is where you get to vent! Sue is lazy because it takes her three days to return phone calls. Tim is a jerk because he’s never willing to budge on his positions. If you notice that you have a number of facts that are outliers, that don’t seem to support your hypothesis, that’s a really good indication that there is something going on that you can’t see from your perspective.
  • Identify who you could talk to to test out your hypothesis. Spoiler: often this is the person you are making assumptions about. If it’s really not possible to talk to them, talk to someone who knows them. Last resort: talk to a peer who’d be familiar with this type of situation. Explain the facts and what it’s leading you to assume (if you’re talking to the person, be diplomatic). Ask them to give you their read on the situation.

If you talk to the person who’s driving you batty, make sure you’re ready to have the conversation. That means that you’re not currently spun up and likely to say something out of frustration. You’re calm (or at least, calmer) and you’re in a space where you feel safe.

“Monique, something’s bothering me and I want to check in with you about it before it gets out of hand. I noticed that you rejected all of the revisions I requested, which surprised me. Can you give me more insight on why that happened?”

You don’t have to sugar coat the fact that you’re annoyed by what they’ve done or said; you can be honest that it’s annoying, confusing or frustrating. You just also have to admit that your reaction is an assumption at the moment, and that you want more information before you do anything else.

Other helpful questions and phrases:

“This is making me assume X, but I don’t want to rely only on my assumptions so I wanted to talk with you. What was your intent?”

“If you can give me more insight on what’s influencing this negotiation/decision on your end, I can work on putting together a proposal that works well for both of us. Right now, I can’t tell what’s going on.”

“It seems like when I said X that spurred a really negative reaction. Can you tell me why?”

By checking your assumptions, and not depending too heavily on those stories you’re telling yourself, you can address issues in a negotiation quickly and much more effectively.

It takes bravery to have these kinds of conversations, to be sure, but the potential benefit is great. You can improve the relationship, learn helpful information about the negotiation, or even just discover that this is absolutely not the right client for you. But for any of that to happen, you have to step back and take the time to question the stories you’re telling yourself about the negotiation.

Want to read more of what Dr. Brown teaches? I highly suggest The Gifts of Imperfection, especially for folks doing creative work. Her HOW Design talk was based on her new book, Rising Strong, about getting up after failure, out this August (2015). You can find all her books here.

Categories: Self Awareness Tools

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One response to “The Stories We Tell Ourselves”

  1. […] Katie Lane—a very personal post on the effect of Dr. Brene Brown’s talk […]

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