True Story:

I remember a moment many years ago when I was having a series of crises. I was 30 years old. A long-term relationship had just ended in a difficult way. I had moved to a new city where I did not know anyone. I had started a job I wasn’t sure I liked. I had rented a place to live that I couldn’t really afford, and I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor because I didn’t have the money to buy furniture. Then I discovered my new home was infested with fleas.

I took all my clothes to the laundromat a few blocks from where my new job was located and put them in a washing machine. I ran out of my office an hour later and put my clothes in the dryer, then ran back to the office. When I went out again an hour later to get my clothes out of the dryer, I discovered that someone had stolen them.

I still remember, many years later, what it felt like going back to work. I sat quietly in my office at the company I had joined less than a week ago. My head was in my hands. I had no friends or family for hundreds of miles. I felt very vulnerable and very alone. I had to figure out on my own why all these things were happening and what to do about them. Why did I seem to be making a series of bad decisions? Should I have taken the job? Should I have moved so far from friends and family? Why did I rent such an expensive place to live in when I couldn’t afford it?

Then I had an a-ha moment.

In the 10 years before the current crisis, I had some tough times, including both of my parents dying. I had to be strong and independent and take care of myself. I had a belief that said, “I am a strong person. I can handle any crisis.” I realized that I was (unconsciously) making decisions that would eventually cause more crises, at least partly so I could overcome them to prove to myself that I was strong. I had a belief that I was a strong person who could overcome all obstacles. I had a persona of a strong, independent person. That persona had been helpful and useful. I’d had a series of setbacks and I needed to think of myself as strong in order to make it through.

But the persona and the story around it had outlived its usefulness. The story and persona had become problems. I realized that I needed to change the story, so I could change my persona. I knew that if I could change both my story and my persona, then I would start to make different decisions. And, in turn, those decisions would result in an easier life with fewer obstacles. I would find myself making decisions that resulted in easier and more pleasant outcomes.

I said out loud: “My life is easy and graceful.” I took a few minutes and wrote down how my life was going to be different, about the type of person I would need to be in order for my life to be easy and graceful, about the things I would do differently if I were the kind of person who had an easy and graceful life. I would ask people for help—not just friends and family, but even people I didn’t know well. I wrote a new story for my new persona.

One of my new coworkers walked by my office, leaned her head in and said, “How’s it going?” The old persona would have put on a brave face and said, “Great, it’s all great!” But the new persona said, “Well, actually, not so well.”

I proceeded to tell her the story of the fleas and the laundromat. It turned out that she had an extra bedroom in her apartment, and she invited me to stay there while I got everything sorted out. I called my landlord. He tried fumigating the place while I stayed with my co-worker. When he wasn’t successful in getting rid of the fleas, I talked him into letting me out of the lease. My coworker became a friend, and suggested that I move in with her instead of looking for another place. I saved money and gained a new friend. She helped me adjust to my new city, and introduced me to her friends. I began to make decisions that would make my life easier. And, in fact, my life turned around and did get a lot easier. I learned how to ask for help and rely on others. I had changed my story. I had changed my persona. I was no longer a “strong person ready to handle crises.” I was “a person ready to accept help and depend on friends.”

What The Research Says:

Many years later I discovered that there is research that proves the power of stories to shape personal stories, personas, and, by extension, to change beliefs, behaviors, and lives. In his book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, Timothy Wilson talks about the research on “story editing.” Here’s the definition from his book:

"a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior"

I didn’t realize it when I was going through my experience with the fleas and the laundromat, but I was using story editing to change my behavior. I had used story editing on myself.

In my book How To Get People To Do Stuff I have an entire chapter on stories. In fact I say in the book that no idea in the book is more powerful than the idea of using stories to affect behavior. Everything we do is related to a story we have about who we are and how we relate to others. A lot of these stories are unconscious. Whether conscious or unconscious, our stories about ourselves deeply affect how we think and behave.

Story Editing

If you can get people to rewrite their story related to what it is you want them to do, this is likely to result in large and long-term change. Story editing has been used to help with post-traumatic stress disorder, and with teens at risk. But it can also be effective in getting an employee to come in to work on time, or to switch from being a solo “hot dog” to being a collaborative team player.

The technique of story editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. Many of the techniques in my How To Get People To Do Stuff book describe strategies for getting people to do stuff that are a lot of work, even to change a somewhat simple behavior. If it’s that much work to change a simple behavior, then how can it be easy to change a whole life in a few minutes?

Story editing is so powerful that it can seem like magic, but it’s not. When we write a new story that describes who we are, why we behave as we do, and how we relate to others, that story changes our persona, and we will, consciously and unconsciously, start to make decisions and act in ways that are consistent with that story.

Story Prompting

But what if you can’t get someone to stop, think, and write out a new story? Does that mean that you can’t use the powerful effect of stories? Luckily the answer is no. Even if you can’t get someone to sit down and write out a new story, you can provide a story for them, and that’s almost as good.

Timothy Wilson describes his research on “story prompting”. Here’s a summary of the technique: You can get people to change their behavior in big ways, and with a small amount of effort if you can do a reasonably good job at:

  1. Guessing the current story that is operating and influencing their behavior
  2. Coming up with an alternate story
  3. Figuring out a way to expose them to the new story

In his research Timothy Wilson used a 30-minute video of people telling their own story that resulted in their own behavior change. When people in his study watched the videos they could put themselves in the other person’s “shoes”. They were discovering a new story for themselves and comparing it to the story they had been using (and probably didn’t realize they had). They then adopted the “new” story and their behavior changed radically and permanently. 

Try It Out

The next time you want to change behavior, try exposing people to the stories of others so they’ll be encouraged to discover new stories of their own.

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