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How the Stories You Tell Yourself Hurt Relationships at Work

Storytelling is normal, but it can undermines healthy collaboration.

Key points

  • Our brains readily conjure explanations for negative events, and the stories we tell ourselves give rise to the emotions we feel.
  • Storytelling is normal, but it can also undermine healthy collaborative relationships at work.
  • It is possible to slow down your mind's natural tendency to move into storytelling mode by asking yourself some key questions.
Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash
Source: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Our brains are storytelling machines. They are wired to make sense of the world's messiness, making all the happenstance a bit less overwhelming and a bit more navigable by creating the impression that things are predictable.

When it comes to collaboration, this can be a big problem.

Three Aspects of Attribution

When a collaborator (or anyone, for that matter) doesn’t behave as expected, or when something goes wrong, our brains immediately start asking “Why?” Our brains are really quite adept at coming up with rich stories based on thin evidence.

According to attribution theory, these stories vary along three dimensions:

  • Locus of control. Was this outcome due to something about me or my actions (internal) vs. something or someone else (external)?
  • Stability. Was this outcome due to a persistent feature of a person or situation (stable) or was it due to something temporary (unstable)?
  • Controllability. Was this something that could have been avoided (controllable)? Or was it unavoidable (uncontrollable)?

The Problem with Storytelling

Misunderstandings, negative feelings, and counterproductive interactions kick up when we jump into negative storytelling about our collaborators:

  • They didn’t show up on time for the meeting because they’re inconsiderate jerks.
  • The process they proposed makes zero sense because they’re so clueless about how this business really works.
  • The draft report they wrote for the client was of embarrassingly low quality because they don’t give a hoot about this project or their impact on my reputation.

Gulp.

What if they were late because of horrendous traffic on the freeway? What if their process didn’t make sense because you had neglected to communicate key information about the context and constraints? What if they understood that the draft was just for the two of you to see and wanted to get as much clay on the proverbial table before sculpting the product?

Storytelling is normal, but it can also undermine healthy collaborations. As Liane Davey, author of The Good Fight, once told me, “Judgment is a given. What you do in the moment after you judge is what matters.”

How to Slow Down Storytelling

When you notice you’ve got a tidy answer at the ready about why collaborators behaved a certain way or why something negative happened, take a breath. Then slow down the storytelling by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What here is fact, fiction, fictionalized fact, and factualized fiction?
  • What situational factors might be at play?
  • In what ways might my information about the situation be incomplete or inaccurate?
  • What assumptions am I making about others, their abilities, intentions, values, and beliefs?
  • Can I come up with at least five other possible explanations for this situation?

First, merely asking yourself these questions serves as a reminder that we can rarely know why something happened just by glancing at the situation. Second, doing the “thinking work” involved in exploring these questions holds at bay the hot emotions that can easily kick up when we think we’ve been wronged. Third, these questions invite us to view the situation through different lenses.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves Give Rise to the Emotions We Feel

If you have ever tried on sunglasses at the department store, you know the power of different lenses. The color of the lenses in the sunglasses changes how we see everything around us. The lens we have on – that is, the story we choose to tell – informs how we see and evaluate the situation.

Left unchecked in our heads and hearts, these negative stories impact relationship quality (it’s hard to feel great about a relationship when you think the other person is a clueless inconsiderate jerk), increase the likelihood you’ll interpret their future behavior negatively (think the opposite of rose-colored glasses), make it more difficult for you to even notice, much less integrate, contrary evidence (confirmation bias strikes again), and dictate the emotions you feel.

Let me say that again: The stories we tell ourselves give rise to the emotions we feel. If you’ve been in therapy or have worked with mindfulness teachers, you’ve probably heard some version of “emotions are not reality,” “feelings aren’t facts,” or “your feelings are real, but they aren’t reality.” At the heart of these sayings is the insight that our emotions are the result of the stories we tell ourselves. And, powerfully, it’s easy to believe that the emotions we feel surely verify the accuracy of those stories.

Stories and emotions create a vicious cycle that can make it difficult to engage constructively when a collaborator violates expectations. Take ownership of your thoughts and emotions to help improve the quality of your collaborative relationships.

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