Facts vs. Stories

Last week, I talked about the Crucial Conversations training I recently attended and promised (threatened?) I’d be sharing more about it. There was just so much good stuff! In addition to stealing the term human engineering, one of the biggest lessons for me was the idea of fact vs. story. The premise is that facts themselves don’t get our emotions going – it’s the stories we tell ourselves about those facts that really affect us. For instance, if I get a card in the mail from a friend, that’s the fact. Getting the card itself doesn’t make me happy or sad. However, the story I tell myself about why she sent me the card is what makes me happy – my friend took time out of her day to get a card, write a kind message and then mail it to me because I’m a priority in her life. That’s the story. But wait, you say! Couldn’t it be a fact that I’m a priority in her life? Nope. It can be a true story, but it’s not a fact. A fact is something that actually happened. Facts can’t be argued. A story is something I tell myself based on my experience and observations – the context of our relationship, the nice message she wrote inside, that she knew I was having a rough week.

Here’s why this is so powerful to me – it’s so easy to go right to the negative stories. He didn’t return my email because he doesn’t care about my project. I didn’t get invited to the party because I’m not fun. She blew off the meeting because she’s scatter-brained and can’t keep her calendar straight. These are all the negative stories that we tell ourselves and they’re upsetting. To be fair to us poor humans, we’re wired this way – it’s not our fault. Telling stories is how we’ve evolved and how we make sense of the world. Fact: There is a growling sound and a rustling in the bush. Story: Last time I heard this sound and saw a rustling, my caveman friend got eaten by a large cat – I’m getting out of here. Stories keep us safe.

Stories, however, can also be our own downfall. We can easily cast ourselves in stories as the helpless victim and make someone else the villain. This happens in the blink of an eye. But mostly (and I do mean mostly – there are obviously exceptions), people are good and aren’t out to get you. He didn’t return my email because he’s traveling and his phone isn’t syncing with the email server. I didn’t get invited to the large party because the host knows I prefer more intimate dinner parties and she didn’t want me to feel obligated to come. She blew off the meeting because her boss came in with an emergency and she knew we could catch up later.

There are any number of stories we can tell ourselves about one small fact. That’s a helpful reminder to me when I feel attacked, forgotten or frustrated. I can get out of my negativity and ask the other person what’s going on. And that’s really the key – recognize the story you’re telling yourself and then check it out. You’ll stop yourself from getting into a downward spiral of negativity and you’ll get more parts to the story to form to a better understanding of what’s going on. And if there’s a problem and the story isn’t what you want it to be, that’s good news, too. You have the power to rewrite any story you’re involved in.

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