Telling Stories

One of the women I coach at one of my client firms was telling me a story earlier this month about another individual in her office. She was sharing some “odd” behaviors that this person was displaying, and then explaining to me her view on what was going on with that individual. The person was lashing out at people in meetings and generally being disruptive and difficult. My client told me that it was because the person was fed up with the craziness in their work environment and was finally losing their cool because of how dysfunctional it all was.

It doesn’t always happen like this, but we had occasion to find out the real story with the person this past week. It turns out that the person has a close family member who is very, very ill. The doctors are not sure what’s wrong, and the situation has become extremely stressful for everyone involved. The person “lashing out” has not been able to sleep, and was taking some medication to try and calm their nerves.

Now, as you read this blog, take a minute to re-read what’s just been written here. My coaching client had a “story” all made up about her colleague: Their behavior was a direct result of the dysfunctional environment they are currently working within. My client viewed this behavior as validation that her workplace is nuts. She used this as an example of what can happen to someone if they work too long in this situation.

And yet, the story wasn’t true. The person’s behavior had absolutely, positively nothing to do with the workplace at all. The person acting out was reacting to circumstances in their own life that they were having trouble managing.

This is a great microcosm of what we do all day long, every single day, when we interact with others, try and read behavior, and make up stories about what’s really going on. The dynamic unfolds like this:

  1. We have a certain set of beliefs. In my client’s case, she believes her workplace is toxic and leads to distress.
  2. We observe someone’s behavior or something in the environment. In this case she saw her colleague (who was normally fairly mild-mannered) behaving erratically.
  3. We interpret what we see through our filters, which are already clogged with what we think we know to be true.
  4. We make up a story about what’s really happening based on a few facts, and little data.
  5.  And, if we are willing to admit it, in many, many cases we learn we are wrong.

Think about how this situation could have unfolded. If my client were a gossiper and talker, she would have been telling all of the other workmates about the person in question and about how they were struggling to deal with the toxic environment. The person could have been painted by management or their boss as “not on board” and the other employees could have used it as a rallying cry for mutiny! In any event, as the emotions attached to the situation began to gather steam and become more intense, it would not have ended well for anyone. And this is including my client, who could have been seen as the instigator.

This week, become aware of the stories you tell yourself about what you observe. We too often take an objective situation and instead of inquiring about it, or using it as a chance to learn more about what’s happening, we make up our own stories and consider what we see to be fact.

Catch yourself as you filter and interpret. Ask whether there could be other stories connected to what you see.