The stories that control our emotions
Through my work, I have participated in Crucial Conversations training. A program that breaks down and seeks to understand interpersonal communication, and more importantly: Gives you a framework in which to handle difficult situations in our professional and private life. In the following, I will elaborate on the underlying fundament of Crucial Conversations: Stories that control our emotions.
How do we act, when the dialogue turns bad?
For centuries economists around the world have told us that we, as human beings, act on pure rational logic. They argue that we constantly seek out the best offers, and consider every option carefully in order to gain utility. But is there such a thing as a truly rational human being?
I don't think so. Emotions drive us, and it is our feelings that get the best of us when we engage in tough dialogue. During a difficult conversation, we tend to either be silent or aggressive.
Think about it: If you encounter a stressful or awkward subject in a dialogue, do you sometimes keep your honest opinion to yourself? Or do you perhaps try to “win the battle” rather than make your point when opinions vary and things get heated?
These are things to look out for, but I actually want to start somewhere different, because the difficult conversation can be caught beforehand. It starts with stories we create based on assumptions, which fuel bad emotions.
Let's take an example...
The misunderstood coworker
You and a coworker have been working on a larger project, which is to be presented to top management. During the presentation, your coworker takes complete control and makes all the points that you have found together. When management turns to you for input, there is nothing of real relevance to say. You feel humiliated and furious. In the post-presentation period, you feel neglected and you try to avoid your colleague that you feel frustrated with.
What is happening here?
You’re held as a hostage by your own feelings, completely ignoring the assumptions that you have created. The feelings form the basis of a story: That your coworker is selfish, that he does not trust you, and that he does not care one bit about your cooperation. The solution - to become silent and fail to express your feelings - does not help you or your colleague. Moreover, these stories can turn into behavior, which will eventually damage the collaboration.
Looking for stories
In general, stories give us a rationale for explaining what's happening. We sometimes use stories to justify our behavior. They might not even be entirely correct, as we tend to bend the truth to our own advantage. These “clever stories” give us a false sense of security, and make us feel comfortable, but they are dangerous. Especially because they occur without us thinking about it.
There are three different stories that we tell ourselves:
The victim: We tell ourselves that the counterpart is bad or wrong, while we are good and right. Often we use this story to neglect our own role in the work, thus making ourselves appear as a bigger victim than we really are.
The crook: Here, we create a bad motive by telling the whole world how big a crook the opponent is. For example, our boss, who is very conscious of quality, may become a “strict control freak”.
The helpless: We tell ourselves that we are powerless and unable to do anything, which justifies that we act passively. For instance: "If I tell the boss he's just defensive, so I'd rather not be."
So how can we handle the stories?
We have to catch ourselves in generating these stories. Therefore, it is important that you understand your feelings in order to identify potentially harmful behavior. This is easier said than done, as most people find it difficult to express their feelings, and often it is a mix of more emotions.
For example, if you were asked about the incident with the coworker, you might answer: "I'm angry," when in reality you feel humbled and overwhelmed by the colleagues’ behavior. It is absolutely central to try to translate these feelings. Only in this way can you pinpoint what is happening and why.
It is also about separating emotions from facts and focusing on behavior. For example, your coworker has spoken 90% of the time, while you have only spoken 10%. The quantitative fact is something other attending the meeting can confirm, while the statement "He does not trust me" explains only what you think – not necessarily what is going on.
So be sure to look out for these stories, the feelings they lead to, and ultimately the resulting behavior, which can hurt colleagues, friends, or family.