Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Power of the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I wasn’t long out of nursing school when the dynamic on the floor I was working on went down a poisonous path. They were between managers and somehow all of the staff had turned against each other and EVERYONE blamed EVERYONE ELSE for the situation. No one could see any way to change their behavior unless someone else’s behavior changed first.

A senior manager was called in to help sort things out and this manager told the staff that they not only could change their behavior, but they were responsible to—whether or not anyone else EVER changed. This statement met with blank stares and hostility. No one could imagine how this could work.

To illustrate her point she showed us a video of a woman displaying absolutely HORRIBLE behavior. The woman was stomping around, cursing, threatening and carrying on, it was upsetting to watch. The manager stopped the film and asked us what should be done about this person.

Well our staff was incensed at the behavior they had seen. They said the woman should be spoken to, limits should be set, she should be asked to leave, consequences should be levied, victims should be defended. Our manager wrote all of this down.

Then she told us that the next video we were going to see would probably upset us as well. She said that the gal in the film had just found out that her son was gravely ill, she was having serious financial issues and had just had a fender-bender on her way in.

Then she turned on the video. Guess what? She showed us the exact SAME video.

When she stopped the film again she once again asked what should be done about this woman. As you might imagine, the answers were completely different: Find her someone to talk to… see if she has a ride home… have the social worker share some of her community resources with her…

Of course she pointed out that our answers had changed completely in tone and in content. And everyone said it was because they now understood the woman. Our manager pointed out that we had completely changed our response toward a person even though that person had not changed their behavior first—or at all.

It isn’t the events of our life that shape our experiences or reactions, it’s the story we tell ourselves that makes the difference.

In her book, The Journey of a Lifetime: Leadership Pathways to Culture Change in Long Term Care, author Nancy Fox tells the story of research done by Princeton University psychologists where they tested seminary students to see if they would stop and help someone in need that they passed as they crossed campus. They told the students that they were needed across campus to do a task, some of them they even primed by reading them the story of the Good Samaritan, some they told they were late, some they told they had plenty of time.

They tried many variations and the single determining factor of whether the students would stop or not stop to help someone was whether or not they were in a hurry.

It wasn’t the situation, it wasn’t the need of the person on the ground, it was the story they told themselves in the moment…

This is why, in the book Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al. part of the preparation for holding ‘crucial conversations’ with others is asking yourself, “Why might a reasonable person be acting the way this person is?” To communicate effectively it is important that the story you are telling yourself sets you up to be receptive and respectful.

You can see the power of the stories people tell themselves play out in a million ways:

• In our town is a grocery chain that I frequent regularly and another I avoid like the plague. In the first everyone there is trying TO help me, it the other everyone is trying NOT to help. One treats their customers as the reason for their business, the other treats customers as if they are a necessary, but annoying evil.
Last week in NY a man with Cerebral Palsy was left on the bus overnight in the freezing cold allegedly by a driver and a matron who had finished their shift and had other places to be. It seems, instead of telling themselves they were helping a young man get home, they believed they were working a shift—a shift that ended before their work ran out, apparently.
• In other bus-related incidents Dave Hingsburger had two very different bus experiences. In the first he left was outside in the winter weather by a driver who felt he had completed his job by bringing him to the correct address. In the second, a different driver made an extra effort to make the trip accommodate what his riders really needed.
• In my blogroll over to the right there are blogs by many adults with disabilities who assert their passion for living their lives—as they are—with every word they write. Then there is the heartwrenching story of Dan James. His disability was not what was extraordinary in the realm of disabilities, rather, it was the story that he and his family believed about disability that led him to kill himself with his family’s help.
• Back when Burt Holbrook was a child the narrative about Down syndrome was that babies should be given away before they destroy their families, that they should be “with their own kind,” that they could never learn to read or write or work… Look what changing those narrative has wrought for Burt and for others.

Our personal narratives determine the quality of our personal interactions, affecting the narratives of a group is leadership, and affecting the narratives of a culture changes society.

Picture from here. (Well check out the picture, because I love it, but I can't get it to load... will try again later.)


rickismom said...

As always, an excellent post! This also applies to children! If you have in mind that your child is being a "good boy" today, you will probably see his further behavior in that light. And if the fellow has been a terror all day, even good behavior can be interpreted negatively ("He's trying to butter me up", etc)

Krishanna said...

I always enjoy your blog but I really enjoyed this post. So much so that I am sharing it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy your blog but I really enjoyed this post. So much so that I am sharing it. Thanks!

Terri said...

Thank you, ladies.

I agree, we can use our stories to ske!w (and even ruin) our relationships with anyone, including our children.

I am glad, Krishanna, that you are sharing this! Thanks

Randy said...

Wow! "The Power..." is better than a mid-morning splash of cold water on the face to re-focus the mind. Thank you Terri, thank you Krishanna.