TL;DR: Between our observations and our emotional response, there is often something else: We tell ourselves a story that explains the observations. If we are not careful, we treat our story as fact, and let it affect our communication skills. In critical situations, you have to master your stories if you want to have effective and constructive conversations.
Bob is angry. He was put on an important project with Natalie, and they agreed to communicate closely. But now, she keeps doing things on her own. First, she announced department-wide that they had to postpone the launch date without telling him beforehand. Then, he learnt of two occasions when she reported to their supervisor, Steven, about the project alone, when they agreed they would always report together.
Some nasty thoughts intrude on Bob’s mind: “Natalie wants all the attention. She wants to be the face of this project. She will stab my back as soon as she gets the chance. We are both working hard on this, but she probably thinks she is somehow better than me, and deserves all the credit. From now on, I will only talk to her if I really must.”
A story is told
This does not look like the beginning of a wonderful working relationship. Bob is pretty upset. Natalie makes him really angry. Or does she? In Crucial Conversations, we learn that between Bob’s observation (Natalie talks to Steven alone) and his emotional response (he is angry), there lies Bob’s interpretation of the things he observed. Bob does not simply observe, but he tells a story to himself that puts the observed events in context and explains them.
This habit is difficult to prevent, because this seems hard-wired into our brains. Without actively resolving to do so, we reason about what we see and hear, and we try to find cause-and-effect explanations. The stories we tell ourselves provide these explanations. However, it is important to be aware that the story we come up with is often merely one of many possible ways that things could have happened. If you are aware that you are telling a story, and if you remain open to alternative possibilities, you increase the chances of a favourable resolution. The authors of “Crucial Conversations” call this skill mastering your stories.
Storytelling gone wrong
In the example above, Bob does not master his stories. On the contrary, his story totally owns him. He comes up with his explanation, and treats it as a fact: Natalie is only interested in her career, she wants all the credit to herself and downplays Bob’s contribution behind his back. As a result, Bob clams up and will not talk to Natalie any more. Or, maybe just as bad, he seeks an angry conversation with Natalie. Since he treats his story as fact, I imagine this conversation would go something like this:
Bob: “Natalie, I’ve had enough. This is the second time in a week that you go behind my back. I have to let you know that I won’t take it any more. From now on, you do your thing, but don’t expect any favours from me.”
Natalie: (somewhat confused) “Wait, Bob, what do you mean? Going behind your back? What are you talking about?”
Bob: “You can play innocent as long as you like, but I’m not falling for it. You want all the credit to yourself? Fine. Go for it. But then you’re on your own. I’ll do my part, and you do yours.”
Natalie: (now more irritated than confused) “I am not sure what has gotten into you, but if your point was to insult me, fine, mission accomplished, congratulations! Maybe you are right, and it’s better if we stay clear of each other.”
Ouch. Not the most pleasant nor the most productive of conversations. With that opening of Bob’s, it was probably doomed from the start. The problem is that Bob starts with his feelings, not with his observations. He has been brooding over his story of “Natalie the villain” for so long already that it is an unquestioned part of his world view. Natalie, on the other hand, has no clue, and is totally unprepared for Bob’s outburst.
The path to action
To better illustrate the different states of mind of Bob and Natalie, the following diagram shows the sequence of events that lead from Bob’s observations to his actions:
The problem with Bob’s communication is that he starts in the right half of the sequence: He feels angry and betrayed, and acts by starting a heated conversation with Natalie. Bob’s feelings are a result of the story he told himself. Natalie, in turn, has no idea how Bob arrived at his conclusions, because she does not know his story. She does not even know the observations that Bob is referring to. In other words, she is at the far left end of the diagram. Confused at first, she soon becomes irritated, because Bob’s accusations seem unfair and ungrounded to her.
Begin at the beginning
What could Bob have done differently? As with all critical feedback, it is best to recount your facts and observations first. In the diagram above, this means starting on the left side:
- First, describe what you observed, heard, or otherwise perceived. Be concrete and stay factual, without judging.
- Then, tell your story. Make it clear that it is only one possible interpretation.
In our example of Bob and Natalie, this could look like this:
Bob: “Natalie, can I talk to you for a second? There is something that I keep thinking about, and I feel that it is starting to affect our working relationship. I want us to have a good working relationship, and that’s why I would like to discuss it. Is that all right with you?”
Natalie: “Yes, sure. What is it?”
Bob: “See, last week, you announced to everybody that we would postpone the launch date. At the beginning of this project, we agreed that we would align on all external communication so that we’re on the same page, and I cannot remember that we aligned on this. Then, I learnt that you reported twice already about the project status to Steven without me.”
Bob has now done a pretty decent job at step one: He told Natalie what he observed, and strictly stuck to the facts. There is no denying these facts, so Natalie should not feel insulted or attacked in any way.
Bob even scores some extra points by establishing a certain level of safety in the conversation: Right at the beginning of the conversation, he makes his good intentions clear (“I want us to have a good working relationship”). Natalie is probably a bit surprised by Bob approaching her like that, but she knows now that Bob is not about to attack her, so she will hopefully relax and stay open.
Storytelling gone right
Of course, now comes the critical part, which is Bob’s story. Natalie might not like what she hears, so it depends a lot on how exactly Bob voices his concerns.
Bob: “I am starting to wonder if you are intentionally withholding certain things from me. I am asking myself if you do not trust me enough, or if you think I am not capable enough and if you don’t value my opinion. Also, when you talk to Steven about the project without me, it looks to me as if you are taking credit for work that we both did. Can you help me understand?”
Natalie: (looking a bit embarrassed) “No, no. That’s not at all what I wanted. Let me try to explain. First of all, I am not trying to withhold information from you. I am sorry if you got this impression. I announced the delayed launch date without aligning with you, because you were on sick leave that day, and I thought it better not to bother you. I got some new information from one of the developers that made the previous launch date unrealistic, and I wanted to manage everybody’s expectations right away so that other teams could plan accordingly. Then, I forgot to keep you in the loop about it. I’m sorry about that. You know that this is my first project management job, and sometimes I forget to inform people. I promise I will work on it.”
Bob: “I see.”
Natalie: “About my conversations with Steven, one of them was pretty ad-hoc. Steven ran into me in the hallway. He was in a hurry, because he was on his way to a meeting where he was supposed to give an update on our project, so he asked me for the latest status. I told him about the great progress the teams have been making that week, so he was really pleased. But I am not trying to take credit for work that is not mine.
The other time… well, the other time was not really about the project. It was more about my performance. I was asking Steven for feedback on how I am doing in my first project management role. I was a bit insecure, and I guess I needed some reassurance. Naturally, we talked a bit about the project, but it was more of a review. I was not reporting.”
Now that is a whole different story, literally. Bob now understands Natalie’s side of things, and knows that there was no malice in her behaviour. He did a good job telling his story that invited Natalie to share her view. Had he presented it as a solid fact (“You are going behind my back and want all the credit to yourself!”), Natalie would probably not have received it as well. Instead, Bob used tentative language that made it clear that his view of things was not the only truth there could be:
- “I am starting to wonder…“
- “I am asking myself…“
- “It looks to me as if…“
This tentative language is not about watering down your concerns. The other person will still get your point. This language serves as an invitation to the other person to share her view, in order to get the complete picture.
During the rest of the conversation, Bob clarifies that, in case of something as important as postponing the launch date, he wants to be consulted beforehand even when he is sick. Additionally, they agree on some more ground rules for their collaboration. Communication between them is restored, and they can continue to work together productively, and a little more trustfully. The entire conversation took maybe five minutes, but it was, well, crucial.
Do not stop half-way
By the way: One part of mastering your stories is to “tell the rest of your story”. When we get emotional, we tend to focus on what the other person did or failed to do. However, in a lot of cases, there is also something that we did or failed to do. For example, Bob could have brought up the issue of Natalie’s unilateral announcement sooner.
In order to tell the rest of his story, Bob could have asked himself these questions:
- “What am I pretending not to know about my role in the problem?” Bob let his frustration build up instead of holding Natalie accountable early.
- “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?” Maybe Natalie was under pressure from somewhere when she announced the late launch date. Maybe it was not her who sought the conversation, but Steven.
- “What should I do right now to move toward what I really want?” I should definitely talk to her about my concerns instead of becoming more angry and silent.
These questions force us to put our angry story into perspective and view the situation from a different angle. Then, when the crucial conversation comes, we will be more open, better prepared, and not fully controlled by our emotions.
Mastering your stories is a vital skill when you are upset or angry with what somebody else did. Instead of letting frustration, anger, and disappointment build up, it is a lot more productive to open yourself up to the possibility that there might be an alternative explanation, and then — and only then — confront the other person to hear their story. In doing so, it is important to use careful language that signals the other person that you do not think you know the full truth. In short: Tell your story, but know that it is a story!
I worked on this blog post for about 5.5h.