Finding Optimism: Deliberate Story Construction
In Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations we help participants understand how detrimental ugly stories can be to successful conversations or confrontations. For many of us, as soon as something that might be negative is occuring our mind gets busy constructing negative stories that may thwart our success and a future of achieving great results while building robust relationships.
What negative stories have you created around your employee engagements?
I have appreciated the work of Tony Schwartz for many years. Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. I have reposted a chunk from his blog post from the Harvard Business Review because it is so relevant to working with facts and stories. It demonstrates how the cultivation of more optimistic stories through a positive story construction ritual can help us navigate through challenges and help us quickly change course.
I had also become deeply interested in the difference between facts and stories. A fact is something irrefutable. It can be objectively verified by any person. A story is something we weave to make sense of the facts. We are meaning making creatures. We seek to understand.
The problem, I’d come to realize, is that these sorts of negative stories are dispiriting and disempowering. Meanwhile, negative emotions such as anger, fear and blame make it harder to think clearly and creatively, and can even be paralyzing.
Over the previous several months, I had begun experimenting with a new morning “ritual.” It was built around cultivating something called “realistic optimism” — namely the practice of telling the most hopeful and empowering story in any given situation, without denying the facts.
For years, when I woke up, my pattern had been to scan my mind until I fixed on some imagined difficulty I was facing that day. Then I started ruminating about what might go wrong. By the time I stepped out of bed, I was usually anxious and off balance.
The new ritual I built was to get out of bed when I awoke, go to my desk, and write down what I was worrying about — just the facts. Next, I wrote down the story I was telling myself about those facts. Finally, I worked to conceive a more realistically optimistic story I could tell myself, based on the same incontrovertible facts.
I did this every morning, dutifully, for several months, and it usually made me feel at least a little better. I also began to notice that the negative outcome I initially imagined rarely came to pass. Finally one morning I woke up, and as usual, a challenging issue for that day came into my mind. This time, however, before any negative story could take its usual place, a more realistically optimistic one occurred to me, effortlessly.
How about you? What stories do you automatically create around potential negative events or situations at home or at work? What would happen if you told yourself a more neutral or even an optimistic story about the same facts? You are not trying to change the facts while realizing there are many stories that can be told about the same facts. Would you benefit from a story construction ritual?
Try it for a few weeks. Carve out 5 to 10 minutes each day to write out the facts of one or two challenging situations. Write out the current story you are telling yourself? Now write an equally believable constructive or positive story about the same situation. After 3 or 4 weeks see if your emotions and actions around challenges and setbacks have changed.
End of story…or perhaps the beginning of a new story.