Last week at the August session of the London Action Science Meetup we started with a discussion of the phrase “the story I’m making up…” I love this phrase! It captures the process of the Ladder of Inference, but it has an immediate emotional resonance that the ladder does not.
I came across this phrase from an unlikely source: Oprah.com. Now I’ve got nothing against Oprah, but this it just isn’t in a url that shows up a lot in my browser history! So the real credit goes to @frauparker, who is someone I clearly trust well enough to follow off into the well-scrubbed bright and shiny parts of the internet; in this case an article by Brené Brown on How to Reckon with Emotion and Change Your Narrative, an excerpt from her new book Rising Strong. The article is well worth reading but I’m going to take a look at it through the narrow lens of the action science workshops I’ve been leading.
For a few months now I’ve been leading weekly lunchtime workshops at TIM Group where anyone who is interested can join in a discussion of some two-column case study. This might be a canned case study, or one people recall and write down on the spot, but the best sessions have been when someone has come with something in mind, some conversation in the past or future that is bothering them. As a group then we try to help that person to explore how they were feeling, what they didn’t share and why, and how they might be more effective in the future. One of the common observations, and one this article reminded me of, is how hesitant the participants are to put their feelings into words. It seems we can almost always have a productive conversation by asking the series “How did you feel at that point?” followed by “Is there any reason you didn’t share that reaction?” These questions get quickly to the real source of our frustrations that are hiding back in the shadows. Bringing them into the light we find out something quite surprising: they were stories we were making up.
The article has good advice that will be familiar to students of action science and the mutual learning model, suggestions like separating facts from assumptions, and asking “what part did I play?” It also had a key action that is hidden in plain sight. Do you see it in this exchange from the article?
Steve opened the refrigerator and sighed. “We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat.” I shot back, “I’m doing the best I can. You can shop, too!” “I know,” he said in a measured voice. “I do it every week. What’s going on?”
As I read the remainder of the article from the author’s point of view it was easy to overlook the role Steve played here. It was his calm empathetic question that allowed the author to reply with the title phrase: “The story I’m making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.” I really struggle generating this kind of response, of not getting caught up with my own emotional reaction. So I admire what Steve accomplished here.
I’ve long said that “stories are the unit of idea transmission”. What I hadn’t realised before reading this article was how powerful I’d find using the word story to describe what is going on in my head. I’m really looking forward to practicing with this phrase in future conversations.