Our brains love to tell stories! Our brains are masters at it. Stories are how we organize our thoughts and explain the emotions our bodies feel. It's natural for us to want to make sense of the world around us and the world within us.
If you meditate you know what I mean. As a beginning meditator, you are told to find a comfortable sitting posture, close your eyes and focus on your breath. When your mind wanders, which it will, bring it back to your breath. If you haven't meditated before, give it a try for a minute and see what happens.
Our minds wander in story. It's our default programming, the way we gain control and making meaning of the events in our lives. Our brains believe whatever story we are telling ourselves right at this moment. You could be replaying a story from the past or dreaming of something in the future. It doesn't matter. The current moment is real.
Stories show up in so many places in our lives:
- Why we did/ didn't something
- Why we should/ shouldn't do something
- Why someone else did/ didn't do something
- How it happened
- The reason it happened
- The reason it didn't happen
Stories explain. Stories take our feelings and the data we selected to prove whatever we are thinking at the moment.
Here's the thing. We can use this to our advantage, by choosing different stories and better yet by practicing dropping the story altogether.
Getting Lost in Our Stories
I was working with a client who wanted to give an employee on her team feedback about how their actions are impacting the rest of the team. I listened as they shared their story with me. The first story was all the facts of what happened. What followed was another story. The second story was all about my client, the conclusions she had made, her reasons for not wanting to give the feedback, and her concerns about the team.
The second story was the one causing all the trouble. I could hear the fear, doubt, and concern that confused them. My client was telling herself all the reasons it would be better to not give feedback. The list was long and important, but what was most important was the feeling that came up.
If We Choose to and Believe, We Can.
Stories are powerful, beautiful and liberating! We tell ourselves a story, our brain believes it and we can go off to do brilliant things. If you tell yourself you are enough and worth more money, you will negotiate a better salary. If you believe you aren't enough, you'll say yes when you want to say no. Our stories are powerful. Our stories aren't always real.
So what if you dropped the story?
After my client was done sharing their story, I asked them how they were feeling. They were feeling scared and concerned. Instead of jumping into action we sat with the fear and concern. Every time a story came up, we revisited what they were feeling. Once their feelings were seen, felt and moved she was able to make different decisions.
The Ladder of Inference
One of the first models I learned in my Master's program was the Ladder of Inference which was first used by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and then by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The Ladder of Inference describes the thinking process that we go through, usually without realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. The stages look something like this (with the first rung added by me)
The ladder is missing a bottom rung- it's the emotion in our bodies and what we are feeling. It's our emotions that make us jump to a selected reality from the facts. The stories we tell move us up the ladder in seconds.
As leaders, our life-long work is to learn for ourselves how to stay at the bottom of the ladder and to coach others to do the same. The more time we can stay with our feelings and reality, the more creativity and choices we have available to us, and the less judgment and false stories we will spin.
Be With Your Feelings First
Next time you catch yourself ranting in your head about your day at work, or the person who just cut you off in traffic, or how you'll never get everything done today; try climbing down the ladder.
- Take a deep breath and come back to the moment and your body.
- Ask yourself how am I feeling? Practice naming an emotion. To get you started here are the basics: happy, sad, scared, disgusted, angry and surprised.
- Feel the emotion. Scan your body and name what you are feeling and where. Give yourself the opportunity to feel them. This is where the work begins.
- When you start to tell a story, breathe and come back to the feeling.
- Ask yourself what do I need right now or what do I want? Hint here, if your answer starts with I need them to, drop "them to" and identify what you need. Often we need to feel safe, seen and understood, or to belong.
About the Author
Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.