Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Stories we tell ourselves

What is your story in this moment? How is it influencing what you believe to be possible?

On her CD ‘Simple Gifts’, my friend and mentor Judy Ringer talks about ‘good reality’ and ‘bad reality’, describing how the same circumstances can look very different after a break and/or some rest. In an era in which we understand ‘spin’ and the unreality of ‘reality TV’, it’s often pertinent to examine things we regard to be ‘fact’ and ask: what is really happening here?

Some time ago I was working with a senior team, using dialogue practices to explore how they talked together with the intention to enable them to work more collaboratively with each other. Not unusually, these leaders had diverse priorities and styles. There was discord between their departments and a significant degree of criticism of each other’s performance. When things went awry, blame was quickly attributed.

As we touched on some of their differences, one team member described a customer’s frustration with a department led by one of his colleagues: they had failed to deliver a key input on time. Getting into his stride, he was scathing about the inadequacies of the team responsible.

The leader of the disparaged team tried to interject. Eventually she managed to ask some questions of clarification – she believed that all the customer’s requirements had been met, and on time. Whoever was ‘right’, it was clear was that her colleague had taken the customer’s perspective at face-value, rather than saying ‘let me look into that for you’. Influenced by a cultural narrative of discord and blame, he was prepared to accept the customer’s allegation and join in the condemnation of another part of his organisation.

Is this story familiar? Have you, as a leader, expressed seemingly justified irritation at the incompetence of colleagues, only to find that you only have part of the story? What influenced you to prefer an accusation over some fact-checking? Or perhaps you have been on the receiving end of such charges? What was the impact?

In the situation I am describing, it became clear that this behaviour was not confined to one member of the senior team. Across the organisation, there was an unhesitating readiness to see others to be at fault when things went wrong, particularly when adverse feedback came from outside the organisation. Each of the senior team contributed to this pattern to some degree.

When there seem to be two (or more) sides to a story, it’s helpful to understand how we create our ‘reality’. The human mind is (necessarily) selective about what it takes account of. We cannot possibly take in, and make sense of, all the sensory data that is available to us in any moment. Based on sensory preferences, past experiences, our beliefs, and other elements of our unique personal architecture, our brain filters what we pay attention to – some things are highlighted, others are discounted or ignored.

Using incomplete data, we quickly make sense of events, drawing on our life-to-date. In effect, we rifle through our library of experiences to find a useful ‘template’ for whatever we are facing. This is efficient and, mostly, good enough. However, there are potential pitfalls:

• Out of our awareness, current events may differ materially from the past experiences we use as a ‘template’ for a presenting situation; and/or
• Any ‘template’ comes with an ‘emotional tag’, which may significantly ‘colour’ our perception, nudging us towards a judgement that we are in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reality.

We often overlook these risks and rely on our rapid assessment. Our story swiftly becomes ‘fact’, and when we share it with friends or colleagues, it becomes more solid, more certain, further reducing our capacity for other interpretations. Confidence in our single truth limits potential and options – we become stuck in one side of a story.

Conceptual models can help in ‘unsticking’ adherence to a version of events and create space for a new narrative. I use the ‘Ladder of Inference’, developed by Chris Argyris, as a guide to loosening my grip on my story. If I can be mindful of how I filter incoming data, and how my beliefs, preferences and experiences influence my interpretation, I may be able to suspend my story for a moment, and imagine an alternative. For example, if I believe that a colleague is undermining me, I will see my encounters with her through this lens. With this awareness, I can ask myself: how would I interpret her words or actions if I believed she had a positive intent, such as trying to help?

As we internalise the notion that there is never ‘one truth’ in exchanges between people, we accept a need to triangulate any narrative about others and events. The senior team mentioned earlier agreed to be more generous to colleagues by giving them ‘the benefit of the doubt’ when a customer (or anyone else) derided part of the organisation. This meant they would ask those directly affected by a criticism for their perspective before forming a judgement as to what took place.

How do you check your own ‘reality’? If you are in a ‘bad reality’ today, how is it coloured by the stories you tell yourself? How might you re-tell your story with a more generous slant?

5 responses

  1. Judy Ringer says:

    Hi Amanda — thanks for the mention. And… thanks for a great article on the power of stories. We create our stories and, with them, our reality from moment to moment. What a great idea it is to create with consciousness and intentionality. Much ki! -Judy

  2. Carole says:

    Despite my best efforts to be impartial, I never cease to be amazed how much, the baggage I carry around with me influences my viewpoint on a given situation. The only way that I can drill down to get the full picture (and the real story) is to ask lots of questions. Sometimes asking questions can be uncomfortable for me if they are likely to expose my beliefs or prejudices. I can see that imagining alternatives to my own story before speaking and forming questions would be less uncomfortable for all.

    • Amanda Ridings says:

      Thanks Judy and I share some of your difficulties Carole.

      I hadn’t thought of what I do the way that Judy describes it – create with consciousness and intentionality – but yes, that does the trick. Sometimes we have to describe our world for someone else to help us recognise it!

      What I definitely do is to imagine many alternatives, without attachment to any of them, to create space to develop my curiosity about how another person IS experiencing the world. It also creates space for me to more easily access centre, if I am overly engaged in a particular version of ‘the truth’.

      What comes first, perspective or centre? For me, in highly charged situations, it is an iterative movement between the two…