The Stories We Tell

Woman sitting at table in a restaurant talking to a man across from her

I facilitate a workshop on how to deal with difficult conversations with students, whether individually or with a full class. One of the things that we talk about is the stories that we tell in such situations. There are three types:

  1. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – these are the ones like, “I always say the wrong thing in these situations” or “I don’t know enough about this topic but I don’t want anyone to know” or “I’m right and they need to just accept it.” In the first two cases we often try to avoid the difficult conversation, even if that might cause more harm in the long-run. In the third case, we tune out what others are saying, which also often causes harm.
  2. The stories we tell ourselves about others – these are the assumptions that be make based on stereotypes or past experiences with the person where we may not have seen the real them or based on something someone else told us about them. Even if the assumptions are positive, they may not be accurate and can get in the way of honest and productive conversations.
  3. The stories other people tell about us – just as we make assumptions about others, they do the same, but about us. Again, their assumptions may not be accurate and could get in the way of dealing with difficult conversations.

So how do we deal with these stories?

  1. Try to get in the habit of asking yourself if you’re telling yourself stories about the people involved (including yourself) that may not be accurate.
  2. Listen, really listen to what other people are saying.
  3. Ask questions to get clarification about what others are saying? Good intentions can get lost in bad communication.
  4. Be honest if you don’t know something. Just as asking for help is a sign of strength, so is admitting that you’re still learning.
  5. Respectively tell others if they express assumptions about you or others that aren’t correct. I say “respectively” because they may still be learning too. Plus, screaming at someone rarely changes their opinion of you or on the topic.

We’re all having a lot more difficult conversations these days. Are these tips going to help you talk with your cousin who believes that the Earth is flat and COVID is simultaneously a hoax and a bio weapon created by a some evil doers? Nope, but they will help in less extreme situations so keep these in mind.

Featured image courtesy of Rawpixel Ltd under a CC-BY license.

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