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Just Making Up Stories

Posted by Tim under Personal

(This post is adapted from something I previously put on Facebook)

In his book, Clear Leadership, author Geravase Bushe explains that we are wired to make sense of the world around us. We are meaning-making machines. We want, we need facts that help us understand what is happening in our world.

In the absence of facts, we start to fill in the gaps of our knowledge with stories that make sense to us. The stories we tell ourselves then take on meaning and become the reality in which we live.

This happens to all of us on a daily basis. A friend doesn’t speak to us at the water cooler at work. We wonder what the problem is. We start looking around inside our heads for scenarios that make sense. We settle on, “they are made at me for something I said yesterday.” We think about it. We analyze it. We decide it makes sense. And that becomes our reality. We don’t have all the facts, like the fact that they just received a phone call that a loved one is in the hospital in another state and not expected to live. They are preoccupied with their problem of whether or not to take off work and travel the 800 miles to see this person before they die, or wait and attend the funeral. No. We are settled on the “fact” that is about something we said.

There are two things we have to understand about this storytelling we do to ourselves according to Bushe. First of all, nearly all of the stories we make up are negative. Second, nearly all of them are wrong. But that story is now our reality, and we begin to feel badly toward someone over a story that has no basis in real facts. Yet, it is a settled reality in our minds.

When my wife and I would discuss problems with our children, or between ourselves, or about things at work, we began to change our vocabulary after discussing this book. We went from “this is what is happening,” to “the story I’ve made up is this.” It seemed more honest, and demonstrated an understanding that we don’t have all the facts, the story is negative, and the story is probably wrong.

This happens many times in news reporting. They are so quick to get a story on the air, yet they don’t have all the facts. It leaves people wanting to know more, and so they make it up. In newspapers, this kind of reporting may get one or two news cycles, then it drops off the face of the earth (thank goodness). But in a 24-hour news broadcast on television, they bring in all kinds of analysts who do one thing: they make up stories about what might have happened. And, depending on where your predisposition for belief lies (MSNBC or Fox News are two polar examples), you will believe whatever scenario is being shared even though it is totally made up, negative, and probably wrong.

It happens in our classrooms as well. Johnny acts out in class. We don’t know why he is doing this, and we don’t have time to be a psychologist. So we make up a story. Johnny is being disrespectful and needs to suffer some consequence for his actions. That story is negative and probably wrong. We never stop to think about other possible scenarios: Did Johnny get enough sleep last night? Did he get into an argument with his parents before school? Did he break up with his girlfriend, or did she break up with him? Is his grandmother ok? Did one of his parents lose his or her job? Did he lose his home? Is he being abused in some way?

No. It is far easier to just decide that the reality is Johnny is disrespectful, so he must be sent to the office.

In order to change the way we interact with one another, we are going to have to change the way we think about the behavior of others. A good place to start is to be honest with ourselves. Saying to yourself, “The story I’ve made up is _______. I know it is negative, and it is probably wrong, but it is the first thing that made sense to me” is a good habit to begin in this process.  Then, take time to investigate the facts before you settle on a reality. Otherwise, you’re just making up stories.

If you would like to read more about this principle, click this link. Over the picture of the book, click “Look Inside,” and go to page 19.

  1. Judy Fugate Said,

    What gives you credibility in posting this is that you practice it, and I appreciate that greatly! You’ve demonstrated this when dealing with my own son, even when his behavior disrespected you. You looked at the whole of the teenager Joseph is and chose to teach him instead of just punishing him. He’s a better person for it, and my respect for you grew immensely. You’re a man of integrity! Keep writing and sharing!

  2. Tim Said,

    Thank you for those kind words. They truly mean a lot to me!

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