As Brené Brown puts it in her fantastic book “Dare to Lead”: making up stories is what the human mind is designed to do. We have the need to make sense of something we do not – or not fully – understand, so we fill the information gaps with our own interpretations. Sounds familiar?
We all experience it. It is bound to happen almost daily, because we usually only have part of the information which we actually would need to assess a situation or a person’s behaviour in a proper way.
And what comes into play here are our own fears and insecurities which determine the shape of the story unfolding in our head. What we do is more or less brainwashing ourselves, sending us into a negative spiral quickly getting us into a bad or defensive mood. It may leave us feeling hurt and often causes needless conflicts with others.
It happens many times a day and everyone does it, in every context, if work related or in personal relationships. To move to the point of becoming aware what we are doing and why, then stop for a moment and reflect on the story we just made up is not easy and takes a lot of practice.
It is definitely worth it though to do some regular “fact-checking” of our self- created stories, because it can give us a spin into a different and more positive direction. It can avoid conflicts. It can make a difference in our day and determine how we sleep at night. It can give us a feeling of achievement if we manage to beat the odds from time to time, and moves us closer to developing a healthy, positive habit interacting with our fellow human beings.
Some weeks ago I became aware of it again while reading these chapters in Brene Brown’s book and applying her advice to a work situation. Having had a conversation with my manager earlier who – even though sharing my concerns – reminded me to give a colleague “the benefit of the doubt”, was a starting point making me realize that my thoughts and interpretations were filling indeed an information gap. I certainly did not know the full story. We never can.
That’s why it is so important not to assume too much about other people’s intentions. There is always a reason why people do what they do, and the easiest way to find out more is actually to ask them. We can and should always ask more questions.
Even knowing that, I also noticed how hard it is to get out of this blaming habit, and how easy it is to just keep on giving out about others who are not doing what I think is right, and get worked up about it. I try to actively stop myself each time I fall back into that behaviour in a stressful situation, but I don’t always succeed. Yes, it’s hard.
Don’t believe everything you think
Katie Byron’s “The Work” offers a similar concept. She proposes to ask ourselves certain questions whenever we are assuming too much – and usually negative – about a person’s intentions or a situation. Questions like: “Can you absolutely know this is true? What does this thought do to you and what would you be without it?” It leads to more self-awareness pinpointing our behaviour of making up stories.
There are several different ways to get to more self-awareness which is the first step toward influencing this seemingly inevitable behaviour. Once it becomes clear that we are the creators of our thoughts we can take control. We have the freedom and also the responsibility to decide otherwise, even if it takes more effort and is easier said than done.
Ultimately, it is about deciding how we want to communicate with others. What feels better for ourselves and is in sync with our core values: being antagonistic, judgemental, getting back at someone – or being kind but setting clear boundaries?
We do not fully see people until we know their values. (Brené Brown)
What Brené Brown calls “the assumption of positive intent”, she defines as “extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.” (Brené Brown, Dare to Lead)
Which means that it makes our lives easier once we are assuming people are doing the best they can, instead of thinking they want to annoy us on purpose. We can never know it for sure of course, but assuming others’ positive intent is certainly the better premise to start from. It ties in with having a glass half full approach, believing that most people are indeed pretty decent.
And once we take this approach we are often in for a nice surprise, realizing that the perceived problem might in fact not exist outside of our head, and a a completely innocent or touching explanation is at the heart of the matter which got us so worked up. Showing someone else that we care to know more about their reasons can strengthen our connection to them.
Wanting and trying to understand is human, however, the manner we employ to get to this understanding is up to us.