Does this sound familiar?
You and your team member leave a meeting where you gave a presentation to a room full of leaders, including your direct supervisor. You feel good about the outcome. You were prepared; you delivered the points you intended to; and there was good audience interaction, including questions at the end of the presentation.
Suddenly, your team member looks at you right after the door to the conference room shuts and says, “Did you see that?”
Puzzled, you ask what he is talking about. “The look on our leader’s face,” he responds. “She didn’t look happy with our presentation. I knew we should have gone with our alternative approach. Well, we’d better start thinking about how we are going to recover from this one.”
Suddenly, your mind starts to race. What did your team member see that you didn’t? Was it really that bad? How did you misread the room? How are you going to address this when your leader calls you into her office about it? The questions go on and on, and you convince yourself that the story your team member shared is the reality of the situation.
Then, the next morning, your leader congratulates you and thanks you for a job well done.
Client after client shares with me their desire to stay in facts and out of storytelling. We are good at storytelling and can be creative, but we can build a skill set to stay out of storytelling and present in facts. Here are some key points to reflect and work on to practice this skill set.
1. Acknowledge the Story You’re Telling Yourself
I learned this practice from Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead curriculum and Cy Wakeman’s Reality Based Leadership curriculum. Practice calling attention to your stories as just that: stories. Work on using phrases like, “What are the facts I know for sure?” or, “What parts of my story can I truly prove?” Answering these questions involves challenging yourself and staying accountable for searching for the facts and letting go of the often stress-inducing fictional pieces we sprinkle in.
These fictional pieces often involve emotion and cause us to read into a situation. In the earlier example, the leader could have had indigestion that caused her to make a painful face, or she may have just realized that she forgot to send an important email. Taking a look, a word or phrase and build a story around it can cause much unneeded stress and frustration. Stick to the facts, and seek clarification when you are unsure. Start practicing using these phrases to catch yourself when you go down the path of storytelling.
2. Be Fully Present
It’s hard to stick to facts if our recollection is fuzzy from the start because we weren’t fully present in the meeting, conversation or presentation. In one Harvard study, respondents said their minds wandered during almost 47% of situations. The study also found that people whose minds wandered more frequently were less happy than the others. Being present allows us to stay focused on what is truly happening in front of us. Then, we can more easily stay rooted in facts, because we were actually there, in the moment, aware of them.
3. Respond to What Was Said, Not What You Think Was Said
Have you ever had a team member share an email with you and say, “Can you believe he wrote this to me?” — but you don’t understand why that person is upset? The team member probably proceeded to tell you what the email “really” said, and you quickly realized there were a lot of added pieces that may or may not have been true.
Years ago, I would spend hours upset over emails that I felt were rude or that I thought showed that someone was upset with me. Once I started to respond to what people actually said and clarified it in person or over the phone if I was unsure, my life became much more peaceful. This change took an active effort in being accountable to myself and staying in facts and data, not fiction and storytelling.
The process of becoming more self-aware and accountable takes work and practice, but it can be done. Like with any new process, a plan for success is always a good idea. If you aren’t at a point where you can challenge your story in your head, write it on a piece of paper, and at the top, write, “What are the facts I know for sure?” Then, cross out the pieces that you “think” or “feel,” and come up with solutions to find out for sure or let go of them.
This process can be freeing and take us from a place of fiction, worry and stress to greater peace and health. It just starts with trying.