We Become The Stories We Tell: What Stories Are You Telling?
When I was a young child, my parents had books made for me. They were about the adventures of a mouse. And this mouse often interacted with an unseen character named Christian. I loved these books. But mostly, I loved being in the story.
Everyone loves a good story. And a great storyteller is often given great respect and admiration. When we think of storytellers, we often think of authors or movie directors. Sometimes we think of poets or songwriters. Most people don’t see themselves as storytellers. But you are. And you tell the most persuasive stories you’ve ever heard.
Leaders Tell The Best Stories
Leaders tell stories all the time. Leaders interpret reality. They describe the future. They explain the past. When organizations face challenges or threats — leaders decide how to characterize them. They choose to either tell a story of hope or a story of gloom.
Leaders tell the stories of opportunity, loss, success, and conflict. These stories are compelling — because so many of the listeners are in the story themselves. The stories leaders tell have the greatest impact: A leader’s story is so likely to become real.
But We Don’t Always Tell Very Nice Stories
Have you ever misread a situation? Did something ever happen that you didn’t understand or like? We can’t explain it. But we want to. So, without even thinking about it, we build a story. We tell ourselves what happened.
Where there isn’t information — we fill in the blanks. Where there is information — we interpret in a way that makes sense to our story. Unfortunately, much of the time, our explanations aren’t very nice. It seems so much easier to assume the worst rather than to give the benefit of the doubt.
In The Absence of Trust…
…we tend to assign malevolent intent to whatever we don’t understand. It is easy to assume (and tell stories about) the bad intentions of:
- Someone we don’t trust
- A group of people we don’t understand
- Life, the universe, and everything else
In fact, we often tell negative stories about ourselves. How often have you heard someone say, “I’m so stupid!” “How could I have done that?”
As leaders, it is very easy to just fall into telling and retelling these stories. Without thought, without verification. Sometimes we even benefit from these not-very-nice stories. But more often…we don’t.
The Stories Leaders Tell Themselves
I (we) can’t succeed at this because…
If anyone finds out about….
It’s not fair that they were able to accomplish that. I (we) never have that opportunity.
No one will give me (us) an opportunity because…
I (we) can’t let anyone see my (our) weakness.
I (we) can’t find good people, it’s impossible to trust anyone.
I (we) can’t trust myself with…
The stories we tell matter. Because they give shape and depth to our sense of reality. We believe in our stories — and so we are limited to live and lead within the bounds of the stories we tell. This is why so many of our stories become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The Big Brain Behind The Story
Not to kill the magic (if this was feeling magical)– but there is science behind stories. Have you ever had a dream that felt so real — when you woke up you thought it was real? Our brains are amazing — but stories can confuse them. Well told stories work because our brains inject us right into them. As far as the good scientists know, mirror neurons in our brains cause us to “experience” the story as real. This is why your body experiences measurable physiological changes when reading, hearing, or watching a good story:
- You know the romance is scripted. But your body still pumps progesterone into your body (and men’s testosterone levels are suppressed).
- You know the zombies aren’t real. But that doesn’t stop your adrenal glands from kicking in.
Knowing it isn’t real — doesn’t stop you from having real responses. Stories matter.
Impact of Scary Stories
The scariest stories that leaders tell often fall within these themes:
When we tell ourselves or our teams these stories, something interesting happens for many people (and this is now measurable via brain scans). Our thinking tends to move away from the frontal cortex, where our highest-level thinking and problem solving occurs — and it shifts to the back of the brain — which is assumed to be focused on basic survival. Fight/flight/freeze reaction kicks in. And our good thinking shuts down. When we really probably need it the most.
Don’t Like Your Stories?
Most novels carry us along to the inevitable conclusion the author invented. But life and leadership aren’t like that. They are more like “choose-your-own-adventures” stories. Some circumstances, situations, and characters are set. But there is tremendous room to shape how we relate, respond, and build the futures we want.
If you don’t like your stories — you can change them. But you need to make certain choices.
The First Three Questions
If you want to start writing a new story, you have to believe that it is possible. Otherwise, you are attempting to relate to life as if there was a fixed script over which you have no control. Which, and without being gentle, is a massive abdication of personal responsibility.
To write a new story, begin by asking yourself these questions:
- What do we tell ourselves about successes in the past and how we achieved them?
The best leaders are always able to recognize past success and understand how they were achieved.
- What do we tell ourselves about what we are working on or facing now and whether we’ll be successful?
The best leaders believe that their current efforts are purposeful and effective.
- What do we tell ourselves about what we will experience in the future?
The best leaders have a clear vision for the future and believe it will be achieved.
It’s All Stories
I get it. Real is real. But we all (every one of us) interprets what is real through our own lens. We tell ourselves stories about what is real. Largely because we often only know a little bit about what is actually, objectively, measurably real.
So, the stories we tell matter. The best leaders are intentional about the stories they tell.
Take good care,
Originally published at https://www.christianmuntean.com on February 16, 2021.