Internal Stories

My friend Ira Koretsky talks a lot about stories. He’s actually one of several people I know that understand the power of storytelling. There is something about us as human beings that has us gravitate towards stories. This has big implications in organizations, because when we want to get things done (or particularly to get other people to do things), we usually write a memo rather than tell a story. And look where THAT gets us.

In the last few weeks, however, I’ve been thinking about internal stories. These are the stories we tell ourselves in our heads about what is happening, what other people are thinking, or what is likely to happen in the future. We always have these stories–our brains need them to make sense of the world.

This comes up in my conflict resolution training. A big driver of conflict is that the parties are telling themselves wildly different stories about what is happening. These stories are driven by a very incomplete experience of the situation (I can only see a very thin slice of reality), enriched by a large number of untested assumptions and meaning we add to situations without us really being aware that we are adding it.

But these stories are very powerful for us. They drive our conclusions and our actions. Yet we underestimate how much control we have over the internal stories we tell ourselves. The stories emerge automatically, so we usually just settle for whatever comes up. But if we want to, we could get more information, test assumptions, and dig a little deeper to see if a new story emerges. But that requires us to be open to a story existing that is different from what we have already settled on. I know that is hard to do sometimes, but if you want things to change, that is often what you have to do.