Employing Differences

Employing Differences, Episode 54: What's the story I'm telling myself?

May 25, 2021 Karen Gimnig & Paul Tevis
Employing Differences
Employing Differences, Episode 54: What's the story I'm telling myself?
Chapters
Employing Differences
Employing Differences, Episode 54: What's the story I'm telling myself?
May 25, 2021
Karen Gimnig & Paul Tevis

"In addition to cultivating awareness that we are telling ourselves a story about what we're encountering, it's useful to remind ourselves that other people are doing that, too."

Listen on the website and read the transcript

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Show Notes Transcript

"In addition to cultivating awareness that we are telling ourselves a story about what we're encountering, it's useful to remind ourselves that other people are doing that, too."

Listen on the website and read the transcript

Watch this episode on YouTube

Karen:

Welcome to Employing Differences, a conversation about exploring the collaborative space between individuals.

Paul:

I'm Paul Tevis.

Karen:

And I'm Karen Gimnig.

Paul:

Each episode, we start with a question and we see where it takes us. This week's question is, "What's the story I'm telling myself?"

Karen:

So what we're pointing to here is the tendency of humans to interpret what we see or to tell ourselves a story. This isn't an analysis of character, this is an understanding of Neurology. This is what brains do. They take inputs, and they put it together with a lifetime of previous experiences, and they create meaning out of that input. My lifetime of lived experiences is not the same as your lifetime of lived experiences. And therefore given the same input, we come to different stories. We tell ourselves different stories. And we mostly don't notice that we're doing it. And so I have an understanding a meaning of a thing and I'm sure it's the truth. We often put that label "truth" with our stories. And I go merrily along and then am totally startled or disconnected when it becomes evident that you have a very different sense of the meaning than I did. And so those stories shift within us over time. It can be what's coming from ourselves. It can be what's coming from someone externally. And it can also be how we interpret the part of your story that comes at me. That then I interpret that and then I think I know what your story is, but actually, I added my own before I made that story. And so we're asking ourselves today, "What is the story I'm telling myself?" as a frame for thinking about this neurological phenomenon.

Paul:

And this is an enormous topic. When we were getting ready to talk about this, I actually had to go back and look, and I'm surprised that this isn't something we've really talked about before, because it's something that shows up a ton in the work that I do. This is like one of the fundamental pieces that I use in a lot of work with individuals and with groups. And in my own personal work, too. I ask myself a lot. "What's the story I'm telling myself about this?" I ask my clients, "What's the story you're telling yourself about what this means?" And like you said, there's a lot of roots of this in neuroscience. Our brains nonconsciously process 99% of the information that we take in, because we would be totally overwhelmed if we tried to consciously process all of it. It's a survival mechanism. We've talked a little bit about some of these nonconscious things before. But the narrative piece of it the meaning, what does this thing mean, what is it significance that is something that we often overlook. And we overlook the fact that we are doing it, that we are adding our own interpretation into a thing. And so that the key I find is: one, being aware that's the thing that we generally do, and two, getting really aware when we're actually doing it. Because once we start to notice, "Hey, there's this input that I'm getting, there's behavior that I'm noticing out there, there's things that I could describe in an objective way." That's the thing. And then there is the "What have I decided that that means, what's the story that I'm telling myself about that?" Now, we start to recognize that we're actually at choice about the story that we want to tell ourselves about this thing that's happening. This could be a threat, this could be an opportunity, this could be something that's very exciting. The story that we tell ourselves comes from our past experience it's not actually coming from the situation in front of us and once we can learn that there's a gap between what we experience and what meaning we ascribe to it, then we actually start to take more control over our own experience of that thing. It's a long, slow process that takes a lot of practice. But I think the more that we start doing it, noticing that we can choose, that we are adding to the situation, to our own understanding of it, then we can start to build that habit and that muscle of being able to notice what the story we're telling ourselves is.

Karen:

I think that noticing is such a key element because how do you know what you don't know? How do you notice a thing that you're not noticing.? And partly you can develop the muscle. As you say, you can get curious, you can pay attention, you can slow down and do meditation and any number of other things. But there also is this thing built into how humans live that helps us notice, which is that we live with other people. And that's why this topic fits in a broader theme of employing differences is that the thing that will help us notice and sometimes force us to notice where we have equated truth with meaning, or input with some kind of meaning associated with it, our story is when somebody else has a different one. And when that arrives in the space between us, that we're functioning in different stories, and have made a different meaning either, because we're bringing different data to the situation, which is usually the case, but also because we interpreted the same data differently. And that is almost always an element in conflict. That's almost always an element in frustrations or tensions between people. And frankly, it's almost always an element, when there's more than one person in a room. You can just count on it being there.

Paul:

There are two words that I listen for when I'm working with a group that tell me that people probably have different interpretations of the same data, which is "clearly" and "obviously." Whenever somebody says, "Well, clearly, blah, blah, blah," inevitably, whatever follows that, probably not clear, probably not obvious to everybody else. It's actually almost as though we subconsciously know that that is an interpretation that we're making. And in some cases, we're trying to actually push that interpretation subconsciously on to the rest of the group, to get them to agree with our interpretation. But yeah, it's getting curious about how other people interpret things, particularly things that are meaningful to us in some way, that are important to us in some way, exploring that with other people can be really valuable. We wouldn't think to do it very often. Because it is so meaningful to us that, why would we need to talk about it. This is the whole "fish don't talk about water" thing. But one of the things that's really easy to fall into is assuming that other people interpret things the same way that we do, and I have the same feelings about them. So for example, I was having a conversation the other night with my wife, and we discovered that we have very different understandings of and reactions to frustration. She was talking about being frustrated by thing. And for me, frustration is like, one of the worst things. Feeling stuck and frustrated and not being able to move forward with something. I place a high value on sort of ease and momentum and fluidity. Those are things that are important to me. And so I was just like, "Wow, it must be horrible that you're frustrated with this problem." And she's like, "No, no, it's a sign that it's a worthy problem for me to dig into." And so it's very interesting. We actually talked about some of the emotional aspects of it and realized that we just have very different relationships to things that are causing the same sort of bodily sensations or the same sort of emotional responses. Those just mean very different things to us. But why would we ever think to talk about that? And so it's interesting to see how we find the door to actually have the conversation about how we are interpreting things differently. I'm curious, how do you notice that that's a useful conversation to have?

Karen:

You know, I think more often than not, I don't. I think we miss these conversations all the time because we don't notice. And we're not going to sit around what some people would call navel gazing all the time. Well, you and I might. That could be a really good thing. We might enjoy that a lot. But a lot of people are not going to want to do that. So I think, you know, is there an interesting conversation to have about different ways that we're looking at things? "Always" is sort of my take. But is there a conversation that needs our attention, that's worthy of the investment? And you know, you and I met at a retreat on the beach, and if we're just chatting walking on the beach, like, sure it is. But if we're in a space of limited resources, or working with someone who doesn't want to get into that all the time... I think the question that's interesting is is whether it's useful. Is it a thing we need to be doing? Is it a thing that will have value to us that's worth the investment. Because I want to say, we can sit here and say it's a great idea, and it makes life better. I think that's all true. But even as much as I enjoy that kind of work, I do call it work. It takes resources, it takes energy, it takes investment. And so I think it's wise to be a little bit thoughtful about where we do it. So if i reframe your question to "How do I know that this is a good thing to do with this time or a worthwhile investment?" So, conflict. If there's any level of conflict, this is the work that's likely to get us out of it. And not just out of it, but make productive use of it. This is the work that's likely to give us the growth that it's offering us. So I think that's one. And then I think, I everything I go to, from that I actually would put in the bucket of signs of conflict. But if people are withdrawn, if people are choosing not to be engaged, if people are using stronger language, like "clearly" and "obviously" and "it's just the truth that" All of those kinds of words, those are really subtle kinds of triggers or indicators, but I think they are ultimately indicators of conflict, but also indicators that we're in this space of difference.

Paul:

Yeah, the thing that came immediately to mind to me after I asked you that question was, "Oh, conflict. Got it." I think that, in addition to cultivating the awareness that we are telling ourselves a story about the stuff that we're encountering, I think the other useful piece is just reminding ourselves that other people are doing that too. To be going, "Oh, okay, right, this person is ascribing some sort of meaning to this based on their past experience," which is opaque to me because I don't necessarily know what their life experience is like. I think what one of things we can train ourselves to do is to in those moments in those signs of conflict moments, in those moving towards difficulty moments not only to check in with ourselves and go, "Okay, so what am I thinking about this? What meaning am I ascribing?" to this cue ourselves up to go, "Hmm, I wonder if the other person is telling themselves a different story about this than I am?" Because just even that level of curiosity about it can then maybe make you go, "Oh, maybe I should ask?" To even notice that that that's a possibility. It is one of the things that I have had relatively good luck with in difficult situations. When it's clear that there's something else, something important to the other person about what's going on, just being able to drop in a true moment of curiosity, and just kind of say, "So, what does this mean to you?" Ask about what is the meaning. "The fact that this thing has happened, what do you take from that?" And usually, I'll get a piece of information that I didn't think about. It's one of the advantages of working in collaboration, working with more than one person because the stories we tell ourselves, those also filter what information we look for. We don't even take in 100% of all the stuff that's out there. What we take in is based on our past experiences, and what we think is important things like that, as well. So some of that stuff just nonconsciously drops out, and other people notice other things that we don't notice. And so, yeah, I think when we have those moments of either we're in conflict, or we feel like we're moving towards conflict, there's some difficulty around it noticing what we're telling ourselves about what this means and also getting curious about what it means to the other person can often remove some of the mystery of why we are in conflict about something.

Karen:

Yeah, and another frame to get to that I think sometimes if you ask people what you were saying about "what's the meaning you're making of this?" some people will do well with that some people will be like, "What do you mean what's the meaning of this? It just is." So another frame that I think can be really powerful is, "You know, I'm telling myself a story about this, and I'm wondering, I think I should check this out." So "I'm telling myself the story that you left the meeting early because you were ticked off or offended by what somebody had said, and I'm interested in that and care about that. But I just want to check it out and see if that's actually..." Yeah that's the story I'm telling myself. And what I I find is that even if the story I'm telling myself is something that told another way would be offensive to you, I've got it totally wrong, it made judgments about you that are, that have push every button, you've got that if I frame it as, "I've got the story in my head, and I'm just wanting to check it out, because if it's not right, I want to fix it." That frame makes almost anything tolerable. Almost anything can be shared in that frame and get to a productive conversation. You do have to intend the frame as well as use the words. But if you're really in that space of "I am aware that I am making some meaning here that may not be right or fair, and I want to check it out with you." People really like that. ,

Paul:

Yeah, and I think what we're used to is being told that we're wrong. We're used to being attacked, we're used to being blamed. And what that really does is it flips it around, right? Like we say a lot on the show, you're approaching it from a vulnerable space, and you're approaching it with curiosity. And when you do both of those genuinely, it creates a real space between for both of you to stand, for you to to actually connect through. And that is one of the things that I think really helps us understand each other's stories about what's going on in ways that then help us in the future, not just in that moment.

Karen:

So we started today with "What's the story, I'm telling myself?" and sort of tracked that we're always telling ourselves stories. That's just how neurology works. The story that we're telling ourselves is the meaning that we're making from whatever the inputs are. And we have stories, and anyone in the room with us has a story. And odds are they are not the same. And so getting curious about those differences. So one just being aware of when we're making meaning as opposed to recording data, that those are different things. And then leaning into relationships and spaces of conflicts to reveal the differences and to be mirrors back of "Oh, wait, I was telling myself a story. I was making some meaning out of that. What do I want to do about that?" And then being willing to check in with somebody else, recognizing that they, too, are making meaning, and telling themselves stories, as every human does very appropriately. And approaching that by getting curious about, "Hey, what meaning are you making over there?" or "I have a story about what meaning you're making over there and I'm wanting to check it out with you, because I'm very curious and interested" leads to growth all around and less or less painful conflict and just generally better working relationships.

Paul:

Well, that's gonna do it for us for today. Until next time, I'm Paul Tevis.

Karen:

And I'm Karen Gimnig. And this has been Employing Differences.