I’ve become increasingly aware of a challenge facing leaders today: storytelling. And I’m not talking about the kind of storytelling families and cultures use to pass down history and traditions, nor do I mean storytelling that creatives use to cultivate deeper meaning for brands. I’m talking about internal storytelling — the unconscious fiction we humans make up, especially when faced with challenges, conflict and important matters.
A telltale sign is seeing someone stuck in analysis paralysis — a term you’re surely familiar with, where one gets stuck in their thoughts (i.e., internal stories), preventing them from taking action. Our internal stories are typically grounded in what-if scenarios, hypotheticals and future possibilities, rather than sticking to the facts. In these moments, we get stuck in the limbic system, the part of the brain that runs on emotions and survival instincts, rather than the neocortex, where logic, rational decision-making, focus and emotional control originate.
Researcher and author Brené Brown has popularized a helpful, reality-checking tool to combat this, using the phrase “the story I’m telling myself is…” This phrasing helps check one’s assumptions by practicing internal curiosity and reflection. “These stories are often one-sided, worst-case scenarios and seldom contain the full truth,” writes Brown.
It stems from a self-protective survival instinct our ancestors used, to avoid being eaten by saber-toothed tigers. Today, these instincts rarely serve us well, yet our brains still fabricate stories that magnify our fears and anxieties, contributing to our own dysfunction.
The next time you’re feeling stuck or anxious about an important matter, take some time to fact-check the story you’re replaying in your mind. Ask yourself what’s true and factual. Then ask yourself what parts are hypothetical or assumptions. How much time are you spending in the hypothetical? How much weight are you giving to assumptions? It’s important to be curious and find the root of your feelings.
Observation Vs. Evaluation
Another helpful tool comes from psychologist Marshall Rosenburg, Ph.D., who created a popular framework in the 1960s: Nonviolent Communication, which is based on learning “to clarify what we are observing, what emotions we are feeling, what values we want to live by, and what we want to ask of ourselves and others. We will no longer need to use the language of blame, judgment or domination.”
Observations are things you can literally observe, using one or more of your five senses. They’re verifiable facts and, and in their purest form, are free of bias, beliefs, judgments or attached meaning. Evaluations take our observations and run them through a filter of emotions, feelings and beliefs, experiences, knowledge — essentially running the facts through a person’s highly personal, highly individualized CPU (central processing unit).
As a leader, I’ve found I’m at my best when separating observations (facts) from evaluations (stories). For example, you may see a data point in a presentation and quickly jump to analysis, creating stories about it. Not so fast. Wise leaders keep analyses in check, grounding conversations first around the facts, which usually makes buy-in and alignment with colleagues easier. There’s always time to seek analysis and opinions later — but first, it’s best to get clear and aligned on the facts.
The Observing Eye Vs. The Perceiving Eye
Samurai Miyamoto Musashi said it best: “Observation and perception are two separate things; the observing eye is stronger, the perceiving eye is weaker.” Musashi believed there’s only two ways to see the world: through the observing eye or the perceiving eye. Observation focuses attention on truth and what is actually happening in the present moment.
The perceiving eye, however, sees much more than just the facts. Perception adds to, amends and mixes in other information with the facts, like experiences, emotions, personal beliefs and values.
Mark Twain famously said, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”
What Is True?
When faced with any challenge, opportunity or important matter, the first step should always be to remove feelings, bias and analysis from the equation. Approach things as if you’re running a highly scientific lab experiment where accuracy and fact-finding are paramount. Ask yourself: What is true?
This reminds me of author Byron Katie and her belief that human suffering comes from believing our own stressful thoughts. She’s found most stress and pain is rooted in the stories we create in our minds — the fears and hypothetical scenarios we spend so much time spinning out on.
What if we could actually turn the storytelling off? I’ve worked on this within myself and found a daily meditation practice can help turn it off, or at least turn it down. Only when I regularly spent time alone with my thoughts could I truly understand what my thoughts are, where they come from and what they’re good for.
Good? Bad? Who Knows?
It’s human nature to unconsciously turn everything into a binary decision: Is it good or bad? But what if everything we encounter didn’t have to be evaluated as good or bad? What if we were open to the possibility that any experience could be good, bad or an infinite range of possibilities in between? What if we could all agree that no experience, situation or scenario is all good or all bad?
There’s an ancient story of a Chinese farmer that really drives this home. In my peer mentor group of CEOs, we’ve reflected on this story more frequently over the past few weeks, amid the global crisis. Spoiler alert: The farmer stays neutral and open. He avoids binary traps and doesn’t rush to analysis about whether a current situation is good or bad. Instead, he’s open to infinite possibilities, knowing it may take years to truly discern and understand something.
Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti surmised: “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.” I couldn’t agree more. Leaders make better decisions when adept at separating facts from fiction, when we’re mindful of internal storytelling, and when we stay grounded, centered and open to infinite possibilities.
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Author: Ryan Wines, CommunityVoice