I make up stories. We all do. I make up stories about my colleagues, my family members, my friends, and strangers on the street. Sometimes my stories bring out my, and others’, best behavior. Sometimes my stories help me be a stronger leader. And sometimes my stories make my life worse.

We can’t stop making up stories – it’s merely the way we operate as human beings. That’s why the Cookie Thief is such a popular poem. But I’ve witnessed stories that were entirely untrue lead organizations astray. Where steadfast beliefs stop people, and entire companies, from moving forward.

Many years ago my partner, Robyn, and I were facilitating a program for a client. It happened to be a room largely of people of color. If you don’t know my partner and me, you don’t know that I am white and Robyn is African-American – which has absolutely everything to do with this story.

Generally when we are facilitating for a client, Robyn and I share everything. But this day she was sick, really sick. So we agreed that she would sit quietly in the back of the room and I would facilitate without her. And we told the client that that’s what we were doing…because she was sick. Only somehow not everyone believed our explanation, because at the end of the day, we were called to task based on their story – that I had had the power and glory in front of the room, while Robyn had played a more subservient role. How many in the room were not able to focus on the conversation they needed to have and how they needed to move forward because they were distracted…by the story they had made up? How did their story impact their ability to fully engage with their peers and participate in the learning? How did their certainty stop them from being open to other possibilities…to the truth? What could have been possible if they had created a more positive and non-judgmental story instead?

I think of this experience often and I think of the stories we all make up. While we can’t stop making up stories, I think our challenge is to first be aware that we’re doing this, and second, to question our realities and our stories, so that we can be more open to the truth. I use specific questions to help me step away from my stories (or at least be aware they’re there):

  • What story might I be making up?
  • What is my role in this situation?
  • Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person has done?
  • What do I really want?
  • What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?

I invite you to try these questions as well – and to use stories to help yourself, not to hurt yourself.

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

For support in looking at, and questioning, your stories, contact Lisa at lkohn@chatsworthconsulting.com.

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