The dark side of stories

When stories turn into slander...

As a life-long sulker and self-confessed misanthrope, I was immediately interested in the session on conflict resolution at our leadership training course last week and felt sure there were some lessons I could learn. It proved enlightening, but one of the things that struck me most was the role we each play in perpetuating conflict by the stories we tell ourselves about the opposition.  

(via Behance)

As storytelling is a key theme for us in H+K, it got me to thinking about the dark side of stories – those myths and tall-tales that perpetuate notoriety, keeping us dead-locked in a seething ball of hostility. Or on the flip side, the overly positive stories we tell ourselves that can stop us seeing the warning signs. Those times when we believe that nothing can possibly go wrong then are absolutely blindsided by a reality that we simply didn’t see coming.

Across our lives, stories play a part in reinforcing a belief or perception of someone or something. I was reminded of this recently during my obligatory Mother’s Day call – casually checking in on the card’s safe arrival, almost instantly, I regretted asking and knew what was coming next: “Oh yes, it DID arrive and early too. You’re obviously getting better”. In the couple of dozen years that I’ve been sending cards to my family across the Irish Sea, a mere handful of times they’ve been late (largely due to the patchy local postal service I might add). But here I am as a grown woman, permanently labelled as being, well, just a bit crap and disorganised.

It’s not the worst label to have, but it does illustrate the ability for those stories to quickly become fact and then ultimately folklore. We all like to read things that reinforce what we already believe. We gravitate towards people who agree with us and mirror our values. Witness the ease with which situations in Russia and other conflict zones can be so easily inflamed by the press and politicians; we almost instinctively cast Putin and his cohorts as the ultimate villains, and then ourselves as the heroes or victims accordingly.

So what does this mean in the workplace? We’ve worked with clients on both sides of the story bias; those who had utterly failed to anticipate any setbacks and were then astonished when the expected result didn’t materialise, as well as those stuck in a destructive cycle of myth-making and, as a result, low productivity and morale. 

These scenarios do have something in common, however:  whatever the reality, mind-set can change everything. We always have the power to change our inner monologue.  Remaining open, alert, attuned to possible bias and ready to adapt your thinking will lead to far more positive outcomes than re-playing the same broken record.   This is how real and meaningful change happens. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • How often do you ask yourself “what if I’m mistaken”?
  • Do you regularly – or ever - change your opinion on a person or an issue?
  • When did you last stop to think how someone’s friends and loved ones view them?
  • Is character assassination ever performed on a client, colleague or vendor?
  • What kind of stories do you think people tell themselves about YOU

If you don’t like the answers, then perhaps it’s time to rewrite your internal stories.  Suspend your disbelief and imagine for a moment that the ending hasn’t yet been written. Look at your villain or hero and imagine all the things that affect his or her world that you simply don’t know about. Leave yourself open to a twist in the tale and you never know what might happen.

This blog post is written by Shelley Joyce, Head of Change + Internal Communications.


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