Seek First to Understand…All Stories

I learned years ago that the source of a person’s anger is usually due to their story not matching up with reality.  Simple, but still a great thought when trying to understand why someone has “feelings” about an issue.  What do I mean by a “story”?  Well, a person’s story is their version of what reality should be.  Of course, that story doesn’t always match reality.  Let me share an example.

The Parker’s go to movies VERY early.  We leave home at least 45 minutes before the show starts taking a leisurely drive to the theatre and arriving in our seats with a drink and a small snack that we plan to consume before the movie starts.  Then, we play on our phones while waiting for the previews to begin.  Yes, typically we are the first people in the theatre.  The story we play in our heads is that there is no need to rush; cashiers are quick as lines are short, and we get to sit in a seat that we prefer with very little hassle and without inconveniencing others.

In contrast, some folks must leave their homes when the movie is advertised to start, wait in a long line for a ticket, purchase 27 different snacks and drinks from the concessions, and then find their seat (usually right in front of us) 5 minutes after the movie starts thereby missing all of the valuable previews and an opportunity for the perfect seat.  They also talk for 5 more minutes as they pass their snacks around (that doesn’t bother me or anything…).  I imagine that the “late” arrivers are quite content with all of this.  Their story is that they got to a movie in time to see the “good stuff” and they are thankful that there were awesome seats right in front of this other family.  If we traded movie going procedures, the Parkers and the late arrivers would both likely have anxiety attacks.

Now, we strive to control our reality by leaving extra-early for movies.  Sometimes, reality doesn’t play out that way as we are not always able to leave at a preferred time.  Those times, when we are not able to leave early, we speed to the theater turning into the parking lot on two wheels.  I shove Pam out the door with a credit card, and I park the car and run in to catch her punching the self-serve ticket machine with vigor.  We still get to watch the previews, but we were rushed and we do not like to be rushed.  This situation may not make us angry, but we certainly are not happy because reality did not match our story of what traveling to a movie should be like.

Just like our movie going experience, when we are faced with situations that make us unhappy, we all have an opportunity to make a choice.  Either we can change our story, or we can change reality by leaving early for a movie.  In making a decision to change reality, one must weigh the level of emotion experienced with the effort that it would take to change that reality.  If something does not bother us much, and changing reality is arduous, then we are likely to change our expectations…our story.  In contrast, if something garners a great deal of emotion, we are more likely to put forth effort to change reality.  The amount of effort that we are willing to expend to affect change directly corresponds to the strength of our emotions or feelings.  That is the premise of why I like to work with passionate people. Passionate people WORK to change reality.

Of course, this principle applies when leading others.  I’ve often found that when working with someone who has “feelings” it is good to work very hard to try to understand their point of view by imagining their story for myself.  Why do they feel the way that they do?  What is their story and how is it different from mine or from reality?  I try to be empathetic and follow Steven Covey’s 5th principal:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This is also a great way to deal with conflict or expectations not being met.  When the person with whom you are conversing truly feels that you understand why they feel the way that they do, you can usually be more successful when getting your own point across; and, perhaps your point will be even clearer to you when you have full understanding of all of the important “stories”.

As leaders, we must always strive to realize the stories that people have.  Remember, their story is a version of what reality should be.  Through understanding all of the related stories, we have the best chance to determine whether we need to change reality by leading others to implement a new program or procedure, or whether we need to communicate differently to help change the stories that cause people angst.

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