Story Wars

Isn’t it interesting, how our life story comes out in everything that we do? It comes out in the stories about ourselves that we tell, in the advice we give to other people, in the way we approach work, in the way we approach play.

Today, I was at a seminar whose keynote was given by a man whose life story was he was the youngest (38) mid-level manager at his company, each fact which he drew attention to three times throughout his talk. At the beginning of his talk he said – “Don’t be intimidated by my ‘manager’ title. I’m a person, too.” The talk sounded like “I’m the most successful young guy at my company, and it’s because I’ve worked intelligently to get here. Here’s how you can work intelligently, too.” He spoke in generalities, and I felt like needling him. So I did. For example:

When he asked “What is one of the things that a marketer should do?”
I said “Avoid saying anything bad about the product, and say only good things. For example, if you raised beef on a feedlot without pasture, you might say that the beef was raised in an area with ample space, clean water, and the companionship of his kind, and simply not mention that there was no pasture.”
“Yes, I would interpret your answer as ‘make sure the customer knows the benefits of your product.'”

When he asked “Why should we try to model successes?”
I said “How can you know that the success wasn’t by chance? Maybe the successful guy was just lucky, especially if he’s never failed before.”
And he said. “We’ll I’m speaking in a sales context, of whether or not a salesman has met his quotas, and believe me, I’ve had my share of failing to meet my quota.”

He was a good sport – he took everything that I said and turned it around into a motivational exhortation. Good for him. I can admire that. So the “you can work intelligently, too” part of his life story was a genuine desire and a belief. For this, I had to respect him.

Not only did I learn a few tricks on how to put a positive spin on things, but this has me thinking of me and my own life story. Why do I feel the way I feel? And this is the first time that I’ve been able to see it in this way. I guess my life story is: “I’m moderately successful, but I’ve been very lucky, because I’ve met a lot of intelligent and motivated people who have not been so lucky.” So I become suspicious of people who come across as believing they are successful because they have worked so intelligently.

Writing about this now, I can see that the root of all personal conflict is when another person’s story conflicts with our story. The problem is that people are so into their own stories, that sometimes they can’t step out.

I recall an argument between a former president of my local Toastmasters club and a member who wanted to come back to give a speech after having taken a hiatus. The president was new enough that she had never met the old member until the day that he showed up wanting to give a speech. The exchange went something like this:

I’d like to give a speech. He said.
Her response to him was – only members can give speeches.
I am a member.
Have you paid dues?
I haven’t paid because I’ve been away.
You’ll have to pay dues before you can give a speech.
I’ve been away because I’ve been sick. I’ll pay my dues, but you’ve made me feel very unwelcome. You should apologize.
Why should I apologize? I’ve only stated the rules.

This actually escalated into having to call the district governor in to mediate. You can see that maybe on the one hand, the president felt that the man was asking for an exemption to the rules, and she had to put her foot down, and on the other hand, the old man was willing to pay dues, but just wanted to be acknowledged and welcomed as an old member, which the president was unwilling to do because she felt a man she didn’t even know was questioning her authority. They never did apologize to each other, and the president ended up leaving with half the club to start a new one on the same day of the week at a different location.

Amazing, right? Two people, having the same conversation, constructing two very different webs of meaning, to the extent that they’re not really having the same conversation. To the extent that we can have safe conversations, from a pool of shared meaning, we can have harmonious relations with each other.

The president could have said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to make you feel unwelcome. I’m glad you’re back after being sick, and I’m looking forward to hearing speeches from you. Let’s reactivate your membership so we can schedule a speech for you.”

Or the man could have said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to ask for an exemption. Let me reactivate my membership today. If I seem disappointed, it was expecting a warmer welcome back.”

To get to the pool of shared meaning, we have to step inside the other person’s story, uncomfortable because it feels as if we must give ground, and difficult because we have to speak from inside a story that is a challenge to ours.

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