What’s Your Story(line)? The Power of How We Explain Things to Ourselves

We are constantly using storylines to explain our own or others’ behavior, or why we have the experiences we have. Usually, we are not consciously aware of these storylines–still, they drive our behavior and perceptions. Once we become aware of our storylines, we can be selective about them, using them as fuel for new perspectives and action that can lead us toward a desired goal.

Where do these storylines (or messages) come from? They are formed by our experiences and shaped by ideas or beliefs we inherited from our family systems, from the culture we experienced growing up, or from the one in which we now live. Layer in the organizational culture in which you work and you can see that a lot of influences are at play.

When we want new possibilities for action to achieve a goal, resolve a problem, or change a behavior, it is critical that we uncover these hidden drivers. So in working with a client, I weave these questions into our conversation:

  1. What you are telling yourself to make sense of a situation? (You can usually tell a storyline when it is accompanied by an emotional tone, even a judgment, which is quite different from merely relaying a fact.)
  2. Are the things you are telling yourself moving you toward the outcome you want or away from it? If they move you toward your goal, they are “green” storylines–they support ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that leave the door to possibility open. If they move you further away, they are “red” storylines–they close down possibility. (This particular language–red/green, is from 4-D Systems.)

When I was coaching an executive who wanted to rise to the senior-most executive ranks, he discovered he held these storylines:

  • There aren’t any open spots and no one’s retiring!
  • I’ve been passed over once before and may be again.

The next step was to examine them: Was the storyline moving him toward the outcome he wanted (a green storyline) or not (a red storyline)? Take a moment to imagine what actions he might have taken assuming (1) no spots were available and (2) that because he’d been passed over once before, he would be again. His storylines did not engender hopefulness or creativity. Instead, they engendered a degree of resignation at what seemed an impossibility. Clearly these were red storylines. We worked together to come up with green ones:

  • Things change that can’t be predicted.
  • I have what it takes to succeed in the role.

Once you have your green storylines, you can come up with actions consistent with them to support achieving your desired goal.

Before we went on to identifying actions, we also explored the storylines other stakeholders held about the client. These, of course, are conjecture but serve as working theories:

  • He’s a definite candidate. (Green)
  • He can act too quickly. (Neutral–whether this is green or red depends on the actions the client chooses to take.)

The client then developed a plan designed to position him for the next role and make him an easy choice for a position where performance and corporate politics were both factors. He began intentionally seeking input from those in the senior-most cadre regarding differences they noticed when they transitioned into the new role. This helped him identify his strengths, weaknesses, and the adjustments he would need to consider in growing his leadership style to fit the next tier’s roles and responsibilities.

Yes, it’s a pleasure to report that his experience became a Success Story, with (and because of) the assistance of eliciting and choosing his storylines!

U.S. Library of Congress ISSN 2164-7240

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