In The Stories We Tell Ourselves, I suggest that we are all guilty of constantly playing movies in our heads where we are both the sole director and lead actor. In our minds, we tell the "extras" in our lives what to do and when to do it, and when they fail to act accordingly in real life, we experience stress or conflict in our relationships.
In essence, we often interact with people based on our fantasies and assumptions about them instead of based on who they actually are and what they actually say. We tend to interpret their lives, words, and actions through a lens that's all too often focused inward instead of choosing to turn that lens on them so we can better understand that person, the situation as a whole, and our true relationship with the other person.
Here are the four steps I encourage my clients to try when they find themselves interacting more with the people in their heads than with the people directly in front of them. This is part of the Auxano Approach to Communication and aims to help you learn how to better posture yourself within your relationships so that those relationships can thrive.
Step 1: Observe and talk about what you just noticed
Step 1 may be the most challenging because it demands that you begin to notice the stories you're actually telling yourself about other people. Because this is often such an ingrained habit for so many of us, it can be difficult to start realizing that what you're thinking about another person may not align with the truth of the situation.
The next time you're presented with a troubling issue in a relationship, try to take a step back from yourself, so to speak, and mentally consider what you noticed in a nonjudgmental and uncritical way. This requires being honest with yourself.
You must know the story you're telling yourself before proceeding to the next step.
Step 2: Invite the other person to hear the story you're telling yourself
Use phrases like:
- "The story I've been telling myself is..."
- "The picture in my head about our situation is..."
- "The way that I hear that is..."
This step requires vulnerability. After all, you're allowing another person access to an oft-hidden part of your life. This can be especially daunting if the story you've been telling yourself about another person paints them in a particularly poor light. Plus, you have no idea how they'll react. But you shouldn't allow that to stop you from sharing your honest thoughts and feelings about the situation at hand.
Instead of allowing the relationship to continue to deteriorate, you must confront the conflict with honesty and humility. While such honesty may lead to more conflict, it can also lead to an atmosphere of openness where the other party also begins to share his or her stories they may have been telling themselves about you. This is where a true and deep relationship begins to form -- one that's much more substantial than the facade the both of you may have erected over time.
Step 3: Share with the other person the feelings you have as a result of the story you made up in your mind
Sharing the facts of your made-up stories is only half the process. You must also share why you've chosen to share that story with your friend, spouse, co-worker, etc. "I feel hurt based on what I've been telling myself about us." This relates how our unfounded assumptions in our relationships have affected us internally. It offers the other person a glimpse behind the curtain, which means it requires courage on your part to reveal yourself for who you truly are. Still, cost-to-benefit ratio of your relationships is well worth the momentary discomfort you may feel in sharing your honest emotions with another person.
Step 4: Seek more information
Do what Brené Brown suggests: Become a passionate listener. Once you've relayed your side, clear your mind of your expectations of the other person's response and truly listen to their response. Ask questions like, "Is that what you meant?" and "Did I understand that correctly?" Focus on what the other person is really saying.
It's also important to allow the other person to express their thoughts and feelings without taking on the other person's emotions. You must grant them the same sliver of space that they hopefully granted you. When both parties seek to truly understand each other's thoughts, feelings, and motives, relational success isn't far off the horizon.
By working through the steps listed above, I believe you can begin to enjoy transformation in even your most troubling of relationships.
To learn more ways to improve your overall intimacy, communication, and connection in relationships, check out my book The Story We Tell Ourselves.