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How Stories Keep Us in Conflict

by Eric Svaren
Groupsmith, Inc.

  • I can't work with him; he's got to go.
  • She's deadwood.
  • They are setting us up to fail!
  • He doesn't care what I think—never did.
  • They are "land grabbers." That is our work—not theirs!
  • He rigged the numbers to look good.
  • The board is homophobic.
  • They don't want to have anything to do with us.
  • Frank is angling for a promotion.
  • This is a battle for control.
  • She is in way over her head.

One thing I've learned from working in conflict resolution and team building is: People work hard to stay in conflict. The players in any given situation expend extraordinary energy to prevent themselves from approaching someone, broaching a topic, truly listening and understanding—and, ultimately, from finding a resolution.

When you have a several people or a whole group doing this, it invariably leads to "drama." People talk and talk about what's going on but not with the people they need to talk to. These folks tell non-participants what they think and feel, hoping to build up support for their position that their adversary is unreasonable, uncaring, mean-spirited, spineless or incompetent. And, these same folks will claim they are free of responsibility for the problem. They believe they have not done anything to contribute to the troubles. In effect, they are the victim of the other's evilness.

When this happens, people are trafficking in "stories"—their interpretations, perceptions, judgments, conclusions, and assumptions. (All those bullets at the beginning of this article are stories.) In conflict situations, these stories are usually pretty unflattering toward the other person (or people). So, as people talk and talk to others, they are spreading the "bad blood" around the workplace. And these stories infect other people who might not even work with the supposed villains.

Everything becomes tense. People start attaching stories to even the most innocuous events, like someone missing a meeting. As the stories mount, morale drops, and the environment becomes more poisonous. Often, what starts to happen is people start to look for jobs or assignments that allow them to escape. In effect, a forest fire has started and consumed the trust and goodwill that is vital to high performance.

The power of stories

One of humankind's most important skills is "meaning making"—being able to make sense of events around us. We would not have survived as a species on the African savannah without the ability to distinguish between opportunities (food) and threats (predators).

We are constantly telling ourselves stories about what's happening around us. This is good, and that is bad. This person is a friend, but that one is a foe. This is important; that isn't.

And, most of the time, our meaning making—our "storytelling"—works just fine. We make accurate interpretations and function just fine. However, in a small percentage of cases, our storytelling leads us astray—toward more drama and distrust.

These are situations where we have very strong emotions or get into conflict. When this happens, the stories we tell ourselves cause us to filter out data that might help us resolve the conflict; we focus only on the most damning evidence. We fail to notice how much influence our stories have on our emotions; we blame others for how we feel instead of taking responsibility for our feelings. If our story "makes sense" to us, we stop examining it and get too confident about it. When we fail to notice our story, we can jump to conclusions and take action that we often later wish we hadn't.

And, because we are in conflict with the other person, we reduce the amount we communicate with them, which means that our stories are not being tested. Our stories take hold of us and become even stronger. The authors of the bestselling and highly-recommended book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high, write that a story has you in its grips if:

  • You're stuck in anger, self-justification and blame.
  • You keep telling yourself the same story.
  • You keep telling others the same story.
  • You resist other's attempts to question your story.

If any of those statements is true for you (or someone you know), read on. You can reign in those stories and to move toward resolving the conflict.

Keeping our stories in check

When we find ourselves in these difficult conflict situations, it is important to remember some basics about conflict and storytelling, so that we don't get carried away and make an already difficult and distressing situation worse.

  1. We create our stories. We interpret the data we see and hear and from that data fashion a story. Since we create the story, we're responsible for it. We own it, not the other person. We can also change it or, at least, consider some other possible stories—if we are willing.
  2. Stories are not data. In conflict, we often present our stories as if they are facts, but they are not. You may say, "Frank is a jerk!", but that's a story, not a fact. Facts must be recordable using your smartphone. They include what's said, gestures, and what can be seen (documents, who's there, who's not, etc.). The meaning you give those facts (like the significance you assign to Frank's behavior) is pure story. I can't video record "being a jerk," so therefore it's a story. (I can, however, record someone shouting, pounding the table, or turning away from someone else. Those are all facts.)
  3. We pay attention only to certain data. We are always selecting which data to attend to and which to ignore. If I don't like Frank, I'll be more attentive to data that reinforces that perception. I won't notice as readily his friendly behavior that undermines my story. In mediating conflict, it's not uncommon for different people to select different sets of facts from the same interaction. In effect, they pay attention to different parts in the video.
  4. Our stories create our emotions. You may think the other person is making you mad, but, in fact, you are making yourself mad—because you are telling a story about the other person's behavior or intentions. Sure, the other person may be doing something you find annoying, but the story and the emotional reaction belong to us, not them. To find a way out of conflict, we have to "own" our stories and feelings. Unless we do that, it's impossible to fully resolve the conflict.
  5. Feelings have to be taken into account. Feelings need to be acknowledged first by the person having them and then by others. You cannot achieve reconciliation without owning and addressing feelings. Many people still believe that emotions have no place at work, but like it or not, humans are emotional beings. (In fact, it's impossible to make a decision without access to our emotions.) Healthy, enduring, high-performance work relationships are impossible if feelings are dismissed or ignored.
  6. Sort it out. In order to resolve conflict and maintain healthy relationships, we need to be able to distinguish between data, stories, feelings, wants and actions. Here is a table that summarizes the differences:

    Data Stories Feelings Wants Actions

    A majority of what I do in conflict situations is help the participants to sort out data from stories, stories from feelings and what they want. It's not easy and takes a lot of practice.

  7. What we want influences everything. What we want affects the data we notice, the stories we tell, the feelings we have (say, satisfaction or disappointment) and what actions we take.

    Even in the simplest interaction, we are bombarded with far more data than we can take in: words spoken, words not spoken, facial expressions, clothing, tone of voice, gestures, what's in the surrounding environment. We have to make choices about which data to attend to and which to ignore. And, our wants dictate those choices. If I want to look smart, I notice data that support that desire—like when someone gets a fact wrong. On the other hand, if I want the other person to like me, I would ignore their factual error and pay attention to eye contact when I'm talking. Unconsciously, our wants influence the data we notice.

    Our wants also affect the stories we tell. If I want to appear competent, I will tell myself a story that I am not responsible for something going wrong and argue with folks who want to make me accountable. If I want harmony in relationships, I will tell myself that people are getting along just fine—and downplay signs that suggest that might not be true.

    Feelings are also influenced by wants. For example, if I want or need respect, I will react more strongly to situations where I don't think I'm getting it. If I don't care about getting respect, then I am less likely to react negatively. The same holds for wants around influence, involvement, fairness, autonomy, purpose, and recognition. The more I want those things, the more strongly I will react when I get them or when I don't.

    Given how powerfully our wants influence our data, stories and emotions, it's surprising how often we don't really know what we want. In conflicts, I often ask people what they want for the relationship with the other person. That question is often met with blank stares. (My story is that they don't know what they want.)

  8. Mind the gap! Conflicts often arise when people don't understand each other's wants. When you raise concerns about a project I'm working on, I might think you want to make me look bad to my boss when you actually intend to protect our department from a costly mistake. There is a gap between your intention and my story and reaction. My story that you're trying to make me look bad will create strong, negative feelings and cause me to stop trusting you—all because I misinterpreted your intentions. In that scenario, we could end up in conflict without you even knowing about it! It's easy to see how just a few of these misunderstandings can poison a relationship and an entire work environment.

    In high-risk situations, it's often helpful to state your intentions clearly: "I am trying to make sure we don't make a mistake here. It's not my intention to put you on the spot." (Of course, you must be sincere when you state your intentions. If you aren't, you'll make the problem even worse.)

The big picture

Our data, stories, feelings, actions and wants are all related to each other. This picture shows how.

Wants Influence Everything

We use the data we select to tell a story, which in turn creates how we feel. What we want affects the data we choose, the story we tell and the feelings we have. Ultimately, our data, story, feelings, and wants together determine the actions we take.

From "drama" to "dialogue"

Stories are very potent and can keep people stuck in conflict for years and years. Fortunately, there are tried-and-true methods to finding your way out of storytelling drama and reestablishing a positive work relationship.

Your homework

When faced with a difficult conflict situation, the first step is to do your homework. Take the time to ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who do you need to have the conversation with? What do you want for this relationship? (High trust? Just minimal communication? No relationship at all?)
  2. What is your data? What facts are you considering? Are there any you're leaving out? Are they really facts or are they stories disguised as facts?
  3. What is the initial story you are telling yourself? Does your story deserve a hearing? Is it fair? How might you revise your story?
  4. Is your story letting you off the hook for your part of the problem? For example, do you have a story that you are purely a victim and free of all responsibility for the problem? If so, take another look at it. Are you failing to see your role in the problem?
  5. Do you have a story that the other person is a villain? If so, ask yourself why a reasonable, rational, decent person would behave the way you are seeing. Can you add other stories that might be possible? The more stories you entertain, the more open and curious you'll be in conversation.
  6. How are you reacting? What are you feeling? Feelings come in four major categories: glad, mad, sad or afraid. Which of those are you feeling? What do your feelings tell you about the importance of this relationship or this conflict? What are you willing to share with the other person?

In order to be ready to engage with the other person, you need to be clear with yourself about your data, your stories, what you're feeling and what you want.

Open and sustain the dialogue

Here is a simple plan of action for talking things through with someone else. Use this as a template for organizing yourself. In practice, the conversation will move back and forth among these steps.

  1. Arrange a time to talk. Agree on a time and place and tell them what the topic is-neutrally: "I'd like to schedule a time to talk about what happened in staff meeting."
  2. Start off with your data, and only then tell your story. This is absolutely critical. Unless you start with the data, you risk escalating the conflict. After you share your data and story, you can also share your feelings here if you feel comfortable. Here's an example:
    Data: "In the meeting, you said that I was delaying the project unnecessarily."
    Story: "I think you believe that I don't care about the project and am not putting in my best effort."
    Feeling: "I feel frustrated [mad]."

  3. Ask them for their data and story: "How do you see it?"
  4. Paraphrase what you hear and ask questions when you want to understand better: "You said you didn't understand my role in the project and no one explained how to involve me. Did I get that right?" Paraphrasing keeps the conversation going and helps you to see the bigger picture.
  5. You don't have a monopoly on the truth, so talk tentatively. On the one hand, keep in mind that your story is just a story. On the other hand, make sure that your concerns get due consideration. Avoid deferring to the other person's stories and wants.
  6. Encourage examination of your story. Perhaps after you hear their story, you may decide to change yours.

Communication works best when everyone's data, stories, feelings, wants and actions can be openly discussed and dealt with. The more and more you do this, the easier and less time-consuming it becomes-and the better the relationships will be.

Practice, practice, practice

As meaning-making machines, we can't help but make up stories based on biased sets of facts. But we can get better at recognizing when we are in the grip of a story and working hard to stay in conflict. Only then can we begin to unthread the conflict and enter into a healthy conversation that rebuilds trust and improves communication.

The opposite of conflict is dialogue (not peace). You know you are in dialogue when the natural, predictable differences in data and stories can be safely shared and explored. When there's dialogue, people can openly and respectfully disagree with one another and still work effectively and productively together.

It takes a lot of practice (including a lot of mistakes) to get good at defusing conflict and building the high-performance relationships, but it's worth it. Strong working relationships are essential in order to meet the intense challenges organizations are facing today.

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About Eric Svaren