The Stories We Make Up
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6 Ways to Optimize Performance Through Openness & Accountability

By: Ethan Schutz

Believe it or not, we are all amazing storytellers. Without even noticing, we make up brilliant stories every day. Most of the time, we don’t even notice we are doing this because our stories look to us like reality.

Let me give you an example. I started my career in architecture. As a young draftsman, I spent a lot of time learning to create detailed construction drawings based on the boss’s sketches. The usual procedure was that I would produce blueprints of the drawings and place them on my boss’s desk for him to review. Some time passed and he would bring back the marked-up blueprints to my desk and go over the changes I was to make.

His personal style was matter of fact and direct. While he was describing and pointing at the changes on the drawings he would look down and rarely make eye contact with me. As I listened and looked at the drawings that I had worked so hard on, covered in red marks, I would start to feel deflated. When he was done, he would leave rather curtly, without saying anything about whether or not he was satisfied with what I had produced.

Most of the time after this scene played out, I was convinced that he was dissatisfied with my work and felt that I did not know what I was doing. I was young and didn’t know a lot and was looking for some assistance. Not getting that from him, I concluded that he was irritated that I had made so many mistakes.

Finally, one day I got up the courage to ask him about this. I brought in one blueprint that was particularly covered in red corrections and nervously asked him if he was unhappy with my work. To my great surprise, he quickly smiled and said, “Oh, not at all. Your work is very good. Each time I look at the next iteration of my design I get inspired to make improvements. Almost all the changes that I’m asking you for are improvements on my design, not any errors that you have made.”

I realized that I had made up a story.

Here’s what happens: we take in some amount of data through our senses, in this case, from an email. The data is never complete. Nuances, context, intention, and motivation are often omitted from our communication with each other. In order to understand and make meaning of what other people communicate, our brains fill in the gaps in the data with our best guesses in order to create narratives (stories) that make sense to us. In other words, we fill in the gaps with our own assumptions. These assumptions are based on our past experience, our mindset and expectations about the world and other people, and our own fears. Our stories are the same thing as our perceptions.

We are very good at making up stories and do it all the time. When we make up stories, we are taking a step toward understanding what is happening so that we can respond in a useful way. The problem arises because some of the stories that we make up are very accurate, and some are not. We cannot tell which ones are accurate and which ones are not without some introspection and without checking with the other party.

Checking my understanding of what other people mean is the other part of guarding against miscommunication because we make up these stories. I can always ask the other party if I’m understanding accurately what they mean by stating what I think I understand and checking if I got it right.

Given the challenges of communicating these days with much communication done remotely, with the challenges of texts and emails where we do not have tone and body language, with the high levels of stress people feel, and with the fact that we are often communicating with people from other regions, other cultures, and vastly different points of view, it is vital to notice that we quickly make up stories.

What stories are you making up?

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