“You inspired me to get divorced. Thank you.” This direct statement was delivered to me in the middle of a crossroad in Manhattan by a stranger. My puzzled expression was evident, and he rushed to explain. “I heard you speak five years ago, and your speech inspired me, and I took action and got divorced” I was stunned. If you know anything about me, you know that I do not speak about divorce or anything remotely close to it. My expertise is in customer experience and employee engagement. Somehow in the middle of a presentation about the need to elevate our performance, this individual found a message. A calling, if you may, to gain the courage and sever his marriage. Really?
“What is it that I said that caused you to do that?” echoed the question in my head. But I did not dare to ask it. I thanked that person and moved on. But the incident did not leave me. What is it that I said that made him deduce the conclusion that he needs to get divorced? Over time the answer became clearer. It is not what I said, it is what he heard. As a book author, I often encounter people citing sections from my books and providing me with their understanding and insights from the written word. I must admit that often the insights drawn from the text I wrote are far from the original intention. So, how is it that they discover a different insight than what I wrote? Wasn’t I clear?
The answer is simple. They take my words and plant them in a different story. Every listener takes the words and fits them into their preexisting conditions. That is how those intentions morph into something different. They simply live now in a different story and support a different life narrative.
We live in stories. Facts are mere building blocks; a skeleton that is being dressed by our story. It is the story that gives them meaning. It is the story that infuses purpose into them. It is the story that determines our next steps of action.
I remember a conversation with my older son when I shared with him my joy in being able to save for his future. His reply shocked me. He said that these savings put pressure on him and cause him anxiety. The sense of debt he feels for using money I earned places a huge burden on him. The facts were indisputable: a father gives his son money for the future. The story was totally different. My story was of family relationships and caused me joy. My son’s story was of responsibility and burden which caused him stress. Same facts, different stories.
Listening to the story
We live in stories, we listen with our stories, and we act on our stories.
As we listen to words and messages it is not the facts we are seeking. It is the reaffirmation of our story that our brain is processing. We are listening with a whole story-crafting toolkit that ultimately wraps the facts with our own slant and crafts a story that fits the story-creation tools. What are those listening tools?
History — our past experiences are shaping the way we listen to new evidence. It provides a backdrop in which our listening and processing of new data is dictated by how we experienced life until now.
Values — our purpose and values are another set of lenses that impact our listening. Values of ownership and responsibility will lead us to act when encountering a difficult moment. Lack of such values may lead us to neglect and paralysis.
Emotions — our feelings add a dimension of depth to the facts and wrap them with our unique view. Positive emotions may turn the difficult event into a learning moment. Negative ones will turn it into a reaffirming tragedy that paves the path for the rest of our lives.
Opinions — what others tell us or think of us affects the way we view the future and receive facts. Positive views about us may shape the way we accept a request as a challenge. Negative perceptions may lead us to see the request as an invitation to fail.
Agenda — our motivation will shape our perspective on certain facts or events and will shape them to fit those ambitions.
Empowerment — our sense of empowerment will reflect on our acceptance of certain facts or events. If we feel empowered, the facts will assure us and inspire us. If we feel disempowered the facts will reaffirm that.
We listen with our story and seek to reaffirm it. It is the uncomplicated way. Living in a story that keeps being reaffirmed keeps us in a comfort zone. Even if it is a painful story, the familiar trumps the challenging. It is the devil we know. The devil we believe in.
Change starts with a new story
In my work launching and supporting over 250 corporate transformations worldwide I often come across the issue of the internal story. Employees resist the proposed change, clinging passionately to the past. Even when the facts are clearly opposing their enthusiastic arguments, they stick by them. I eventually realized that I was not discussing facts with people. They were too human to think logically. I was discussing and debating life stories. Employees held onto their life story to date refusing subconsciously and sometimes consciously to evolve in light of new information. I was representing a new story. The stories did not coexist well and hence the rejection. I shifted my role from disseminating new stories to co-creating them with employees. It was only when we softened the process to story-cocreation and development of new listening tools, that we started to see evident change. Employees needed their story respected and they needed to be an integral part of its evolution into a new story. Facts were almost irrelevant in the process (almost).
As I discussed my book Next Is Now! change resilience is the core competence of the future. I defined it as the speed and scope in which we adapt to the new and unknown. To do so we need to develop a new story. More accurately we need to evolve our story and, more importantly, we need to be active authors of our story in order to be ready for the future and define it rather than being defined by it.
Who authors your story?
Every good story has a hero, a victim, a difficult moment, and a superpower used to save the day. Who are you in your story? The victim or the hero? Do you activate the superpower or seek to be saved?
Well, when you review your life story, what are your listening tools? Does your story inspire you or despair you? Does your story drive you to action or paralyze you to a state of victimhood and inaction?
The answer to these questions has nothing to do with the facts that surround you. The answer is in a simple choice: Do you author your story, or do you have your story written for you? To become the hero, one needs to choose. To activate the superpower, one needs to aspire. It does not happen by default.
Every moment, we make a choice to be the hero and the story author or merely to become a character in someone else’s story-writing. The person who opted to get divorced, following my presentation, did not do it because I said anything about getting divorced or finding new love in your life. He did so because he heard an insight that called him to take charge of his life. To rise up and write his next chapter and not let others do that for him. He listened to the call deep inside that invited him to become the hero of his life.
We hear what our life story wants to hear. We affirm the layers of story we have crafted over the years and seek to reinforce them. By doing so we further plant our lives in the familiar soil. But is this story the story we would love to write? Is this story bringing the best in us? Is this story leading us to a meaningful fulfillment?
If we were not actively authoring that story, the answer is most likely no. If we do not attempt to author the story and change the listening toolkit, we are living within a story crafted for us but not by us.
Its time to live our story. We start by examining the listening tools and crafting new listening tools that are geared toward creating the story we seek to live.
Important Note — A Book in Progress — A Collaborative approach.
I am currently developing a new book based on this premise. I will be posting new ideas for you to read as I go along. Let’s co-create. share with me your ideas, insights and what messages resonate with you. Thank you.