Difficult Conversations:
The art and science of thinking together

Slides and Speaker Notes

THE limits of our story

As we've seen, sharing our stories at a meaningful level is a powerful way to connect with "the other." It helps us understand that, despite our tremendous diversity, there's a common core to the human experience that connects us all at a very deep level.

At the same time, our “story self” has its limits, including being the source of the amygdala hijack, as we saw earlier. Understanding our story's limits allows us to wield its power more responsibly. So let’s dive into it.

I want to start by asking you to hold up to your face the story you depicted on your transparency paper. Look through it. Notice how it obscures your vision, making it hard to see what’s really there.

Now, with your story still held up to your eyes, turn and look at the person next to you. Your combined filters have doubled the cloudiness and the complexity — another reminder of why difficult conversations can be so difficult! This is really important to keep in mind.

So here are two essential takeaways…

One, our “story self” always sees the present through the lens of the past. Experiences have to happen before they help form us. That means when we are looking at things through our story, we’re never seeing things exactly as they are – or at least, we’re never seeing the whole picture.

Two, looking through the lens of past experience creates a filter that can distort our perception. Now, our story has its uses for sure. Inside our bubble is important knowledge like, "don’t put your hand on a hot stove."

But when it comes to conversation, serious distortions can occur when past experiences are inappropriately brought into the present moment – when we keep them beyond their ‘sell by” date. This is very important for understanding conflict.

Click to play.

This video helps us understand just how subjective and error-prone and our perceptions can be— and how easy it can be to manipulate them. (Warning: It moves fast!)



Let's quickly review some of the psychological factors that influence and even determine how we perceive our environment. [Read slide.]

I don't know about you, but I find it humbling that so many factors can impact how and what we see!

I've already shared one personal example of badly misperceiving a situation thanks to my filters: the story about the man taking karate.

But let me share one more story that shows how we can be absolutely convinced of something that is not, in fact, true. I call this the parking story.

Shortly after the birth of our first son my wife was self-conscious about the weight she had yet to lose from the pregnancy. She was feeling "fat."

This preoccupation became a factor in our marriage whenever I drove our car into a double-line parking space. Without thinking, I'd park the car closer to the left side of the space, in effect giving her more room to get out on the right side.

Now, she thought I was doing this on purpose — a passive-aggressive way to tell her that I thought she was fat! It upset her and she became angry, which stunned me because the real explanation was entirely different: Given that the driver sits on the left side of the car, it's natural to favor the left. But her sensitivity to the issue led her to attribute an intention to my actions that simply did not exist. It actually took some time to convince her otherwise. In fact, I'm still not sure she believes me! This illustrates how our story can actually prevent us from taking in new information.

One way we know when we're looking at the world through the distorting power of our story is when something "pushes our button" and we get upset  or angry. Having our button pushed is an example of a conditioned response. In the presence of "Stimulus A" there's an automatic "Response B." The only reason we have that response is because somehow we learned it. It's a lesson from our life experience.  

So here's what we're going to do. We're  going to do a little activity to get in touch with the kinds of things that "push our buttons."  Each of you will get a sheet of large round stickers, and on each sticker write one thing that sets you off — the attitudes, behaviors and beliefs that elicit from you a strong reaction. Once you've written in your buttons, attach them somewhere on the front of your clothing.

Now, stand up and look at each other's buttons. There's a minefield out there!

Now I'd like you to select one of your buttons. Preferably one of your "hottest" buttons. See if you can connect this button to some aspect of your story...something you learned or experienced that helped to create it. 

I'll give you a few minutes, and then have you break into pairs to share what came up for you.

Now one of the big implications of everything we've talked about so far is what I call the "Conversation Catch-22." It goes like this: We've seen that looking at the world through our "story self" can distort our perceptions, and that to create a more accurate picture we need to be open to other perspectives. But as we saw earlier, we conflate our story with our self, and so shut down other perspectives if they threaten our story! 

So what to do? We need to detach from our story...to gain some distance from it so that we're not personally threatened when it's challenged. This is the topic of our third exploration: The Power of our Un-Story.