Difficult Conversations:
The art and science of thinking together

Slides and Speaker Notes

The Power of our Unstory

As I mentioned, in this next section we're going to talk about the power of our "un-story." Specifically, how being detached from our "story self" can unleash our natural capacity to be open, responsive and creative — even in the midst of a difficult conversation.

So let's start with a question: What does it mean to "detach from your story"?




For the purpose of our exploration, I'd like to offer this definition: It means decoupling our "story self" from our survival drive — to not confuse a challenge to our story as a threat to our physical  existence.  So it does not push our buttons and activate our amygdala hijack.

Why? So that we can be open, present and responsive.

Hold up your transparency paper again. Hold it close to your face. Notice again how your vision is clouded. Now hold it away from your face. Now you're able to take in a bigger picture.

Remember the button exercise? Take those stickers and attach them to your transparency paper. Not only is your vision cloudy, it has land minds on it! Land minds others can’t see, and that even you may not be aware of.

When our buttons get pushed, all of our energy goes into protecting our "story self.” This puts our story front and center to our vision, making it impossible to see around it. 

Detaching from our story means being aware of our buttons, and having enough objectivity to not let our emotions take over. 

We gain the ability to see beyond our story. And that allows us to take in new information, see new options, and make better, wiser decisions.

If that sounds like a tall order, here’s some good news. Detaching from our story is not that hard to do. Studies show that simply thinking about an issue from a distance makes us wiser! (Read slide.) 

And here’s more good news: We detach from our story all the time without thinking about it!

Remember earlier we talked about our Default Mode Network, and how it creates our sense of self…our “story self”? Turns out there’s more to us than that. There’s another “self” in there too.


Research shows that when we engage in goal directed tasks that consume our attention, our Default Mode Network becomes far less active. We “forget about ourselves.”

This other ‘self” has a completely different set of qualities to it…but common to them all is that they get us “out of head” – out of our story. That’s why I like to call it our “un-story” self.

This is sometimes called being in a state of flow. Those who study the the psychology of flow identified the following characteristics or qualities. (Read slide.)

(I also want to point our that these attributes are also often associated with the rush of falling in love.)

Throughout our life we get glimpses of this state of flow, so let's take a moment to reflect on and then share our answers to these questions.

The point of all this is to bring to awareness that we already know we're more than our story, and that we actually experience our "un-story self" pretty often. We just have not named the experience. And naming it can help us access it more consciously.

And why would we want to?

Research shows we tend to be happiest when in our "un-story" state, and least happy when in our "story" state. (Read slide.)

It makes sense. Usually when we’re self-preoccupied it’s because something is wrong! We don’t feel well, physically or emotionally. Often these times are accompanied by negative emotions: anger, fear, hurt, regret, anxiety, etc. Our energy is constrictive, and pulls us inward.

Our “un-story” self is associated more with positive emotions…love, joy, compassion, gratitude. Our energy is expansive and pulls us outward.

There’s a biological basis for this.  Negative emotions stimulate our sympathetic nervous system, which uses up our bodies resources (fight or flight). 

Positive emotions stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system, which builds up the bodies resources by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and muscle tension.

And not only are we happier in our un-story state, we’re also more responsive.  (Read slide.)



So given its benefits, how do we consciously connect with our un-story self — our ability to detach, step back and take in the larger picture?

One way we’ve experienced: by listening to the story of another. Here are three other powerful ways.


Studies in neurobiology show that awe, wonder and gratitude are powerful ways to unleash the attributes we associate with our "un-story." (Read slide.)

Psychology professor Robert Emmons has spent his career studying gratitude. His summary of the benefits:  ingratitude shrinks the self; gratitude expands the self. 

To get in touch with the power of awe, wonder and gratitude, let's take a few minutes for a simple exercise. Take a moments to reflect on these two questions (read slide). Afterward, you'll have a chance to share your comments with the folks in your small group. 

Turns out that detaching from our story self not only makes us happier and increases our ability to respond creatively, it also gives us what I think of as superpowers.

It lets us step into the world of others without fear, to explore the broader range of what it means to be human. 

This is the most powerful manifestation of living out of our un-story. We are so detached we experience no resistance toward even our most threatening enemy. There are many examples of this, though we don’t hear about them. Let me tell you about a few I know.

We know this story because we listened to her TED talk. This is Megan Phelps-Roper with David Abitol, also known by his twitter handle, "Jewliscious." David did not let Megan's story create a conflict with his own story. He did allow himself to be threatened by her views or succumb to his survival drive impulses. That gave him the power to look beyond Megan's story to the human being he knew was there.

This is Michael Kent and Tiffany Whittier. Michael was a committed white nationalist who at one point in his life landed in jail. When he got out he was assigned Tiffany as his case officer. It was she who turned him around and got him to leave the White Nationalist movement. She did not resist him. She accepted him, saying “It’s not my job to judge him. I’m not here to judge.” He was transformed by her love. “If she can see the good in me; then I can too.”

This is Matthew Stevenson with Derek Black. Derek's father, Don Black, is the creator of Stormfront, the Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site, with 300,000 users and counting. His mother, Chloe, had once been married to David Duke, one of the country’s most infamous racial zealots, and Duke had become Derek’s godfather. They had raised Derek at the forefront of the movement, and some white nationalists had begun calling him “the heir.”

Things began to change for Derek when he entered college. At first he tried to hide his identity and his affiliation with the white nationalist movement. But one day he got "outed" by his classmates, who first reacted by shunning Derek. Then they had a change of heart. They realized that “ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything.” So they set themselves a challenge: “Who’s clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy’s mind?”

Matthew Stevenson thought he was. He sent Derek a text message, inviting him to join weekly Shabbat dinners at his campus apartment. Derek arrived with a bottle of wine. Nobody mentioned white nationalism or the forum, out of respect for Matthew. Derek was quiet and polite, and he came back the next week and then the next, until after a few months, nobody felt all that threatened. The experience -- and the conversations over dinner -- transformed Derek. He left the white nationalist movement. His mother disowned him. His father still has hopes he will return to the fold.

For a wonderful and illuminating interview with Derek and Matthew, check out this podcast.

One more example: Daryl Davis and Scott Shepard. Daryl Davis is a black musician who befriends members of the KKK. Dozens have left the KKK as a result. Daryl collects their robes like trophies.

One of Daryl’s former-white-supremacist friends is Scott Shepherd. He was once a Grand Dragon in the Klan. Now, thanks to Daryl Davis, he's an anti-racism activist.

Optional video

Let me play you this short clip from a news interview piece about Daryl. (Play video.)

In the video, Daryl Davis talked about the experience of putting on a KKK robe, much to the horror of the interviewer.  It's important to make clear that he ' not condoning what they say or what they do. He's not approving the action.

But he is separating himself from his story, and just as important, he's separates the KKK person from his story as well. He sees the human behind the story, and therefore the possibility of change, and he uses that to his advantage.

We’re going to take some time for a couple of reflections on these “superhero” examples: David, Tiffany, Matthew and Daryl. 

First, in your small group, take a few minutes to share your response to these examples of engaging creatively with “the enemy.” Why do you think they had the impact they did?

[Give them 5 minutes to share their responses. Afterward, ask a few people to share their reflections in the large group.]

Two points I’d like to highlight. One is that none of our superheroes agreed with or approved of their enemies’ beliefs and actions, In fact, in every case they were at first motivated to change those beliefs and actions. 

They just knew that to do that to have any hope of success, they had to connect with the human being behind the beliefs and actions, behind the story. If they could touch that humanity, transformation was possible.

Second, none of them needed the other person to change to maintain a genuine and satisfying relationship. Speaking about one KKK member he had formed a relationship with, Daryl said: “He will tell you he is not my friend. But I am his friend.” And Michael, who is Jewish, would say about Derek, the white nationalist, “I think it’s worth pointing out that I was legitimately friends with Derek, even when I frankly didn’t know exactly where he stood.”

Our heroes wanted the other person to change, if only for their own good. At the same time, they totally accepted them for who they were.

So here’s just something for you to think about. I call it The Superhero Challenge. Think of a person whose views or ideology you find threatening or difficult to accept. With an attitude of acceptance, go make friends with them. It’s not to do now, but to take home with you.

Let's take another short break.