Rehearsing Our Stories

“We were at the store and she began telling me that I couldn’t buy the lawn mower. But I wasn’t going to buy it; I was just asking the clerk to see if I could get a discount. She got moody and…”
Many of my new coaching clients are surprised when I tell them at this point we’re going to skip the rest of the story. If they’ve been in therapy, they may have been encouraged to tell these “war” stories. And while I can imagine times it might be helpful, most of the time I don’t want or need to hear them; and my clients don’t need to rehearse the sloppy thinking they represent or the burning resentment they inflame.

Coaching faces forward; we’re steering along a path that asks, “Where do you want to go from here?” with very little emphasis on “Where have you been?” Most of the importance of the stories of being wronged or slighted by their partner (whether the person is sitting in the coaching session or not, a life partner or a business colleague or boss) can be captured by addressing questions about what is the goal in this coaching session or in their life.

When I begin to hear a story that is full of the kind of righteousness and blame that underpins most disagreements with fight-partners (those we regularly tangle with), I cheerfully barge right in and call a stop. I’m interested in what could the speaker could have done differently to change a fight into an effective conversation about solutions, to reach a goal of theirs, to simply create a moment of alliance with their partner or to change their own behavior?

I’m personally and acutely aware that life can feel hard and conversations with partners are often very difficult and even unfair for one or both conversants. And even more importantly, I know that the chances of changing the outcome of these entanglements are slight, if you haven’t first changed yourself. So, I start reprising stories about failed encounters with an approach that promises the most leverage to change future stories; how can you change your behavior? This is the one area of life we all have some control over.

Stories just encourage us to rehearse our past mistakes and find evidence to support our old, tired way of viewing things. If we instead look for new ways to reshape our interactions, we get to practice new behaviors and new ways of seeing things.

All this effort to find new solutions may feel like it is ignoring the fact that you may have a suitcase full of feelings about how you’ve been treated or spoken to in the past and you may feel it’s important that someone agrees that you’ve been wronged. The problem with this approach is that in some way both sides feel wronged, and while the grievances are rarely exactly even, each person is likely to have legitimate issues. Those issues will need to be addresses at some point.

The emphasis on changing yourself first is an attempt at creating safety in the relationship so that the process of negotiating your travels together is quicker, more productive and builds empathy. Stories rehash past mistakes, focusing on the future builds new skills, collaboration and pleasure.