What's Your Story?

There is nothing new about seeing our lives as stories.  In Macbeth, Shakespeare defines life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  but as Jonah Lehrer notes in his post “Confabulations,” cognitive neuroscience suggests that stories are how we define ourselves.  This idea has an interesting practical application for the management of conflict.

We struggle to keep our view of the world consistent, and we unconsciously employ a number of techniques to reduce any cognitive dissonance.  When we argue with people, we often think that the force of our reason, or by reason of our force, we can convince them to see things our way.  But that’s not what happens.  Whatever we say is instead ignored or rationalized so that the story they are telling remains intact.

We can get huffy with righteous indignation as we see ourselves as the moral ones, but those we are in conflict with are doing the same.  Ultimately, our emotional outrage gets us nowhere, but the cortisol released, as Ellen Weber explains, does slow our brains down and makes us a bit more idiotic.  We would do better if we looked at the situation strategically.

If we use the self-reinforcing story as a frame to view those we’re arguing with, we get a much better understanding of what we’re up against.  Taking in both how they behave and what they say, we can get a pretty good idea of the story they’re telling, because it would be the same story we would tell in their shoes.  We can bet the main character’s behavior will be blameless.

With their story in mind, we can anticipate their responses to our words and deeds.  We can then determine what approach we need to take to sway them to our point of view, because it will be the same approach it would take to sway us if we were in their shoes. While it will vary from situation to situation, we can count on being more successful if we position what we need others to do as bolstering their self-esteem.

The feeling of righteous indignation is almost as enjoyable as forcefully conveying our righteous indignation to those we think at fault. Yet neither is as enjoyable as successfully resolving a conflict to our benefit.

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