It’s not how you play the game, it’s how the game plays you.
Chapter 6 – Master My Stories. How to Stay in Dialogue When You’re Angry, Scared, or Hurt
This chapter explores how to gain control of crucial conversations by learning how to take charge of your emotions. By learning to exert influence over your own feelings, you’ll place yourself in a far better position to use all the tools we’ve explored thus far.
No matter who is doing the button pushing, some people tend to react more explosively than others – and to the same stimulus, no less. Why is that? For instance, what enables some people to listen to withering feedback without flinching, whereas others pitch a fit when you tell them they’ve got a smear of salsa on their chin? Why is it that sometimes you yourself can take verbal blow to the gut without batting an eye, but other times you go ballistic if someone so much as looks at you sideways?
EMOTIONS DON’T JUST HAPPEN
To answer these questions, we’ll start with two rather bold (and sometimes unpopular) claims. Then, having tipped our hand, we’ll explain the logic behind each claim.
Claim One. Emotions don’t settle upon you like a fog. They are not foisted upon you by others. No matter how comfortable it might make you feel saying it – others don’t make you mad. You make you mad. You make you scared, annoyed, or insulted. You can only you create your emotions.
Claim Two. Once you’ve created your upset emotions, you have only two options: You can act on them or be acted on by them. That is, when it comes to strong emotions, you either find a way to master them or fall hostage to them.
What’s Making Maria Mad?
Here’s the problem. Maria is treating her emotions as if they are the only valid response. Since, in her mind, they are both justified and accurate, she makes no effort to change or even question them. Besides, in her view, Louis caused them. Ultimately, her actions (saying nothing and taking cheap shots) are being driven by these very emotions. Since she’s not acting on her emotions, her emotions are acting on her – controlling her behavior and fueling her deteriorating relationship with Louis. The worst at dialogue fall hostage to their emotions, and they don’t even know it.
The goodat dialogue realize that if they don’t control their emotions, matters will get worse. So they try something else. They fake it. They choke down reactions and then do their best to get back to dialogue. A least, they give it a shot.
Unfortunately, once these emotionally choked folks hit a rough spot in a crucial conversation, their suppressed emotions come out of hiding. They show up as tightened jaws or sarcastic comments. Dialogue takes a hit. Or maybe their paralyzing fear causes them to avoid saying what they really think. Meaning is kept of out of the pool because it’s cut off at the source. In any case, their emotions sneak out of the cubbyhole they’ve been crammed into a find a way to creep into the conversation. It’s never pretty, and it always kills dialogue.
The bestat dialogue do something completely different. They aren’t held hostage by their emotions, nor do they try to hide or suppress them. Instead, they act on their emotions. That is, when they have strong feelings, they influence (and often change) their emotions by thinking them out. As a result, they choose their emotions, and by so doing, make it possible to choose behaviors that create better results.
This, of course, is easier said than done. It’s not easy to Rethink yourself from an emotional and dangerous state into one that puts you back in control. But it can be done. It should be done.
To help rethink or gain control of our emotions, let’s see where our feelings come from in the first place. Let’s look at a model that helps us first examine and then gain control of your own emotions.
Stories Create Feelings
As it turns out, there isan intermediate step between what others do and how we feel. There’s always an intermediate step because actions themselves can’t and don’t cause emotional reactions. That’s why, when faced with the exact same circumstances, ten people may have ten different emotional responses.
What is this intermediate step? Just afterwe observe what others do and just beforewe feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. We add meaning to the action we observed. We make a guess at the motive driving the behavior. Why were they doing that? We also add judgment – is that good or bad? And then, based on these thoughts or stories, our body responds with an emotion.
We observe, we tell a story, and then we feel. Although this addition complicates the model a bit, it also gives us hope. Since we and only weare telling the story, we can take back control of our own emotions by telling a different story. We now have a point of leverage or control. If we can find a way to control the stories we tell, by rethinking or retelling them, we can master our emotions and, therefore, master our crucial conversations.
Nothing in this world is good or bad, but thinking makes it so – William Shakespeare
Stories provide our rationale for what’s going on. They’re our interpretations of the facts. They help explain what we see and hear. They’re theories we use to explain why, how, and what. … Of course we come up with our own meaning or stories, it isn’t long until our body responds with strong feelings or emotions – after all, our emotions are directly linked to our judgements of right/wrong, good/bad, kind/selfish, fair/unfair, etc.
Even if you don’t realize it, you are telling yourself stories. When we teach people that it’s our stories that drive our emotions and not other people’s actions, someone inevitably raises a hand and says, “Wait a minute! I didn’t notice myself telling a story. When that guy laughed at me during my presentation, I just feltangry. The feeling came first; the thoughts came second.”
Storytelling typically happens blindingly fast. When we believe we’re at risk, we tell ourselves a story so quickly that we don’t even know we’re doing it. If you don’t believe this is true, ask yourself whether you alwaysbecome angry when someone laughs at you. If sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t, then your response isn’thard-wired. That means something goes on between others laughing and you feeling. In truth, you tell a story. You may not remember it, but you tell a story.
Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories. Stories are just that, stories. These explanations could be told in any of thousands of different ways.
If we take control of our stories, they won’t control us. People who excel at dialogue are able to influence their emotions during crucial conversations. They recognize that while it’s true that at first we are in control of the stories we tell – after all, we do make them up of our own accord – once they’re told, the stories control us. They first control how we feel and then how we act. And as a result, they control the results we get from our crucial conversations.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can tell different stories and break the loop. In fact, untilwe tell different stories, we cannot break the loop. … If you want improved results from your crucial conversations, change the stories you tell yourself – even while you’re in the middle of the fray.