Crucial Conversations – Chapter 6 section 3 (part 11 of 18)

Watch for Three “Clever” Stories.

As we begin to piece together why people are doing what they’re doing (or equally important, why we’re doing what we’re doing), with time and experience we become quite good at coming up with explanations that serve us well. Either our stories are completely accurate and propel us in healthy directions, or they’re quite inaccurate but justify our current behavior – making us feel good about ourselves and call for no need to change. … it’s the second kind of story that routinely gets us into trouble.

When we feel a need to justify our ineffective behavior or disconnect ourselves from our bad results, we tend to tell our stories in three very predictable ways. Learn what the three are and how to counteract them, and you can take control of your emotional life. Fail to do so and you’ll be a victim to the emotions you’re predisposed to have wash over you at crucial times.


Victim Stories – “It’s Not My Fault”

The first of the clever stories is the Victim Story. Victim Stories, as you might imagine, make us out to be innocent sufferers. The theme is always the same. The other person is bad, wrong, or dumb, and we are good, right, or brilliant. Other people do bad or stupid things, and we suffer as a result.

Within most crucial conversations, when you tell a Victim Story, you intentionally ignore the role you have played in the problem. You tell your story in a way that judiciously avoids whatever youhave done (or neglected to do) that might have contributed to the problem.


Villain Stories – “It’s All Your Fault”

We create these nasty little tales by turning normal, decent human beings into villains. We impute bad motive, and then we tell everyone about the evils of the other party as if somehow we’re doing the world a huge favor.

In Victim Stories we exaggerate our own innocence. In Villain Stories we overemphasize the other person’s guilt or stupidity. … Labeling is a common device in Villain stories. For example, “I can’t believe that boneheadgave me bad materials again.” By employing the handy label, we are now dealing not with a complex human being, but with a bonehead.

Watch for the double standard. When you pay attention to Victim and Villain Stories and catch them for what are – unfair caricatures – you begin to see the terrible double standard we use when our emotions are out of control. When wemake mistakes, we tell a Victim Story by claiming our intentions were innocent and pure. … On the other hand, when othersdo things that hurt or inconvenience us, we tell Villain Stories in which we inventterrible motives or exaggerate flaws for others based on how their actions affected us.


Helpless Stories – “There’s Nothing Else I Can Do”

Finally come Helpless Stories. In these fabrications we make ourselves out to be powerless to do anything healthy or helpful. We convince ourselves that there are no healthy alternatives for dealing with our predicament, which justifies the action we’re about to take. … Helpless Stories often stem from Villain Stories and typically offer us nothing more than Fool’s Choices – we can either be honest and ruin the relationship or stay silent and suffer.


Why We Tell Clever Stories

Of course, there’s a story behind our stories. They don’t just randomly roll out of our mouths. They serve four important masters.

Clever stories match reality.Sometimes the stories we tell are accurate. The other person is trying to cause us harm, we are innocent victims, or maybe we really can’t do much about the problem. It can happen. It’s not common, but it can happen.

Clever stories get us off the hook. More often than not, our conclusions transform from reasonable explanations to clever stories when they conveniently excuse us from any responsibility – when, in reality, we have been partially responsible.

Clever stories keep us from acknowledging our own sellouts.By now it should be clear that clever stories cause us problems. A reasonable question at this point is, “If they’re so terribly hurtful, why do we evertell clever stories?”

Our need to tell clever stories often starts with our own sellouts. Like it or not, we usually don’t begin telling stories that justify our actions until we have done something that we feel a need to justify. … We sell out when we consciously act against our own sense of what’s right. And after we’ve sold out, we have only two choices: own up to our sellout, or try to justify it. And if we don’t admit to our errors, we inevitably look for ways to justify them. That’s when we begin to tell clever stories. … Sellouts are often not big events. In fact, they can be so small that they’re easy for us to overlook when we’re crafting our clever stories.

When we don’t admit to our own mistakes, we obsess about others’ faults. Our innocence, and our powerlessness to do anything other than what we’re already doing. We tell a clever story when we want self-justification more than results. Of course, self-justification is not what we reallywant, but we certainly act as if it is. … With that in mind, let’s focus on what we really want. Let’s look at the Master My Stories skill.


Tell the Rest of the Story 

Once we’ve learning to recognize the clever stories we tell ourselves, we can move to the final Master My Stories skill. The dialogue-smart recognize that they’re telling clever stories, stop, and then do what it takes to tell a usefulstory. A useful story, by definition, creates emotions that lead to healthy action – such as dialogue.

And what transforms a clever story into a useful one? The rest of the story. That’s because clever stories have one characteristic in common: They’re incomplete. Clever stories omit crucial information about us, about others, and about our options. Only by including all of these essential details can clever stories be transformed into useful ones.

What’s the best way to fill in the missing details? Quite simply, it’s done by turning victims into actors, villains into humans, and the helpless into the able. Here’s how.

Turn victims into actors. If you notice that you’re talking about yourself as an innocent victim (and you weren’t held up at gunpoint), ask:

  • Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?

Turn villains into humans. When you find yourself labeling or otherwise vilifying others, stop and ask:

  • Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?

Turn the helpless into the able.Finally, when you catch yourself bemoaning your own helplessness, you can tell the complete story by returning to your original motive. To do so, stop and ask:

  • What do I really want? For me? For others? For the relationship?

Then kill the Fool’s Choice that’s made you feel helpless to choose anything other than silence or violence. Do this by asking:

  • What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?



If strong emotions are keeping you stuck in silence or violence, try this.


Retrace Your Path

Notice your behavior. If you find yourself moving away from dialogue, ask yourself what you’re really doing.

  • Am I in some form of silence or violence?

Get in touch with your feelings. Learn to accurately identify the emotions behind your story.

  • What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?

Analyze your stories. Question your conclusions and look for other possible explanations behind your story.

  • What story is creating these emotions?

Get back to the facts. Abandon your absolute certainty by distinguishing between hard facts and your invented story.

  • What evidence do I have to support this story?

Watch for clever stories. Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories sit at the top of that list.


Tell the Rest of the Story


  • Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?
  • Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?
  • What do I really want?
  • What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?