Mr. Puhy, my favorite high school teacher, once told me, “If you are a leader, people watch what you do and follow your example.” Today, oh so many years later, the advice still rings in my ears. Not only am I a leader, I am also a certified Crucial Conversations trainer and have taught Crucial Conversations to over 1,500 leaders and staff in the healthcare industry since 2006. One of my favorite elements of the Crucial Conversations model focuses on how “stories” – our interpretations, assertions and judgments about others – affect our emotions, which affect our actions. Negative stories lead to emotions like fear and anger, which can lead to behaviors like yelling, using sarcasm or avoiding the other person all together. The end result is a damaged relationship and poor results.
I hold myself to a tough standard, being both a facilitator of the Crucial Conversations training and a leader of a team: I have to practice what I preach. It helps that the skills and concepts in the program align with my values. So, after almost 10 years of teaching and coaching others on the use of the skills, you would think I am the epitome of respect, trust and level-headedness when in the throes of a crucial conversation. You would be wrong. Even today, I find myself falling back into stories that lead to ineffective behaviors, which damage relationships and whittle away at trust. The stories have been written over a long period of time, and like my favorite old books, they are frayed at the corners, grubby with my finger-prints from constant use.
When I find myself pulling my favorite negative stories off the shelf, I have to make a deliberate effort to stop and examine the negative story so I avoid damaging relationships and messing up results. In the grip of anger or fear, this is a tough thing to do. I have learned to use the following steps, described as “Mastering My Stories” in the Crucial Conversations model, to stop the old story and consider a new story:
- Separate Facts from Stories: I start by separating the facts of the situation from the story I am telling myself. Separating facts from stories opens my mind to a variety of reasons why someone might be behaving a certain way.
- Watch for Three Clever Stories: I recognize when I am caught in the three typical stories that allow me to justify my own bad behavior: when I am playing the victim (poor me, I am the only one who cares); when I am painting others as villains (they do not care about anything but themselves); or when I am acting helpless to do anything about the situation (nothing will change, so why bother?).
- Tell Myself the Rest of the Story: I tell myself a new, different story to generate different emotions and get a different result. I evaluate the role I am playing in the situation; I consider other reasons why people may be behaving a certain way; and I identify something I can do to get a different result.
The skills apply in any environment: work, home, school, and social groups. When you find yourself nose-deep in an old story about another person and your feelings and behaviors are starting to degenerate, there is a good chance you are negatively impacting the people and relationships around you. By recognizing you are doing this, then taking deliberate steps to tell yourself a new story, you increase the chances of having a positive impact on those people and relationships. As a leader, interactions that build trust and result in positive results are good not only for you, but for your team and the organization as well. Manage your stories and you manage yourself. Manage yourself and you demonstrate behaviors others will watch and want to follow.
Teresa Oliszewicz is the Director of Organizational Development for the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. She is a Certified Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability trainer, and a doctoral student in values-driven leadership, at Benedictine University.