The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. — Muriel Rukeyser
Understanding your story about a conflict, and how to shift and open up that story, is a powerful force for good in the conflict management work I do with clients. Each client has their own compelling story to tell about what happened, what the other person did that was wrong, and why. But none of us know the whole truth.
We remember our stories, not the actual events.
I read a long time ago about a study of the brain and memory. The researchers discovered that people encoded and remembered the story they crafted about an event or conversation, not what actually happened. This explains a lot about divergent eye witness accounts to a crime, or why two people in a conflict think the other one is lying. In fact, everyone tells themselves different stories about what happened and so they remember it differently.
When I work with clients, I first listen carefully and empathically to their story. They need to tell it and I need to hear it. I ask a lot of follow up questions. I give them a chance to vent, get support, and fully share what is on their minds and hearts about it. Then, ever so gently, I talk about stories and perceptions, and ask them to consider what story the other person might tell about what happened.
There are always multiple stories.
I am offering my clients an invitation to what I call imaginative empathy. Once they begin to open to the possibility of more than one story, they don’t feel so much like a victim. They begin to realize that the other person is walking in their own (sometimes radically different) story, leading to a different perspective on what happened. Then, together these seeming adversaries can begin a different, more compassionate and curious conversation that makes room for multiple perspectives and more effective communication and creative problem solving.
I have found this approach helpful with “C” suite professionals in big corporations, with small business owners, with board members of a non profit, as well as with managers and HR professionals. So, the next time you are in conflict with someone, I encourage you to understand the story you are telling, and be kind and curious about the other person’s story. You might be amazed at the outcome!