What’s your story?
Do you notice anything familiar – from you or from those around you?
Victim Stories – “I would have been on time but my ride over slept.” “They don’t appreciate a person with my attention to detail”. For the victim, other people do bad, stupid or mean things and the victim suffers as a result. "It’s not my fault" is the victim’s mantra.
The victim complains to everyone except to the person who actually has the ability to address their concern. And the victim always seems to omit the role that they played in the issue. This allows them to continue being the hapless victim.
Villain Stories – “I didn’t get a pay increase because you are a jerk. It is all your fault”. “I’m not sloppy. You are a control freak”. “I can’t believe that bonehead gave me bad materials – again!”
Victims exaggerate their own innocence. Villain storytellers overemphasize the guilt of others. And they like to warn everyone else of the villain’s bad qualities.
People who rely on villain stories tend to stay very stuck because after all, look at who they are constantly dealing with – villains!
Helpless Stories – “There is nothing else I can do!” “I’m not telling anyone the printer isn’t working properly. They wouldn’t fix it anyway. There’s nothing I can do.” “My neighbor’s dog barks until 1:00 a.m. every night!” Did you tell them? “No, they are jerks. They won’t do anything. So I don’t sleep.”
Victim and villain stories look backward to explain behavior, while helpless stories look forward to explain why we can’t do anything to change our situation. We are powerless. Helpless stories allow us to suffer in silence.
Do you see yourself or anyone else you know in any of these examples? We all slip into a negative story at one time or another. But some people live there.
Negative stories serve many purposes.
- To get us off the hook and create convenient excuses.
- To avoid admitting that we have acted against our own sense of what is the right thing to do.
- We know we could have helped someone and didn’t.
- We know we should apologize but don’t.
- We said yes to something we wanted to say no to (or vice versa).
- We become defensive during feedback even though we know we should have listened because it was valuable.
When someone is in an endless cycle of negative story telling, gently inquire about his or her story.
Victim Stories – Check in about their role in the issue with clarifying, thought provoking questions such as “Hmmm. I’m curious what you might have been able to do differently in regard to getting to work on time. What are your thoughts?” Or “What might you do differently?” Or guiding them toward talking directly with the person they are blaming “How might you share your frustration directly with your boss?”
Villain Stories – If the storyteller identifies you as the villain, you may get defensive– not around the issue, but around the accusation. The storyteller frequently has responsibility in the issue that they aren’t bringing forward. Check in with the storyteller around what they could have done differently. “That doesn’t sound like Bob. He has always been a pretty fair guy when it comes to raises. What might you have done differently?” Or “What am I missing here? That sure doesn’t sound like Bob.”
Helpless Stories – For me personally, the helpless stories are the hardest to hear. As a manager, sometimes this person needs to learn or relearn how to structure a plan to get things accomplished, solve problems or move forward. Take a serious look at how you interact with the helpless employee, friend or family member. Are you someone who jumps in and solves the issue or gets it done for them because you are a “fixer”? That behavior doesn’t move the person forward. When you hear the helpless story, resist the urge to solve it and instead ask what they recommend to solve the problem and then tell them to get back to you and let you know how it went.
Negative stories show up most frequently as the precursor to challenging dialogue that goes badly. The stories are used to avoid having hard conversations. I invite you to spend time as an observer. Be on the lookout for the use of negative stories (by yourself and by others) so that you can learn to spot them. Help others see them in themselves by sharing an anecdote about a time when you used negative stories to deflect attention from an issue, or to let yourself off the hook.
P.S. Is your organization suffering due to emotionally challenging dialogue gone wrong? Is it impacting your productivity or joy at work? Book 3 or 6 hour team workshops on this topic now for Fall or Winter by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org