What's Your Story?
The three types of negative stories: victims, villains, and the helpless (2:00)
Why do we use negative stories? (6:55)
How to slow or stop their endless cycle (9:25)
Your turn… (14:50)
WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
Stories play a powerful role in our lives, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most impactful.
Positive stories can help us launch our dreams, achieve our goals, and propel us to the next level. Negative stories can do quite the opposite, and most significantly, our negative stories can create disconnection from others.
Our negative stories allow us to feel good about behaving badly. So, be aware of how you use these kinds of negative stories. Also, become aware of how the people around you – staff, co-workers, friends, family, and acquaintances – use negative stories to manipulate, to rationalize behavior, or to take a conversation totally off course.
THREE TYPES OF NEGATIVE STORIES: VICTIMS, VILLAINS, AND THE HELPLESS
Here are the most common negative stories that frequently rear their ugly heads when I do my coaching work with individuals and teams. Do you notice anything familiar here – from your stories or from the stories of those around you?
“I would have been on time, but my ride overslept.”
“Around here, no one appreciates a person with my attention to detail.”
“I would have loved to have gotten that report in on time, but nobody communicates with clarity.”
You see, for the victim, other people are bad, stupid, mean, or unclear, and the victim suffers as a result. “It’s not my fault” is the mantra of the victim, and it’s the undertone every time you try to hold someone with a victim mentality accountable.
The victim is quick to complain to everybody – except for the person who actually has the ability to address their concern. And the victim always omits the role they played in the situation – which allows them to continue on as the hapless victim.
Here’s another one I see show up…
“I didn’t get a pay increase because you’re a jerk. It’s all your fault.”
“I’m not sloppy; you are a control freak.”
“I can’t believe that bonehead gave me bad materials – again!”
While victims exaggerate their innocence, villains are storytellers who overemphasize the guilt of others, and they like to warn everyone else about the villain’s bad qualities.
“Oh, watch out for him. I worked under him one time, and I could not get a promotion. He just doesn’t know talent when he sees it.”
People who rely on villain stories tend to stay very, very stuck because, after all, look at who they are constantly dealing with – villains!
And then there are…
THE HELPLESS STORIES
“There is nothing else I can do! My hands are tied.”
“I’m not telling anyone the printer isn’t working properly. They wouldn’t fix it anyway.”
“My neighbors’ dog barks until 1:00 a.m. every night, so I don’t sleep!” Did you tell them? “No, they’re jerks. They won’t do anything. I just walk around not getting enough sleep.”
Victim and villain stories look backward to explain behavior, while the helpless stories look forward, explaining why someone can’t do anything to change their situation – they are powerless and without options. Helpless stories allow them to suffer and become resentful in silence.
Do you see yourself or anyone you know in any of these examples? If you’re willing to take a look, I’m sure you will, because we all slip into a negative story at one time or another!
The difference between slipping into a negative story versus becoming stuck in it is:
Being able to see it when it’s happening,
Identifying it, and then,
Bringing yourself out of it.
But there are so many people who don’t do that, who instead, choose to live in their negative story.
So, why would someone do that?
WHY DO WE USE NEGATIVE STORIES?
Negative stories serve several purposes. Take a look and see if any of these resonate with you.
Negative stories help us—
Get off the hook and create a convenient excuse.
Avoid acknowledging that we’ve acted against our own beliefs on the right thing to do.
Avoid admitting that we could have helped someone and didn’t.
Avoid accepting accountability for something, something we should probably apologize for, but we didn’t.
Avoid something we said Yes to that we wanted to say No to (or vice versa).
Become defensive during feedback even though we know we would be better off listening because the feedback is valuable.
HOW TO SLOW OR STOP THEIR ENDLESS CYCLE
When you’re engaging with someone who is in an endless cycle of negative storytelling, gently inquire about their story…
For the victim story, check in about their role in the issue with clarifying, thought-provoking questions such as:
“Hmmm. That’s fascinating. I’m curious … what might you have been able to do differently to get to work on time?”
Or, you could guide them toward talking directly with the person they’re blaming:
“Oh, I hear you’re frustrated about that dog, but, how might you share that frustration directly with your neighbor?”
For the villain story, when it’s directed at us (i.e., you are the jerky boss), we tend to get defensive immediately, and an argument or nasty, emotionally challenging dialogue begins – not around the issue but around the accusation. Pretty soon, you’re not having any talk around the issue. Instead, you’re having a gigantic conversation about this accusation and appreciation, respect, support, or feeling unvalued.
Most of the time, when this happens, the villain has a responsibility in the issue that they aren’t bringing forward.
If you’re talking to someone who didn’t get a raise, they forget to mention that they didn’t do what was required to get the raise. I hear this one all the time when I conduct confidential interviews in preparation for working with a company.
People tell me how they were passed over for a raise or a promotion, and they are mad and angry and resentful. Frequently, they’ve decided to stop contributing at their full potential because they’ve decided that the company is bad.
But what they frequently don’t tell me is they got feedback on being behind on project deadlines, on getting tasks done on time, or maybe they were asked to take another level of training or certification that they didn’t get done. So, take a breath and check in with the villain around what they could have done differently:
“Wow. That doesn’t sound like what I’ve heard about this company, so I’m curious, what might you have done differently that could’ve helped you get that raise?”
“What am I missing here? Because that doesn’t sound like what I’ve heard before.”
For the helpless stories – which are the hardest for me to hear, because I come from a background of entrepreneurs and small business owners, people who worked hard to earn what they have. They like to get things done.
If that sounds like you, too, take a serious look at how you interact with a helpless employee, friend, or family member. Are you someone who jumps in and solves the issue or gets it done for the person stuck in the helpless role because you are a “fixer”? Or because it’s easier to get it done than listen to them complain?
That behavior isn’t going to move the person forward. Sometimes the other person needs to learn (or relearn) how to structure a plan so they can get things accomplished, solve problems, or move forward.
When you hear the helpless story, I encourage you to resist the urge to solve it and instead, ask what they recommend as a possible first step to tackling the problem, and then tell them, “Wow. That sounds great! Get back to me and let me know how it went.”
Negative stories show up most frequently as the precursor to a challenging dialogue that’s going to go very badly. The stories are used to avoid having hard conversations.
I invite you to spend a little time as an observer over the next few days. Be on the lookout for negative stories – told by yourself or by others, or both – so you can learn to spot them.
You might even want to challenge your staff to look for them, and you can help others see the stories 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.
I’d love to hear about your experiences, awareness, and stories about these negative stories, and how you’ve turned them around. Post them on my Facebook page or email them to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org .
p.s. Next week I’m doing a sold-out presentation on this topic for the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce’s Insight Studio. My presentations and talks are engaging, interactive, and generally last for 1 to 2 hours. To book me as a speaker for your next event, email me at email@example.com .
You can also host a 3- to 6-hour workshop on navigating emotionally challenging dialogue at your workplace or organization. For details, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .