The Power of a Good Story

As we head into the holiday season, chances are high we will be faced with a friend or family member that makes our blood pressure rise and sends us spiraling into the emotional abyss.  You might even be playing out potential conversations in your head with your more challenging family members.  Does it feel like you’re getting ready for battle?

For years, I have been readying myself for yearly battle with my uncle, who usually calls me his favorite “Democrap,” and is incredulous that my parents “wasted college money on a girl”.  My strategy in years past has been to be prepared with clever comebacks, sarcastic comments, and sometimes just plain mean responses.  I was going to the typical fight-or-flight response humans still do after hundreds of thousands of years.

I know now that I’ve been telling negative stories about my uncle: “he’s a sexist”, “he’s so close-minded”, to “with the way he treats me, he must not love me.” All of these stories produced negative emotions in me and left me off-balance, prone to fight, and rarely present in the conversation. 

Last year, tired of feeling defeated and sad every Thanksgiving, I decided to try a new approach and incorporate ideas from Crucial Conversations.  The authors hypothesize that the stories we tell ourselves drive our emotions; in other words, if you don’t tell yourself a story, you don’t have an emotion.  Additionally, we can control our emotions or we can be controlled by them.  If I was able to tell myself a positive story about my uncle, I could remain calm and emotionally stable.

My hope was two-fold:  stay emotionally stable and be kind.  My intent was NOT to change my uncle but to see if a change of heart would affect this historical dance.  Changing your story doesn’t mean becoming passive or complacent, rather the goal is to get to a place where dialogue is more effective and productive. This change of heart would require me to alter the story I tell myself about my uncle.  In preparation for my visit, I had a couple of stories I could regularly tell myself that week, ranging from “he’s had a hard life,” or “he took great care of my grandmother,” or “he is passionate about wildlife preservation.”  The goal was not to scrutinize whether these stories are 100% true, rather, the intent was to remain emotionally stable.

When the old dance began, I ran these new, positive stories through my head, like a mantra and just smiled.  I could tell almost immediately that he noticed.  I kept the stories circulating and began to feel not only calm but an overwhelming feeling of love for him.  Because my story about him changed, my emotions changed.  After he tried a few more attempts to “wind me up”, I got up from my chair and put my arms around him and told him I loved him.   From that moment on, we stopped our old dance and began something new.  The rest of the week was filled with laughter and joy. The week was also filled with questions leading from my curiosity about his experiences and where his positions came from. We were able to better understand our worldviews and the impacts that our words have had on each other over the years.

The power of a positive story is that it gives you the control to affect your emotions and those around you.  Check out the Crucial Conversations blog for more tips and skills to improve your holiday dialogues:

Wishing you happy holidays with many positive stories!

By Lisa Neale, Associate Director, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

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