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When Was the Last Time You Did a Reality Check?

All of us are innate storytellers. We discussed that in our last blog post (and this figures prominently into the first chapter of our book Thriving in Business and Life).

The ability to create and act out stories; to convincingly cast ourselves and others in various roles, is one of our most remarkable abilities as humans. But there’s another more challenging dimension to this imaginative capability—one that is so deeply embedded that we often overlook it.

Research shows that—due our creative abilities and the brain’s acceptance of our imaginative versions of daily life as bona fide reality—we are often oblivious to the difference between the actual facts of a given situation and the meaning we have imposed on those facts.

How and why does this happen?

Because the meaning we impose is typically born out of our historically rooted version of what’s real . . . to us it appears seamless—as if our story and the “truth” were one and the same. Our attachment to the way we see and interpret things is often so interwoven with our identity that we may push aside hard facts in order to preserve our picture of the world (and ultimately, who we are in that world).

But the deeper truth is, we all see “facts” differently. We assign meaning in very subjective ways. And here’s where it gets really interesting. The conflicts that may arise between us may often not be about the facts at all, but about the differences in the meaning we are applying to those facts.

As a leader, one of your most important responsibilities is to assess situations accurately so you can respond effectively, and to help others do the same. But how can you do that when you may be unconsciously distorting your assessment with the story you are telling about it?

Doing a reality check:

Imagine being able to quickly distinguish between the facts of any situation and the meaning you are imposing onto what’s happening. How might you do this?

By regularly asking ourselves two key questions:

  • What meaning have I imposed on this situation?

  • How is that meaning affecting how I’m responding and the assumptions I’m making?

To play with this idea, let’s think of a situation we’ve all probably experienced: driving a car in traffic when someone suddenly cuts you off.

When this happens, what story do you tend to make up about the other driver? What meaning do you impose on the facts?

Most of us react instinctually and immediately create a story about why they did it. You might assume they are being intentionally rude or even deliberately malicious.

And, if you allow your freshly minted story about what happened to go on uninterrupted, you might go on to add some dialogue into your story, imagining what you’d like to say to them. Maybe you voice your thoughts out loud. You might even make a gesture of some kind. Or wish you could.

But let’s stop and focus on your experience of being cut off in traffic. Here’s what’s really going on . . .

Your reaction is a choice. And it's based on the story you made up about what happened and what you made the facts mean. There could be other reasons for why they cut you off. Maybe they’re simply a bad driver. Or perhaps something’s going on in their life that has them off balance or in a panic. You may never know for sure.

But if you’re emotionally triggered, it’s difficult to realize that your story isn’t “the truth.” That’s why taking a deep breath and asking those two key questions is so helpful. It’s a pattern-interrupt that allows us the chance to create a more productive story that opens our mind to more possibilities than our own reactive story might foster . . . one that allows us to maintain a thriving state of mind.

The more we practice this approach, the more we recognize that are always differences between the facts (someone cut you off in traffic) and the meaning you impose on those facts (they’re rude or drunk or out to get you).

You can make a thriving choice by acknowledging this process and refusing to be triggered whether it’s on the road, in your office or at home. This doesn’t excuse rude behavior or bad driving, for example, but it extricates you from victimhood and heading down a road towards retaliation (which almost never ends well) or other reactions you’ll later regret.

In the coming months, we'll be introducing a new online course, The 12 Essential Practices of Thriving in Business and Life. It's a game, actually, that is designed to help participants apply these types of learning in their day-to-day life. In the meantime, though, here's a challenge for you to apply this week:

Challenge yourself to interrupt an instinctive reaction and make a thriving choice instead. Examine the story you are telling to discover the meaning you are making about the facts of the situation. Ask yourself: “Is this the meaning I want to make?” And–if not–generate a different story. Develop your ability to create your experience proactively rather than being reactive.

Chris Harding and Will Wilkinson

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