Humans 101

The Stories You Tell Yourself Make or Break You

Discontentment begins and ends in your head

Photo: Jordan Cortese / EyeEm / Getty Images

Recently, I sat with my wife in our back garden, a small fire burning in front of us, smoke curling up, the earthy smell of peat hanging in the cool air. I looked up at the stars and planets, sparkling bright in the clear, pitch-black evening sky. A peaceful feeling wrapped me like a warm blanket. I felt so good.

After about an hour, my wife said she wanted to go inside. Seconds after she left, my mind kicked in: “Why is she going in? She should stay out here with me. If we were on a date, she wouldn’t just get up and leave. Not very romantic of her. Maybe she doesn’t love me like she used to.”

I could feel the air slowly leaking out of my tires — the beautiful feeling of peace slowly dissolving into a subtle disturbance.

As I thought about the story I’d created, I remembered the work of former Harvard professor Chris Argyris who explained how our brains selectively take in data, add meaning, and form conclusions and beliefs in milliseconds. He captured this neurological process in a model he called the “Ladder of Inference.”

Model by Chris Argyris; image from Wikipedia

It’s easy to make assumptions and false interpretations — our brains do it automatically, wanting to finish what they interpret as incomplete stories.

Someone we know ignores us when we pass by them; we complete the story by thinking they’re aloof or avoiding us. Someone doesn’t promptly answer an email; we assume they don’t care about us. Our boss calls us unexpectedly to a meeting; we think the worst. These are undoubtedly problematic to a degree, but the real problems occur when we act on our incorrect inferences and false stories. Who among us hasn’t caught themselves making an assumption about someone, only to later realize the assumption was completely wrong?

Argyris’s theory also applies to what happens when our made-up stories become beliefs.

Anna Pease, the senior editor at Management Consulted, says,

Once you form strong beliefs, you may find yourself increasingly selecting data that ends up reinforcing those very same beliefs. This is the “reflexive loop.” It leads you to quickly move up the ladder toward decisions and actions that seem very fact-based. But in reality, they are ultimately a function of the beliefs you had before even considering the objective facts of the situation.

This “reflexive loop theory” helps explain why it’s difficult for people to change firmly held beliefs and biases: We find what we focus on.

Imagine that someone you know has a reputation for being obnoxious at social gatherings. People will be on the lookout for that person’s bad behavior. If someone is consistently quiet in team meetings, those who think that person is disengaged will look for evidence of disengagement. Strong political views are strengthened by selectively choosing facts that support a particular belief.

We find what we focus on.

When we hold onto false stories and act on them, those stories can transform us from being bright, happy, and full of all life’s goodness to being bitter, resentful, and powerless. An event occurs, we attach meaning to the event, take it personally or create a false negative story, and before we know it, we’re miserable and can’t find our way out. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we recognize the false story, we can set ourselves free.

The stories we tell ourselves make or break us.

How to use the ladder of inference

When you make an interpretation, try to make it the most respectful interpretation you can — an “MRI.” Err on the side of assuming good intentions:I bet she’s busy and just forgot to book the order. I’ll send her a friendly reminder” rather than “She never answers her emails” or “She never pays attention to my requests.”

Whenever possible, check your inferences before you form a conclusion or take action. “Hey, based on what you said in the meeting, my inference is you don’t think the project I’m working on will pan out. Is that correct?”

Ask yourself,What don’t I know about this situation? Why did I make this assumption? Is my conclusion based on facts?”

When speaking, make sure people understand your thinking and reasoning. Walk them “up the ladder” in terms of what you think and why. Make it easy for them to understand your thought process, conclusions, and beliefs.

When listening to someone who isn’t explaining their reasoning, ask them to do so. Walk them “down the ladder” by asking questions: “Okay, I see you believe we need to change our customer acquisition strategy. Please help me understand your reasoning and the facts behind your decision.”

Most importantly, be aware of your thought process. Notice what judgments, interpretations, and beliefs you hold.

Sitting in the garden, I replayed the facts in my head — my wife said she wanted to go inside, got up, and left. That’s it. Those are the pure facts. In this case, before I went all the way “up my ladder,” I caught myself and let go of the story I’d made up. As soon as I did, peace flooded back into me. I breathed deeply.

It was getting late, and the fire was burning down. I stood up, walked back into our house, and there was my wife. She said, “Hey, babe, I just wanted to clean up this mess before we hop into bed.”

I chuckled to myself. She had gone inside to wash the dishes.

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