A Coaching Power Tool Created by Lisa Fain
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Dr. Wayne Dyer
We do violence to our destinies whenever we trust our stories over our experience. Martha Beck
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of a paradigm shift he experienced on a subway in New York. A man and his children entered a quiet subway train, and the children were loud and misbehaved. The man sat next to Covey and closed his eyes, seeming to be oblivious to the children’s bad behavior. Though his children were behaving badly, the man did nothing.
Initially, Covey was irritated. He couldn’t believe that this man would let his children run amok on the subway train. The others in the car were apparently irritated as well. With growing frustration, Covey asked the man to do something about his children. The man turned to Covey and said that his wife, the children’s mother, just died about an hour ago and neither he nor the children knew how to process it.
Covey described that his paradigm shifted at that moment and that suddenly he saw things differently, so he thought, felt and behaved differently. No longer irritated, Covey was filled with compassion. This story so perfectly highlights the dichotomy of story vs. experience.
To explain, Covey’s experience was that a man and his children entered a train. The man sat and did not pay attention to his children’s apparently wild behavior. Covey’s initial story was that the man was irresponsible, inconsiderate of other passengers, perhaps so much as a negligent parent. Covey’s response to his story was irritation. When Covey learned that this was a grieving husband and children, his story changed, and thus his reaction changed –this time, to compassion.
Experience is not a choice. Experience is fact – it is not the context or the meaning we ascribe to what has happened, but rather what has actually happened.
The event itself is the experience. The story is the stuff we tell ourselves about the experience.
As Martha Beck says in Steering by Starlight, there are two kinds of suffering:
“Clean pain” and “Dirty pain”. Clean pain is the unpleasantness you feel when something bad happens to you”: You catch the fly, lose a relationship, get in a car accident. Dirty pain is any suffering that comes not from these events themselves but from your thoughts about the events.
Experience is the clean pain. Story is the dirty pain, or at least has the potential to be.
Experience is sometimes not volitional. In fact, often, experience is the result of events beyond our control.
Story is a very powerful thing. Story is a matter of choice. Our story is our creation.
We all create stories about our past and anticipated experiences based on our interpretation of the meaning of these events. These stories help us make sense of our experiences, and can either serve us or hold us back. Often unknowingly we choose stories that are limiting rather than expansive. Many of us do not realize that we can choose the stories we tell ourselves. Though our stories are based on our lens of the world, we often take them as fact and base our feelings, emotions, behaviors and plans on these stories.
Stories can be impacted by what others tell us about our experiences. We create our stories to protect us from harm, to make meaning out of our past.
I recently attended an event here in the Seattle area, called “my story is a wonder”, which encouraged women to tell and “own” their own stories, recognizing that all stories are beautiful. The mantra at this event was “you can’t be free until you own your story.” Indeed, stories ARE a wonder, and freedom comes from owning one’s stories in a way that is empowering and hopeful, rather than limiting. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we have experienced can be very powerful, but we make our own choices about what stories to tell, and freedom comes from owning a story that makes meaning of our experiences in a way that serves us. We have the power to ascribe a different meaning to our stories.
One’s feelings are dependent upon the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of a given situation. Some examples are below:
|Experience||Story 1||Feeling||Story 2||Feeling|
|Received a performance review that showed I was not meeting expectations||My boss doesn’t like me||Helplessness||This feedback is a gift – I can now see what others might see and I can work on improving||Possibility|
|I didn’t get the part I auditioned form||I’m no good as an actor. Better do something else||Disappointment||The role wasn’t right. There is another part out there||Hope|
|I’ve been wanting this thing, but it costs more than I budgeted for||I can’t have what I want.||Scarcity||I’ll have to save more and I can do it by….||Abundance|
Whatever one’s story is, where it is limiting, it is powerful to ask – “is it true? Is this interpretation serving me? Is it limiting or expansive? How else might I look at that?”
I saw this in a coaching client who was dreading an upcoming mediation about child custody issues with her ex-husband. She had left the marriage because she felt her ex-husband had been demeaning and controlling. As she got closer to the mediation, she said that she didn’t want to go because she didn’t want him to try to control her. She was linking mediation with the story she associated with her marriage. This left her feeling powerless.
Helped her see that she left that marriage, built a new life, career and family and was no longer that person. The mediation was her chance to show her ex-husband that she was no longer that person and to advocate for a better situation for her children. As a result of changing her story, she felt strong and empowered. The result of the mediation was mostly in her favor. She attributes this to the perspective she brought to the mediation because she had changed her story about her experience from “victim” to “Survivor/Thriver”
There are many ways to work with a client to differentiate between what happened and the meaning that the client ascribes to the events. One way is to ask a client what other story he/she could ascribe to that experience? What other meaning could be taken from the experience? What is the consequence of ascribing a new meaning? What from your experience shows that something else could be true? Which story serves you?