Stories are powerful. 

They entertain us. They help us communicate. They invite us to connect with others. 

But the stories we tell ourselves as we try to make sense of the world around us might be the most powerful. 

My teenage son recently ran headfirst into the power of his own stories. 

It happened during band practice at school. While playing one of their songs, my son accidentally played a note when he wasn’t supposed to–something he wouldn’t commonly do.

One of the other boys in his section commented on my son’s mistake. He said, “I can’t believe you did that. You probably shouldn’t be in our section anymore.”

It was something one teenage boy would tell another to get them riled up or tease them. Boys being boys. 

But that’s not how my son took it. He’s a sensitive kid and his relationships with others are important to him. So, while it may have been meant as a joke, it felt to him like he’d been voted off the island. 

Class ended and everyone moved on with their day.  

The boy who made the comment was someone my son considered a friend. But this comment started him writing a new story about the relationship.

In his story, this friend and another boy who had laughed didn’t think really believed that he wasn’t worthy of playing in their section. And, worse, they didn’t like him anymore.  

He’d been ostracized and excluded in this story, so he started looking for further evidence to support it. 

Were they avoiding him?

Were they laughing at him? 

He saw evidence supporting his story everywhere he looked. For a few days, this became all-consuming for him. He was distraught about it. 

When I couldn’t help him resolve it on our own, I had to contact the band director to ask if she knew what had happened. She did not, but promised to do some investigating. This included contacting the other boy’s parents to inquire if they knew what had happened.

When the other boy found out how my son had taken his comment, he felt terrible. He immediately reached out to my son to apologize and tell him he was only kidding. 

In mere seconds, my son’s story was erased and replaced with a new one based on what actually happened.

And everything was right with the world again. 

Our Stories Shape Our Relationships

My son’s story is typical in teenage circles. But I think it happens just as often in grown-up life.

We are quick to write stories, particularly when our interactions with others don’t align with our expectations. Unfortunately, our human nature biases us to write stories with worse-case scenarios.  

For example…

A person cuts you off in traffic. You write a story about how rude and dumb they are.  

A colleague interrupts you in a meeting. You write a story about how they don’t respect you and probably never have. 

Your boss doesn’t respond to your email promptly. You write a story about how they don’t care about your needs. 

Someone doesn’t say hi when they pass you in the hall. You decide they must be rude or worse, they don’t like you.  

An employee comes late to a meeting. A story begins about how irresponsible and disorganized they must be.

You can probably see the problem. 

Once the story begins, it affects how we behave. We not only start looking for other evidence to support our story, but we also start showing up and treating others according to our story. 

When the stories are wrong (as is too often the case), this can have terrible consequences. If my story is that you don’t like me, I may show up in a way that makes me less likable. Subconsciously, I’m making my story real through my behavior. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Instead of our stories controlling us, we can take control of our stories.  

Shaping Our Own Stories

If lowering the drama and increasing your effectiveness at work (and in life) appeals to you, the following steps will help you begin to control the stories you tell yourself about others. 

Consider the following actions when your interaction with another person isn’t what you expected.

1. Pay attention to your reaction. 

Ask yourself, what story am I telling myself about what just happened? Can you catch yourself in the act of writing the story? By noticing the story, you can choose to either challenge it or re-write it. 

Having teenagers, I get to practice this all the time. I’m prone to assume that when they don’t behave as I expect or do something I didn’t anticipate, it’s teenagers doing teenage (read irresponsible) things. But when I do that, whether I’m right or wrong in my assumption, it sends the message to them that I don’t trust them and I expect them to do irresponsible things. Not what I intend. 

So, I have to challenge myself constantly to pause before I write any story or act on any story so I don’t do unintentional damage. 

2. Consider what you know for certain.  

Our stories about others are frequently based on assumptions we make about the meaning of what happened versus what actually happened. 

Take my son’s experience as an example. When we debriefed it with the benefit of hindsight, I asked him to consider what he knew for sure about what happened and what he had assumed. 

He recognized that the only thing he knew for sure was what was said. And he knew how that comment made him feel. Everything else in his story was his assumptions about what it all meant. 

When you strip it down to what you know for certain, it will help you diffuse the story, hopefully leaving you curious about what truly happened. 

3. If you aren’t sure, ask.  

Once you’ve noticed and interrupted the story cycle by asking what you know for sure, the next step might be to seek out more information. This may not always be needed, but let’s consider a few places where it can be helpful. 

Example 1: You leave a meeting with your boss feeling as if your boss was repeatedly hinting that you aren’t meeting her expectations. Traditionally, you might have written a story that your boss thinks you are doing a terrible job. That would have thrown you into a despression spiral.

This time, you instead notice that you are writing a story about what happened. You realize that the only thing you know for sure is how you felt after the meeting. Your boss never said anything directly about your performance. 

In this case, the best thing to do is circle back to your boss and ask for clarity and feedback. You might say, “For some reason, I left our meeting feeling like I might not be meeting your expectations somehow. Did I imagine that, or are there some areas where you’d like me to improve my performance?”  

By asking a direct question, you’ll likely gain some clarity about what happened in that conversation. Either you were rightly picking up on something, and now you know what you need to do. Or you were misreading the situation and have assurances that you are doing fine.  

Example 2: You receive a reply email from a colleague responding to an idea you’d sent them. The email copy reads, “I’m unsure how this could work.” That’s it.

You’ve had a rough morning, so your reaction to this email feels defensive. You start writing a story about how this person never supports your ideas. 

But you pause and look at the email again. It could mean a lot of things. So, you reply to the email asking if the person could spare a few minutes to discuss and share more of their thoughts.  

Email communication, in particular, is a field of landmines that can go off in the form of unhelpful stories. Short replies without context can send us down a rabbit hole of assuming terrible things. 

Regardless of the type of communication, when you aren’t sure what is being communicated, ask.

Even my teenage son realized in hindsight that had he simply asked, “Are you making fun of me or are you serious?” he could have avoided days of agony.  

When in doubt, just ask. 

4. Assume positive intentions.

The last tip is less about preventing stories and more of a hack for using stories in a positive and powerful way.  

This one changed my life. It involves making intentional choices about how we frame what others do around us, particularly those things we don’t expect.  

Instead of letting my mind write any story it wants (which will almost always be a worst-case story), I learned to instead assume the best. 

When presented with a situation where there are a variety of ways to interpret what someone else has done, I choose to assume the other person has positive intentions. This choice allows me to live in a positive story about the interaction and react from that place. 

For example, let’s use the cheesy but real (in my case) example of when someone cuts you off in traffic. In the old days, when that happened, I’d write a pretty terrible story about the other person. That story would generally result in me reacting to them with a wide range of behaviors I am not proud of (from colorful hand gestures to aggressive driving).  

Today, by assuming positive intent, after a person cuts me off, I immediately think, “Wow, they must really need to be somewhere in a hurry.” I imagine that they are racing to the hospital because a loved one was injured. Maybe they got a call from the school that something bad happened to their child.  

In either case, I just want to get out of their way so they can get to where they need to be.

As soon as I choose that story, it’s over. No reaction, no hand gestures, no aggressive driving. 

The same thing can happen when you get a passive-aggressive or unclear email. It’s as simple as assuming the sender was in a hurry or distracted when they sent it.

Then, instead of reacting defensively, you might follow up by asking more questions.  

Or when your co-worker walks right past you in the hall without saying hi or acknowledging you, assuming positive intent means choosing a forgiving story. Maybe they have a lot on their mind, or they are worried about something and just didn’t see you. Either way, no reaction, no hard feelings. Just moving on with the day.  

Choose Your Stories Wisely

The stories we tell ourselves about others and their actions can profoundly impact our relationships and how we show up in the world. 

Rather than automatically writing negativity-fueled worst-case scenarios, we can pause, get curious, and intentionally shape more positive narratives. By paying attention to our reactions, focusing on what we know for sure, asking for clarity when needed, and choosing to assume good intentions, we can diffuse damaging stories and rewrite new ones that allow us to interact with more openness, empathy, and understanding. 

The next time you find yourself crafting an unhelpful tale, remember – the story you tell becomes the lens through which you see the world. 


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Jason Lauritsen