S1:E13 – Once Upon A Time – Are The Stories You Are Telling Yourself Really True?


In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the power of stories in our lives. However, our stories when not well-formed can get us into trouble with poor decisions and regrettable actions. Powerful questions lie at the heart of helping us develop more accurate stories and more grounded assumptions. 



Don’t forget to check out my You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Irvine: Well, hello everyone and welcome to the Resilient Leadership podcast. Where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction even in anxious times. My name is Irvine Nugent and I’m joined as always by my wonderful co-host Bridgette Theurer. How are you doing today, Bridgette?

Bridgette: I am doing let’s see, let me check in with myself instead of giving you a perfunctory response. I’m doing well. I really am. I am feeling grounded and also optimistic how’s that?

Irvine: I love that. Yeah. I was just opening the windows this morning, there’s just a beautiful breeze coming in here in DC. And I was just, oh, it’s good. It is good to be alive and to have nature blowing in and I’m so wonderful and calm in the wind. Well, I’m excited about today’s episode. Now, if you listen to the last episode, you know that I had adventures in Ireland and one of the things that struck me, if you go, and this is not just Ireland, it’s an all tours that we go on. But whenever you go to a different place, there’s always a story about that place. And it makes it of course engaging, et cetera, and in Ireland, that’s part and parcel. And most of the time the stories are true and some of the times there’s a little bit of addition to them to make them even more exciting.

And it reminded me of one of my favourite quotes. It’s from the great American poet Muriel Rukeyser. And she said the universe is made of stories, not of atoms. The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. And what I love about that, it gets to the core of our humanity, that as human beings we make meaning. And one of the ways we make meaning of course, is story and story is central to everything. We were just kind of talking about this before we press the record button that really stories at the centre of everything. However, sometimes our stories are not fully grounded and that can lead to some poor decision-making and really things that can harm our relationship. So, Bridgette, what have you noticed around this area of story and some of the clients that you work with and how they use story to make meaning of their situations?

Bridgette: Well, what is occurring to me right in this moment is the notion that we’re always leading and living out of stories, there’s never a time when we’re not. And that is directly connected to our resilience. Because some stories reinforce and support and encourage and strengthen us and some don’t. I’m thinking of a couple of examples of clients that I worked with who told very different stories about situations and how they used the power of story like this one client, so his company was having their 20th anniversary. He’s a really good storyteller and excellent writer. So he decided to write a letter to the company about the 20th anniversary and he told stories. And one of the stories that he told was about the gift of kindness that he was taught by his father and how he was so grateful that the company had made it this far, and he was optimistic about the future, but he was really looking back to the origins and how his father had, even though his father had passed, his hand print was all over that company. And that story drew in a lot of people.

And then I’m thinking about a leader who was really struggling in their role and in their organization. And the story that often surfaced in our coaching conversations was a story around why upper management wasn’t doing what they should be doing. Why their boss and their boss’s boss were not being leaders and he needed to tell them how to be better leaders and they really should be doing this, and they really shouldn’t be doing that. And of course that story did not enliven him and did not really help him. So we’re always in stories for better and worse. And of course that quote was so, for me it resonated the one you shared about the universe being made of stories, not atoms because it’s in our DNA. So, how are stories deeply embedded in our DNA?

Irvine: Well, it’s a great question. And I think to really appreciate it, I think you just look at like how we’ve evolved. I remember reading something a few years ago, which like really got me thinking, and that was at the time when the colonists here in America revolted against king George, only half of the population was literate. You think about that, half the population could read. And we know that the oldest written language, Sumerian is only 7,000 years ago. So we know before that, before we had written language and before we read, we had story and story goes back, a hundred thousand years. It’s the way we communicated, it’s the way we survive. Kind of eat this, don’t eat that. That animal is good, don’t go near that animal. So we passed on that information. And I remember reading a wonderful book by a neuroscientist one of the great kind of godfathers of neuroscience Antonio De Maio.

And he had said, you know, that storytelling was the medium that we have chosen as human beings to express what’s relevant. As the brain functions, it has to make meaning for all this data. And you think of all the data that comes in and all the possible data we could focus upon, we have to choose some things and storytelling is the way that we make meaning and primarily to survive. It’s a survival mechanism. So we choose stories or interpretations that lead to our survival.

Bridgette: Interesting.

Irvine: Yeah. And then there’s a second thing I’m thinking about Bridgette as well, is that it’s also connected to another discovery, which we talked about in an earlier episode, which was mirror neurons. Give us a refresh on that and how that might give us an insight into story as well.

Bridgette: Yes. Our listeners might remember it, maybe, maybe not, but we did talk about mirror neurons and what an incredible discovery it was that there are cells in our brains that get activated when we witness other people doing something or feeling something. So the part of our brain lights up that mirrors the part of their brain, that’s sliding up, but we’re not doing what they’re doing, and we’re not necessarily feeling what they’re feeling until those brain cells get activated. And so mirror neurons are part of what make us human, they are a huge part of empathy. It’s like how we feel with, and for others is largely through these mirror neurons. And of course, if you think about storytelling, if you go to the movies, and you could be sitting in that theatre and in two hours, you can experience this range of emotion and you might sweat, and you might laugh, and you might be fearful, you’re not doing any of that stuff. But a story is unfolding on the screen and your mirror neurons are getting activated. So stories activate those mirror neurons, don’t they?

Irvine: Yeah. And what’s interesting is just exactly what you’re saying has been proven now, whenever they use some of this great FMRI research. You might have seen those pictures of the brain and they’ve got different colours. And so through this machine, the FMRI machine, we’re able to indicate which parts of the brain are actually lighting up. So when you tell a story, you can expect the part in the brain that’s going light up is the part of the brain that processes words. But what we know now is when we’re hearing say, for example, someone says, the singer had a velvet voice, or he had leathery hands when we’re reading this, what we’re arousing is the sensory cortex. So the part in the brain that deals with feeling or hearing is aroused, or we grasp an object and the mortar cortex is aroused.

So it’s almost like the way I like to describe it is it’s been like an assimilator. So you may tell me a story, but I’m in the story, literally in the story, my brain is in the story, and we’re feeling it, and we are in experience. That’s what makes movies so popular and so powerful. And you mentioned, kind of the leader there with the stories, I often say if you insert story into any presentation and people go out the door and say, well, what did you remember about the presentation? If the story’s a good one, that’s what they remember.

Bridgette: For sure.

Irvine: Because we had this opportunity to experience reality in a different way. And that’s what story does.

Bridgette: Yeah. I love the comment Irvine that when we tell a story and if it’s, if it’s a powerful story, the other person is in the story with us.

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: And so that gives leaders, storytelling is probably one of the most powerful tools for leaders because it creates a togetherness, a shared experience that’s just not possible in other ways.

Irvine: Absolutely. Yes. And memorable and a beautiful way, I often think, especially for, I’ve worked with leaders sometimes that are in very technical jobs and so part of their presentation is, well, we went up by 5.2% or 3.6%, and I always say, is there a story that could exemplify this because often that’s what will stick. So that’s the power of story. So it’s in our DNA, and also it’s the way that we make meaning. And it’s the way that we make meaning that can get us into a little bit of trouble. And so Bridgette share with us a little bit about how the meaning we make, or the stories that we use to make meaning can lead to perhaps some poor decisions we make, or maybe some regrettable actions.

Bridgette: Sure. I’m thinking back to the two examples I shared at the beginning. One was a story that enlivened and enriched people and created this wonderful, shared experience and the other was a story that kept getting told by my client that kept them well, actually dug a hole for them. And every time he told the story, the whole got dug deeper. And so what was going on there? And I think a helpful way to understand this is we can pull back in the ladder of inference. I know you and I have occasionally talked about that before, but for our listeners, the ladder of inference was something that was created by Chris Argyris, I think he was an organizational development psychologist, right Irvine?

Irvine: Yep. That’s it.

Bridgette: And there’s rungs on this ladder, this ladder of inference that really help explain how do we go from receiving data and information coming in to taking action. And many times the rungs of this ladder, we’re not aware of them but we cycle through them really fast So you said something a couple minutes ago, about how so much data and information comes at us, we can’t possibly take it all in. Yep. So the first step of the latter is that we select which data to pay attention to, and we choose that depending on lots of things. Biases, personality, values, time of day, you name it, right. And so thinking of that client who had this story about, well, my boss should be doing that and his boss should be doing that, and da, da, he was paying attention to a certain select data, and then he quickly went to the next rung on the ladder, which is he made assumptions. And those assumptions were not necessarily conscious to him, and one of those assumptions was this. If I were my boss or my boss’s boss, I would be doing a much better job than they are.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: It’s a pretty big assumption, right?

Irvine: Yep. But we love our assumptions.

Bridgette: We love our assumptions and we treat our assumptions as facts, as opposed to assumptions and we often don’t shine the light of day on them. So that’s the beginning of the narrative is we pick some data, we make some assumptions, but there’s a couple of other steps on this ladder. So what’s next Irvine?

Irvine: Yeah. You know, another example that came up to me as well about the data and the assumptions is, we’re both trainers and we go into rooms all the time. And so I don’t know about you Bridgette, when I walk into a room where I’m going have a training, all of a sudden I’m looking for certain things. What are the tables like? What are the seats like? What’s the AV like? I going be able to connect this up, et cetera. And so there’s lots of data in this room and I’m choosing data for myself, and yet, if a person comes in, there in the training, they’re looking at, oh, is the seat going be comfortable? Where are they placed? Can I be near the door? What’s the [inaudible 13:41] like? So we’re all using different data and selecting that data and then making assumptions.

This chair is not comfortable, this is going to be a boring training. Or this chair is comfortable, okay, I can breeze through this. Lots of things. And so when we go through those two rungs, the next rung then as we go up is that we make conclusions out of those assumptions. And again, we’re not considering all the facts of the realities that could have been presented, we have chose now kind of, we’ve zoned in on certain data that’s available to us and we’re drawing conclusions, and then from that, we make some beliefs. And this is where it becomes a little problematic because here we have conclusions and beliefs about a situation and these beliefs begin to impact us. They begin to impact future judgements or how we’re going to respond with similar scenarios. And then the last rung of course, is that we take action with all of that in mind. And so we’ve got the data, we’ve made some assumptions, we’ve drawn conclusions, those conclusions form some beliefs, and then from that, we step into action and all of that, and this can be done very, very quickly, or it can be a habit of what we do over time.

Bridgette: Yeah. And it happens so quickly, where we go from selecting data to action so quickly that I think that’s part of why the awareness isn’t there. To us, we cycle through those steps…

Irvine: Absolutely.

Bridgette: Sometimes in seconds. I’m going go back to the previous episode, in our core practice about reframing interpretations where you talked about if a driver cuts in front of you. And one interpretation is you’re an idiot.  Well, how and maybe you flip them off too. That’d be your action. How fast did you go from data, to assumption, belief, action? Three seconds.

Irvine: Absolutely.

Bridgette: Yeah. So what’s an example you might share Irvine, of where you’ve seen this happen in a leader.

Irvine: Yeah. So, just take an example, say in the world of work. So just say, for example, Bob comes in 20 minutes late and his supervisor, Jim sees him and he’s all flustered and he’s talking to the receptionist and is thanking the receptionist for taking his call. And so there’s a lot of data there, but what Jim decides to hone in on is the fact that 20 minutes late, and then from that, there’s an assumption being made is that this person really doesn’t care about me or care about the meeting that they’re late for. And then the conclusions that come from that are, oh, well that reminds me that people who are generally late for meetings don’t really care. And then there’s a wider belief that all people who are late for meetings have an attitude of disregard, and so therefore the action that I’ll take is they need to be reprimanded and reminded who’s boss. And so, all of that was in, so what’s happening here as well is, begins with that first example and then that belief then begins to flavour future actions as well.

Bridgette: Yeah. So now in that example, that leader is in a story, of generally people who are late don’t respect me and specifically this individual doesn’t respect me. And yet I’m guessing the leader doesn’t see it as a story at all, but rather as what is. It’s fascinating how we’ve stories. We’re always living and leading out of some story.

Irvine: Yes. And so often what strikes me Bridgette is that we can get into conflict. So often our conflict is about our beliefs and our actions and we never really get into, well, what data did we choose to make those conclusions in the first place that led to those beliefs? I’ve talked about being in Ireland a few weeks ago, but if you look at some of the Northern Ireland, there is a classic example of two parts of society that are in different stories and they have chosen different data to interpret history, and from that data, they have chosen, they have certain conclusions and beliefs coming from that same shared history and leading to very different actions.

Bridgette: That’s powerful.

Irvine: Yeah. You can really see how then this begins to kind of interpret how we react to the world and the decisions that we make.

Bridgette: What that makes me think of is from a leadership point of view, if you look out at your organization Or team, you have shared experience, but it might be interesting to think what are the stories that people are telling themselves and their teams about our shared experience? And which of those stories are moving us forward and which of those stories maybe contributing to us being stuck? And how do we change the narrative?

Irvine: Absolutely.

Bridgette: So what do you think, Irvine? What do we do about all of this? Because what you’re saying is, is that storytelling, although incredibly powerful and meaningful can really get us into trouble because we start treating our assumptions and beliefs as facts.

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: How do we get out of this [cross-talk 19:29]?

Irvine: So I think, I’m going turn to a practice that we did right at the very beginning, one of our first episodes, the pause button. So I think the first thing is we do need to pause and we do need to, I love this, we are up the ladder. I love this, so I’ve used this with a client something. Now you are up a ladder here, and the one thing is to stop, I think then to refocus how you got there. How did you get there? And I think this it’s really useful to climb back down the ladder and to really begin to focus on some of those initial rungs, because that’s how we get ourselves into trouble. And I think there’s some really powerful questions that we can ask ourselves.

So say for example, to really reflect on the decision we have to make, or maybe you were reviewing a regrettable incident or something that’s happened and said, well, how did I get there? How did that happen? And so some of the great questions, let me give you three questions, which I think are really great. One is, are there other facts that I should consider in this moment or that I should have considered? If we’re looking back. What facts did I choose and are there other facts? And what data did I choose to use and why did I choose that data? And I think we do need some space, this is difficult to do in the moment. And I think that’s where the pause, the beginning with the pause, and then the third one is, are my assumptions valid? Are they grounded? because sometimes I think we, we think that our assumptions are fact and in fact, they’re not. I always use that example, you look out the window and you say, it’s raining or you look out the window and you say, hmm, it’s an ugly day. And there is the difference between an assertion and an assumption.

Bridgette: Exactly.

Irvine: Is it valid? Is  the way we’re interpreting there valid. And you know, we make so many assumptions every day. And so we have to ask ourselves, you know, are they grounded?

Bridgette: Yeah. The assessments being grounded is key because a really powerful story draws people in, as you said in the beginning, it’s like, we’re in the story because our mirror neurons are being activated, and a powerful story must be grounded in good assessments. Now, what do we mean by that? Well, we mean that you’re checking in with yourself to say, what are the assumptions and the assessments I’m making here as part of the story and I got to have some grounding for them. There’s got to be something underneath those. If we tell a fantastical story, that’s called a what? A fairy-tale? That don’t work so well, but if we but if we ground our assessments and our assumptions then people can stay with us, you know? I thought it was some other questions, I love the ones that you just introduced and, and there’s a few others, like, why did I draw that conclusion? Sometimes we draw conclusion and we never revisit it. And then like, okay, what belief led to my action? Because there’s always a belief there, like the example you gave earlier about people who are late are always disrespectful. It’s a belief. It’s not A fact.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And of course we can always ask, is there another action or another option that it could have taken. But like you said, these are easier things to ask. When we have a little distance, we have a little space from an incident or, an event I’m curious though Irvine, this is making me wonder out loud, like what if we’re in the process of deciding something and we don’t have distance or space and we want to make sure that our actions are solid actions and our stories are good ones. How do we use this in the moment? Is it asking questions in the moment? What do you think?

Irvine: I think it is. I think last week we talked about when we’re feeling anxious, one of the behaviours that we can experience is that we go for quick fixes, and very often I think what we want to try and do is give ourselves a little bit of space if we can. Sometimes we’re in a situation where a decision has to be made and that’s it, and we have to do it in the moment. But I think most often not, that’s not the case. And so then I think it’s to notice that tendency off the quick fix and then to ask some of these questions, because I think that will really help us. And we may well end up making exactly the same decision and that’s fine, but we’ll feel much more grounded and much more certain that we have based it on data that’s valid rather than being quick to make a decision.

Bridgette: Yeah. So essentially what you’re saying is the latter of inference and these questions, they’re an antidote to the quick fix.

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: Yeah. And we all feel pressure. All leaders, I think, feel pressure to go for the quick fix. Yes, it will slow the process down a little bit, but mostly like you said, it will just help us to ground our decision and the story behind the decision so that when we have to go tell other people, this is what we’ve decided and why, we can tell a much better story, we have a much better narrative around it.

Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah.

Bridgette: I love that.

Irvine: And the other thing Bridgette, that strikes me as well is sometimes we get feedback about some of our decisions that are kind of like shocking over. We kind of like, oh, that’s not what I meant. Or you really thought that or something. I’ve used with clients of that, I think this is a great process for them as well, because obviously something has fallen out of their field of vision that they’re not aware of, and I think these questions can truly help them kind of widen that vision and become more aware perhaps of other things that they didn’t consider.

Bridgette: Yeah. Love it. So how can you bottom line all of this for our listeners Irvine, with a core practice, what might you leave folks with?

Irvine: Yeah. I think let’s use the image of the ladder and let’s walk up the ladder again. So if you find that you’re in a sticky, a difficult situation, you’re fretting over a decision, I’ve say climb it down the ladder and then climb it up again and maybe use just one or two of these questions, which we’ve mentioned before, just to give yourself a little bit of time, and to put a little energy into. So what data have I chosen to use and why? What am I missing? What am I not seeing? And are my assumptions valid? And then if you’re near decision, what action am I considering? And are there other actions I should consider? Now sometimes for some people that can be very difficult. And if you’ve got a little bit of time and you have a trusted confidant, a colleague, a friend, or even a coach to be a listening ear, it can be really helpful to go through this process with them. I said, I just want to make sure that I’m not missing anything and to talk it out. And I and that can really lead to some wonderful revelations as well of maybe some things that you’re missing.

Bridgette: Yeah. I love that. And we can use that core practice in multiple ways, but in the way that you’re suggesting, if we are in kind of a sticky situation where we have a difficult decision that we’re making, but we can also employ that practice around just the question what stories am I telling these days? As a leader, what stories am I telling myself? And what stories am I telling my team? And walk through the ladder with that, because guess what, whatever stories you’re telling your team is in the story with you and you want to make sure it’s a story that is leading you and leading them where you want to go.

Irvine: Absolutely.

Bridgette: Yeah. Wonderful. All right, well, I think that brings us to a conclusion Irvine, thank you so much for this [cross-talk 28:08].

Irvine: Thank you.

Bridgette: I loved it. The notion of once upon a time, the quote that you shared at the beginning will stick with me. The world is made of stories, not atoms. And let’s talk about next time. So our topic for next time is going to be, I think really interesting because the title of the next episode is The Gift of Anger that might, even as you hear that it might land in a funny way because maybe you look at anger as never being a gift and we’ll explore when and how it is for leaders and for organizations. And we look forward to joining you with that topic, and Irvine, It was just such a pleasure to be with you as always. Thank you.

Irvine: Thank you, Bridgette. I really enjoyed our conversation today.

Bridgette: Take care folks. Bye-Bye

Irvine: Bye-Bye now.

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