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The Truth about Facts & Stories

I recently received an email from a work colleague. The exact contents of the email and the sender shall remain anonymous, but the email was 5 sentences long and was sent to me and 8 other colleagues. The email included the sender’s perspective on an unresolved issue in our unit. My immediate read of the email was that the sender was attacking ME; that my effectiveness, skill, and integrity as the medical director of the unit were being questioned.

I was immediately furious.

My heart rate rose, I felt a hot pressure in my upper chest and clenching tightness in my jaw and scalp.

My thoughts were racing: “She doesn’t respect me.” “She’s trying to publicly shame me.” “How dare she send that email to so many people”. “She always does things like this.” “She’s terrible.” And then… “Maybe she’s right and I am an ineffective leader.”

Anger, shame & blame swirled.

As the emotion began to dissipate and I started to gather my wits again, I was able to stop and reassess.

I read the email with a fresh perspective. Maybe, JUST MAYBE, my initial interpretation wasn’t correct. Maybe the email was not a personal attack on me as a leader but instead simply one opinion on an issue. Maybe there was some value in the sender’s perspective.

One of the greatest skills I’ve gained through coaching is the ability to recognize when my brain is lying to me. Don’t get me wrong – I continue to apply this skill imperfectly and inconsistently, but I’m getting better at it. I find it most important (but also most difficult) to practice this in times of big emotion. But, taking the time to separate out the FACTS of a situation from the STORY that your brain is telling you is of tremendous benefit.

A fact is something that is 100% true, that everyone in the entire world would agree upon, that is irrefutable in a court of law. A story is the unique spin that your individual brain puts on the situation.

Here are 3 questions you can ask yourself when trying to separate out fact from story:

  1. Is this TRUE? 100% completely true? Such that everyone in the world would agree to its truth? Certifiable in a court of law?

  2. What other perspective(s) might be equally true?

  3. Assuming best intent, why might this other person have said/written/done this?

Differentiating fact from story helps you take ownership of your emotions and actions and allows you to think more creatively.

When I reconsidered the email from my colleague, I was able to see that my initial response of anger stemmed from a story that my brain was offering (“She doesn’t respect me.” “She’s trying to publicly shame me.” “How dare she send that email to so many people”). Through isolating the facts (a 5-sentence email sent to me and 8 other colleagues, regarding the sender’s perspective on an unresolved issue in our unit) and considering alternate stories, I was able to craft an email response that was collaborative, curious, and more productive.

Where might you benefit from separating out FACT and STORY?


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