“Others don’t make you mad. You make you mad. You make you scared, annoyed, or insulted. You and only you create your emotions.” – Patterson et al., Crucial Conversations
Crucial Conversations is a text that I have read multiple times; I have used it as an instructional tool for my residents and students time and again. The text has driven many insightful topic discussions surrounding how we can more effectively communicate, both on the job and in our personal lives.
Perhaps one of the most insightful messages from this text – the one that seems to consistently elicit an “ah-ha!” moment from those new to the material – is the idea that we create our own emotions. We do so by telling ourselves stories in response to what we see and hear. We notice a vacancy in the tech staffing schedule later in the day, and we begin bracing for the worst, telling ourselves it’s going to be a horrible afternoon (clearly the boss didn't care what happened in the trenches when she made the schedule). We observe that a coworker is reluctant to answer the department phone, and we tell ourselves that he is doing it purposefully because he thinks our work is insignificant and more easily interrupted than his. We ask another coworker to deliver a medication, and when she hesitates we tell ourselves that she has absolutely no respect for authority.
We tell ourselves that we are the victim. We tell ourselves that someone else is the villain. We tell ourselves that we are helpless to do anything about it.
All of these stories are composed at lightning speed. All of these stories lead to our displeasure with another’s behavior. And all of these stories are most likely miles from the truth.
Yet we allow these fictional stories to shape our emotions and ultimately influence how we treat others. We fall to silence and allow resentment to build. Or we move to violence, taking cheap shots at our coworkers and creating hurt feelings or confusion. Either way, we allow our stories to damage our relationships.
So how do we take control of our stories? The authors of Crucial Conversations provide these insightful steps to consider:
Retrace your path
- Notice your behavior
- Get in touch with your feelings
- Analyze your stories
- Get back to the facts
Tell the rest of the story
- Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?
- Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?
- What do I really want?
- What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?
It is not always easy to slow down and fact check the fiction writer that resides in our heads, but being able to separate fact from fiction is an important skill for effective communication. Remembering that you, and only you, create your emotions is key to recognizing these stories.
Patterson K, Grenny J, McMillan R, Switzler A. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (2nd edition). McGraw-Hill: New York, 2012.