The Damage Our Stories Can Create

Gregory K. Stephens, Ph.D., AOM Ombuds Committee

Consider the self-fulfilling prophecy and the role of assumptions and stories in this cycle; two people work together productively for many years, collaborating on a variety of scholarly works. After a while, though, one of them is interviewed for a podcast, and refers to their work as “my” work, and uses “I” in response to the interviewer’s questions. The other, hearing this seemingly selfish appropriation of their collaboration, begins to wonder whether her collaborator really respects her contributions. That doubt, and the subsequent questions about mutual respect, begins to take root in her mind. Concerned that her collaborator may have ulterior motives, she begins to withhold certain ideas, worried that he might take them for his own. He, in turn, begins to wonder why she is suddenly and seemingly less creative and less interested in the collaboration they once enjoyed. It doesn’t take long before they both start looking elsewhere for professional collaboration and stimulation, and a promising and productive relationship begins to die.

Any attorney or police officer will tell you that most people make terrible eye witnesses. Why? Because we rarely have all the facts, but in the same way that nature abhors a vacuum, our minds abhor an incomplete understanding of a situation. So, we intuitively generate stories (we in the social sciences would call them hypotheses) to fill in the gaps. The problem lies in that, all too often, we believe those stories as if they were fact. And unlike the hypotheses we generate in our research, because we think of them as facts, we don’t explore them or test them to find out if they are accurate. Not surprisingly, difficulties inevitably follow.

As Ombuds, an important part of our role and function is to help our visitors to differentiate between fact and story, challenge their stories, explore plausible alternatives, and then determine ways to discover whether and which stories might be true. A key element of this process is to move away from accusation and toward curiosity. Simply differentiating story from fact, and acknowledging that the story might not be true, is often enough to replace pain and accusation with curiosity, leading to questions rather than recriminations.

Strong relationships, whether professional or personal, necessarily require a certain forbearance, a willingness to think of the other with tolerance rather than leaping immediately to the worst possible story when confronted with what seems like ill behavior. Yes, there is risk in that stance, but without it, the risk of unhealthy or sundered relationships may be even greater.

The following passage is attributed to the Buddha: “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” As Ombuds, we would suggest that if the answer to the first question is “possibly not,” then your attitude should properly be one of curiosity, and your subsequent actions should be built around healthy dialogue. With that mindset, many of the issues that come our way each year would quite likely be resolved without the need of a neutral third party.

So, what are your stories about those with whom you work?

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