Thinking Out Loud

Where Does the Story Begin?

I could be glib and say, “at the beginning,” but that’s the point. Where is the beginning of any story? I spend a lot of time listening to stories that begin with, “Here’s what happened . . .” When two (or more) people are involved, there are usually related but different accounts. Of course, most of us try to establish that our account is the accurate (real) story, and experience tells us that this process generally goes nowhere and continues to breed defensiveness.

Mediation and counseling help individuals to see that each person has a perspective and experiences the situation somewhat, if not vastly, differently. This can be frustrating for the conflicted parties but necessary to constructing a path forward. Helping individuals recognize what the situation looks like from the other’s point of view cuts down on the right/wrong approach to reality. Also, by clarifying motivations and intentions, there is more opportunity to foster understanding. All of this rounds out a fuller picture of what happened. Finally, it brings overlap in the stories and builds common ground.

Recognizing that each person is starting the story from a different point in time often goes unnoticed. Here’s an example: Lily and Brad had an argument about getting the kid’s lunches ready for school. Brad usually does this but asked Lily if she would fill in for him because he had to leave early for work the next day. Lily agreed. In the morning, as Brad was rushing out the door, he made a comment about what he had in mind for the kid’s lunches, which angered Lily. She snipped at him, and Brad left for work unhappy.

When they tried to deconstruct the story later, they got into a predictable argument based on the above facts. Lily talked about Brad blindsiding her at the last minute with expectations when she was doing him a favor. Brad, who thought he was being helpful by suggesting lunch food, believed Lily was not being very grateful.

In counseling, we discovered another layer to the story—where each person located the story in time. Brad’s story began well before he asked Lily to make the lunches. It began with a plan two months earlier about the food budget and how they were going to economize. What he quickly observed on the way out the door that morning disrupted the plan. Lily, on the other hand, started the story two days earlier when she realized how stressed Brad gets when he has a deadline at work and the subsequent impact on the family. Aha.

Clearly Lily and Brad approached the lunch situation in a different context. This is an extremely common occurrence but one we often don’t account for when we are in conflict. As a practical matter, it usually helps to know where your own story surrounding a conflict begins and then perhaps to ask the other person where their story begins. Doing this thoughtfully and carefully provides an opportunity to say “Oh, now I see what you were going through,” which is a good way to begin understanding one another better and establishing a mutual problem-solving platform.

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