Get out of your head. How to separate facts from fiction to make better decisions.
I’ve become increasingly aware of a challenge facing leaders (and lots of people) today: storytelling. And I’m not talking about the kind of storytelling families and cultures use to pass down history and traditions — nor do I mean storytelling contemporary creatives use to cultivate connection and meaning for brands. I’m talking about internal storytelling — the unconscious fiction humans make up when faced with challenges, conflict and important matters.
A tell-tale sign is seeing someone stuck in “analysis paralysis” — a term you’re surely familiar with. Observing closely, you’ll notice their time is spent worrying about the many ways things could go wrong. These internal stories are typically grounded in what-if’s and hypotheticals and future possibilities, rather than present facts. In these moments, humans get stuck in their limbic system, the part of the brain that runs on emotions and survival instincts, rather than the neocortex, where logic, rational decision-making, focus, and emotional control originates.
Researcher and author Brené Brown coined a concept for this: “Shitty First Draft.” She explains when something triggers our emotions, our unconscious brains tend to manufacture internal stories — our brain’s instinctual attempt to process what’s happening. These stories are often one-sided worst-case scenarios and seldom contain the full truth. Brown suggests, in the absence of having a crystal ball, we make up stories to anticipate how things might go.
It all stems from a self-protective survival instinct our caveman ancestors relied on to avoid being eaten by sabertooth-tigers. These instincts rarely serve us today, yet our brains still make-up stories that magnify our fears and anxieties, contributing to our own dysfunction. Brené Brown has popularized a reality checking tool, using the phrase “the story I’m telling myself…” to check one’s assumptions by practicing personal curiosity and reflection.
Observation vs Evaluation
Another helpful tool is by psychologist, Marshall Rosenburg, who created a brilliant framework in the 1960’s known as, Nonviolent Communication, which is based on learning “to clarify what we are observing, what emotions we are feeling, what values we want to live by, and what we want to ask of ourselves and others.”
Observations are things you can literally observe, ideally using one or more of your five senses — see, hear, touch, taste, smell. Observations are verifiable facts, and in their purest form, are free of bias, beliefs, judgments or attached meaning. Evaluations are the result of taking our observations and running them through a filter of emotions, feelings and beliefs, experiences, knowledge — essentially running the facts through a person’s highly personal, highly individualized CPU (central processing unit).
Evaluations are also what sets human beings apart from virtually every other living thing, giving us the unique ability to understand and think critically, integrating our emotions, feelings, memory and experiences with our thoughts and decision making.
As a leader, I’ve found I’m at my best when separating observations (facts) from evaluations (stories). For example, you may see a data point in a presentation and quickly jump to analysis, creating stories about it. Not so fast. Wise leaders keep analyses in check, grounding conversations first around the facts, which usually makes buy-in and alignment with colleagues easier. There’s always time to seek analysis and opinions later — but first, it’s best to get clear and aligned on the facts.
“Wise leaders keep analyses in check, grounding conversations first around the facts, which usually makes buy-in and alignment with colleagues easier. There’s always time to seek analysis and opinions later — but first, it’s best to get clear and aligned on the facts.”
The Observing Eye vs The Perceiving Eye
“Observation and perception are two separate things; the observing eye is stronger, the perceiving eye is weaker,” said Miyamoto Musashi. Possibly the greatest Japanese Samurai to ever live, he won countless fights against feared opponents, even multiple opponents, in which he was swordless. Born in 1584 and author of The Book of Five Rings, he taught there are two ways to see the world: with the observing eye and the perceiving eye. Observation focuses attention on truth and what is actually happening in the present moment.
The perceiving eye, however, sees much more than just the facts. Perception dovetails other information with the facts, like experiences, preferences, emotions, personal beliefs and values. The perceiving eye paints the facts with one’s own personal colors, sometimes commingling our fears and worst case scenarios with what’s real. Mark Twain famously said, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”
What is true?
When faced with any challenge, opportunity or important matter, the first step should always be to remove feelings, bias and analysis from the equation. Approach things as if you’re running a highly scientific lab experiment where accuracy and fact-finding are paramount. Ask yourself: What is true? What is absolutely true?
This reminds me of author Byron Katie and her belief that most human suffering comes from believing our own stressful thoughts. She’s found most stress and pain is rooted in the stories we create in our minds — the fears and hypothetical scenarios we spend so much time spinning out on. What if we spent equal time considering best case scenarios, along with the worst?
“Most human suffering comes from believing our own stressful thoughts.” — Byron Katie
What if there was a way to actually turn off our internal storytelling? What if we could actually turn the storytelling off? I’ve worked on this within myself and found a daily meditation practice can help turn it off, or at least turn it down. Only when I regularly spent time alone with my thoughts could I truly understand what my thoughts are, where they come from and what they’re good for. (Michael Singer’s book, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, was helpful too.)
Good? Bad? Who Knows?
It’s human nature to unconsciously turn everything into a binary decision: Is it good or bad? But what if everything we encounter didn’t have to be evaluated as good or bad? What if we were open to the possibility that any experience could be good, bad or an infinite range of possibilities in between? What if we could all agree that no experience, situation or scenario is all good or all bad?
There’s an ancient story of a Chinese farmer that really drives this home. In my peer mentor group of CEOs, we’ve reflected on this story more frequently over the past few weeks, amid the global crisis. If you have three minutes, watch it here. It may be the best three minutes you spend today.
Spoiler alert: The farmer stays neutral and open. He avoids binary traps and doesn’t rush to analysis about whether a current situation is good or bad. Instead, he’s open to infinite possibilities, knowing it may take years to truly discern and understand something.
“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti
Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti surmised: “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.” I couldn’t agree more. Leaders make better decisions when adept at separating facts from fiction, when we’re mindful of internal storytelling, and when we stay grounded, centered and open to infinite possibilities.
*This is yet another essay in-part inspired by my friends Mario and Chris — please check out their work too. We believe the process of public writing helps us learn, grow and improves our lives too. We call ourselves the Western Writers League and someday we might make hats with a cool logo.