True Confessions: I didn't ask myself a question I ask of others


True confession time, and it's really personal. I neglected to ask myself one of my fundamental coaching questions, and I paid a high price. What's this powerful, fantastic question that I didn't think applied to me? 

What are you assuming about this situation? Where do the facts end and your assumptions start?


That's it. 

Easy right? 

No, really, really hard. We're hard-wired to take a few "truths" or "facts" and weave them into a coherent narrative. We build a story that reinforces our view of the world.  Our decisions and behaviors are launched from that narrative. 

Unfortunately, the power of the story we create can lead us astray. Here's a simple example; a work colleague walks towards you. This is a really successful guy, high profile, and maybe you are a little intimidated by this guy. As he draws closer, you paste on your smile, get ready to say hi, and he walks right by without giving you a glance. What!!! What a jerk. He's so full of himself, he's an a***hole. Or maybe, you think, he just came out of a meeting, and your work contribution was questioned. Perhaps he didn't talk to you because you're about to be fired.

We have all done this. Taken a few facts and conflate them into a complete narrative that we believe completely. It's instantaneous, but with practice, you can see it for what it is, a story.

The first step, focus on what you know is true; you two passed in the hall, and he didn't speak. And you didn't talk. That's all that is true. 

The rest is a story you made up, and if your account is negative, it can color your memories, affect your future performance, and impact your relationships. The second step, don't assume your story is other people's story. 

I'm as guilty of this as everyone, and I was reminded of this just recently. Thirty years ago, one of my sons, Alex, became ill with AML, a very serious and hard to treat kind of leukemia. He survived, but the treatment was grueling, and he still has complications. He spent years in pain, under the care of specialists, and he had to give up his athletic dreams.

The condition was indeed serious, and he indeed had to deal with a lot. But I added more to the story. I added a whole tale of sadness, regret, loss, and feeling left out of the activities his brothers experienced. I mourned what he didn't have and continuously reviewed the medical choices we made on his behalf. And it was hard for me to look back at his childhood because of the story I built around his illness. I know now I missed out on a lot.

At a recent family gathering, the kids were reminiscing about growing up in a house of four boys. These conversations always made me nervous because I saw Alex's childhood as one of struggle and pain. I always thought of his life as happy before he got sick and sad after. That night, when they were all together, Alex was laughing along with his brothers, and he suddenly said, "I loved my childhood." My jaw dropped.  Where I had mourned what he lost for almost 30 years, he viewed his life as fun-filled and fantastic. His childhood was a blast; he went to camps, hung out with his brothers, played in the marching band, and had a thoroughly great time.  

I never knew that. The facts were the same, but I wove them together into a completely different story. I only saw what Alex had lost. I saw a compromised life, but I never asked him. I never even thought to question the story I believed in. And I was living with this person, helping him, encouraging him and yet, my assumptions about how he viewed things went unquestioned.

I advise my clients all the time to question their assumptions, and boy am I working on following my own advice. I mourned his losses, and he didn't. I was sad while he was joyful. What a stupid way to live my life. Don't let your assumptions go unquestioned. It's too important, and your loses may be huge. I spent 30 years being sad for my son, what a waste.