November 17, 2021

Breakroom: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Breakroom is a new series on the Bravely blog featuring actionable tips and practical food for thought for your everyday professional life, wrapped up in a colorful package you can read in two minutes or less.

There’s a common sitcom plot that goes something like this: The protagonist has a birthday coming up, but no one seems to remember or care. Their beloved sidekick has other plans, their significant other isn’t taking any hints about gifts, and their coworkers expect to see them at the office on their big day. Our hero is devastated and begins to wonder if they have a friend in the world. Just when they’re at their lowest point… SURPRISE!! Everyone’s been planning a party in their honor, and their aloofness was only to throw off the scent. The theme song plays as the main character smiles and laughs, or even cries tears of joy.

Now, there’s a lot about this trope that’s ridiculous — you can certainly plan a surprise party for a loved one without pretending not to know about their birthday. Still, it works as an illustrative example of a key element of approaching so-called difficult conversations at work: challenging or questioning the narrative.

Questioning the narrative

Think about a conversation you’re avoiding at work, or a tense situation that’s going undiscussed. What makes it intimidating? Your gut answer might be, “well, it just is,” but take a moment to get more specific. You likely fear either a bad outcome (the other person gets upset, or you’re punished in some way) or no outcome at all (you aren’t listened to, or the other person makes false promises).

Whatever your fear, it’s important to realize that it’s based on an assumption. Just like our sitcom figure, you’ve created a full story despite having limited information. (By the way, everyone does this! It’s how our brains are wired to understand the world around us). Yes, it could be a well-informed assumption (“They’ll just do what they always do”), but you still don’t know for sure what’s going to happen.

Challenge yourself to think of alternate possibilities. For example, let’s say you think your manager has been withholding important information, and you’re worried they don’t trust you. This train of thought usually leads to Worst-Case Scenario Station, and once you’ve mentally arrived there, there’s no train back.

When you take the time to question the narrative, you might come up with other explanations. What if your manager simply doesn’t realize that the information is important to you? What if they’re not actually keeping anything from you, because they don’t have the information either?

Now what?

Even if the issue is a trust gap, is it better to know that and be able to work on repairing the relationship, or to leave matters unspoken? You know better than anyone the dynamics of your working relationships and what risks are worth taking, but you can’t make that assessment until you’ve thought about other outcomes.

Many “difficult” conversations are difficult primarily because we tell ourselves they’re going to be. There’s probably not a surprise party on the other side of these interactions, but they’re conversations worth having.

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