A Survival Tactic that Generates Goodwill
Let’s say you’re working to refine your interpersonal skills in the interest of advancing your career and gaining peace of mind at work. You’ve lately had some success in acknowledging the strong emotional and mental impact that certain situations can trigger in you– being contradicted, say, or having your enthusiastic ideas met with cool indifference. “OK, I get it,” you think. “This is really bugging me. I need to acknowledge that and not react. Let others be who they are. Don’t force the situation.” You employ all those zen mantras you keep on post-it notes.
But even if you’re honorably succeeding at staying on an even keel while taking note of your triggers and the feelings they unleash, it can still be a struggle to keep at bay the negative stories that flood your brain about the people who have just triggered those strong feelings.
So how do we consciously choose a different narrative from the go-to stock stories that make us feel better temporarily– even make us feel righteous– but ultimately keep us stuck?
Enter alternate scripts.
Alternate scripting allows us to craft our best response, one that enhances our own dignity, respects others and serves our best interests.
Even though triggering situations lie outside our control, the stories we tell ourselves about them do not. So devising a different story to explain what happened is not only possible, it’s crucial. It effectively creates the conditions that let us determine an our most productive response. Here’s how it’s done.
Our first step is to notice the trigger without framing it in a habitual way.
We don’t tell ourselves this shouldn’t happen. We accept that it did.
We don’t tell ourselves I can’t deal with this. We accept that we need to.
We don’t tell ourselves I can’t believe this person would… We accept that he/she did.
Practicing this kind of acceptance– otherwise known as getting real– gives us the measure of detachment we need to create a script that will put what just happened in a less volatile perspective.
Practicing acceptance is not Pollyanna-ish. Nor is it a form of submission or denial. It’s making a strategic decision based on the pragmatic recognition that a positive story puts us in control. After all, we are the ones choosing how to tell it. And we are the ones deciding how to use it so we can move forward.
Creating a positive alternate script also stops the train of automatic assumptions that our usual go-to stories reinforce. These default narratives serve only to confirm our right to feel aggrieved, undervalued or disrespected. Whereas a fresh narrative pushes back against our feeling victimized or stuck.
Let’s look at how this process might have shifted the outcome in a scenario I described two weeks ago in this newsletter.
The “Stolen” Idea
A woman– I’m going to call her Jen, but this happens to women all over the world every day– presents an idea in a meeting that is promptly overlooked and then co-opted by her male colleague 10 minutes later. Following the alternate script scenario, Jen would admit to herself that she was irritated by her colleague’s intervention rather than trying to repress what she was feeling or telling herself she should ignore it and move on.
Instead, she would simply notice that the man– let’s call him Mark– was repeating her idea, and being acknowledged for it. Jen would notice that this had triggered in her a train of familiar thoughts and assumptions that seemed to explain what had happened:
Guys here have trouble hearing anything a woman says
Guys always stick together
There’s no way I can push back here without seeming petty
I feel disrespected and unheard but I am stuck
In fact, just by recognizing that she was defaulting to an all-too-familiar internal dialogue, Jen would give herself sufficient pause to come up with an alternate story. A story that would allow her to feel respected and heard.
For example, she could tell herself that her colleague reiterated her idea because he agreed with it and was trying to support her. Or she could decide that he was summarizing what she’d said in an effort to amplify it. These alternative stories would enable her to give him the benefit of doubt, the benefit of her goodwill, increasing the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Wait, you may say. That’s rewarding someone for bad behavior, letting them take advantage of you. Besides, maybe that’s not what he intended!
But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter whether the alternate script is true or not. Even if Jen is pretty sure that Mark was trying to grab credit for her idea, creating a positive narrative helps her take power over the situation. Intentionally revising her script enables her to reinterpret a painful situation and gives her a number of ways to claim what she wants– in this case, recognition– without going to the mattresses by calling Mark out.
For example, as soon as he spoke, Jen could respond: “I’m so glad you agree with me! Thanks!” Then, instead of grabbing a female colleague after the meeting to unload in an unproductive gripe session, she could intercept Mark as the meeting broke up, saying something like: “I’m so glad you and I think alike on this issue. I’d love to discuss how we could try to make it happen.”
Even if in the heat of the moment or at the end of the meeting Jen felt too blindsided to respond positively, she could still make the situation work to her advantage by taking action after the fact. For example, she could email Mark the next morning to say how pleased she was that he agreed with her idea and suggest they set a time to explore joining forces.
Please note that taking these positive actions gives Jen the chance to claim the idea she put forth as her own. Not as exclusively hers of course, because Mark is now in the picture. But reworking her story lets her put a stake in the ground rather than just taking the loss and fuming with resentment, an approach that increases the likelihood of her getting left on the sidelines. Plus she puts Mark and everyone who witnessed the exchange on notice that she is not about to let herself be discounted or run over.
In my experience, this kind of approach often inspires the other person to actually start believing the new story line themselves. Why wouldn’t they, given that it supports their desire to have a positive self-image?
So instead of being cast as an adversary, the new story line enables your antagonist to suddenly view him or herself as your ally: “Hey, yeah, that’s what I meant, I was trying to support you.” Best of all, you engineered this sudden realization on their part.
Talk about strategically asserting control!
The point is that, however forced or inauthentic this kind of exchange might feel at the moment, it has great value because it serves your interests while also making the world a nicer place. It enables you to build a connection that might otherwise have eluded you. And it turns a potentially negative situation to your advantage.
How bad is that?