January 31, 2023

Have you ever had a situation when you said something or did something and then discovered that you didn't have the right information or context to understand the situation? I have this happen to me almost everyday. I have found that it is hard to take back words and actions once they are in the world.

Life is a story, so I am going to share a story with you. The framework for the story is in three parts: The facts, My ego, and My assumptions.

For background for this story, I am a volunteer coach for my son’s high school basketball team. I attend most games and practices, and this is my 6th year of helping out at the high school where my kids go to school.

The Facts Of What Happened

At a game a few weeks ago, my son seemed to be not hustling. More than “seemed,” he was simply not hustling. The best words to describe how he played are lackadaisical and lethargic. 

When the coach took him out of the game because of how he was playing, he walked off the court (granted, he did not have to walk too far, but still!) The countenance on his face, and all of his paraverbals, indicated that he was not a happy camper and was unhappy with the coach.

Later in the game, when the coach asked him if he wanted to go back in the game, he said, “Not really.”

My Ego

I am now at the end of the bench wanting to go and scream and yell at my son at this point. After all, doesn’t he know I NEVER acted like that in my sporting career? (BTW, please do not verify that statement with any of my high school or college coaches!) The nerve of my son to say he did not want to go back in the game! 

How could my son do such a thing?

How can he not be hustling?

Doesn’t he know his actions reflect on me as a father?

My Assumption

I was spitting nails after the game and was looking for a verbal altercation with my son. I was going to tell him where the ol’ bear pooped in the buckwheat, that’s for sure. He obviously was being disrespectful to the coach because he wanted to make the coach angry.

The Lesson

Fortunately for me, there was a little birdie in my brain telling me to hold off on a conversation for an hour or so, and I listened to that birdie.

When I got home and went to his room to discuss the game, I was still a little hot under the collar. However, I approached the conversation calmly. 

I simply asked him one question.

“Why did you not want to go back into the game?”

His answer floored me and made me realize that I would not get any “father of the year” awards anytime soon.

My son looked up at me with a few tears in his eyes and said, “I didn’t want to go back in because I am not any good, and I can’t help the team.”


The Story I Told Myself

You see, I failed to take into account the fact that my son’s playing time had started to dwindle in the prior few games (leading to him losing his starting position at the next game), and he had lost all confidence in his basketball ability. He honestly believes that he is not adding anything positive to the team. 

That is not the story I told myself about this situation. Based on the “facts” as I saw them, my ego whispering in my ear, and my assumptions about his actions, I told myself that he was being purposefully disrespectful. 

How many times have you found yourself in a similar situation at work? When have you let the story you tell yourself dictate how you respond to a situation?

The Story Swirl

The three parts that lead to the story (the facts of what happened, ego, and assumptions) are what I call “the story swirl."

We must be mindful (as leaders) to understand that the story you are telling yourself about a situation has three key elements to it.

1.    The facts of what happened: review the facts as dispassionately as possible.

2.    Ego: your ego is something that must be managed.

3.    Assumptions: What do you assume to be true about the situation? 

The story swirl leads to actions. 

The Pause

The easiest strategy to ensure you have the correct story is to pause. Pause and reflect about your assumptions. Pause and reflect on the role of your ego and what you understand about the situation. Pause and be curious and willing to learn about what you may not know.

The facts about what happened: You can just take the actions and words at face value. Please don't insert judgments or explanations for the perceived behavior.

Ego: Your ego is easily offended. Your ego will whisper in your ear that “what you see” is really meant to harm you. Your ego does not allow for nuance in a situation

Assumptions: The past is a powerful lens through which we try to make sense of the present. We create assumptions based on our past experiences…rightly or wrongly. You must challenge what you “know” to be true. You must be curious about every situation and not allow unfounded assumptions to cloud your thinking.


Actions Lead To Culture

When a leader allows “the story” to be created without thought of the three elements, the leader's actions may not reflect the culture the leader wants to build.

Culture is simply actions aligned with values. A leader’s actions are often purposefully aligned to stated values that the leader wants to espouse. 

However, when someone allows a story to develop without thought to the three elements, the actions are not as purposeful and may reflect values contrary to the leader’s stated values.

Use the Story Swirl diagram to remind yourself of the stories you are telling yourself and how that story is impacting the actions and decisions you make.

In short, don’t be like I was with my son!

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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