As humans, we have been telling stories for eons. We even tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world. We place ourselves in those stories and give ourselves characters to create certainty and reduce our anxiety around the events of our lives.
Sometimes we are the hero of our stories. Sometimes we are the victim. We might even call ourselves the villain at times. There is no limit to the personas we give ourselves in our narratives.
The problem is that sometimes these stories can be dysfunctional and sometimes we may not even be aware of the stories we are telling ourselves. Becoming aware of our narrative can empower us to act.
One of the ways to become conscious of our narrative is to gain distance from it. When we are ‘in’ the story, it is difficult to see; looking at it from the outside can allow for some objectivity. You can do this with a coach or mentor who is prepared to listen to you tell the story and ask questions about it. They will provide feedback and look for anomalies, challenging you about them. David Drake, one of the foremost experts on narrative coaching talks about discourse as a ‘powerful’ tool for uncovering stories .
In the discussion, (or in your journaling if you’re working through it yourself), consider the following aspects:
- What is the story? What are the events that make up the story? What are the actions of the characters in the story?
- Who are you in the story? What identity do you assume?
- How does the identity you adopt impact your behaviour? How do you perform as a character in the story?
In discourse and distance from the story, you may start to develop consciousness of aspects of your narrative you would like to change.
 Drake, D. B. (2010). Narrative Coaching. In E. Cox, T. Bachkirova, & D. Clutterbuck (Eds.), The Complete Handbook of Coaching (pp. 120-131). London: Sage.
Yesterday I wrote about the concept of understanding the idea of ‘How Do You Want To Be?’ I was reflecting on that post  and writing journal notes last night. The following extract from my journal partly answers the question, “Where have you been getting distracted in life?”
“I also feel distracted by the weight of what I feel I have to do. Rationally, I know, if I just got on with it I would have less to do. But, on reflection, after today’s blog, I don’t want to be constantly ‘doing’. So, how then, does one ‘do’ (because stuff needs (?) to get done), while still having a sense of ‘being’ at the same time?”
As I wrote, it occurred to me I wasn’t paying attention to what and how I was writing. I felt like I was in a hurry. I then slowed down to pay attention to what and how I was writing.
I’m using the words ‘how and what’ very deliberately.
In paying attention, the ‘how’ became very important and very enjoyable. Suddenly, I became conscious of the pen gliding across the paper and the ink settling on the page. The act of writing itself became enjoyable and purposeful, and all other distractions around fell away.
I felt in flow.
As I said yesterday, we are human beings, not human doings. If we get in a state of doing all the time, we forget to be, and life passes us by. Things still have to be done, however, so how do we balance between the two?
We look for the joy, the learning and the experience of what we are doing. If the task is potentially unpleasant or burdensome, there will be something to focus on and be present in the moment, thus experiencing life.
If we find someone difficult to deal with, focus on them and try and understand their point of view.
If we are doing a repetitive and tedious task, make a game of it.
If we are dealing with something complex, get curious and try and learn something from it.
Let me hand over to one of the masters of mindfulness who can say it better than me …
“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Miracle of Mindfulness
 Thank you to everyone who emailed yesterday about the post. It seems to have resonated for many readers. Please share it with others and encourage them to subscribe.
Often in our lives, we think about what we need to do. Have you ever thought, however, about how you want to be?
If we understand how we want to be, our behaviours and actions will become natural from there.
If I want to be curious, I will ask questions and take an interest in new things or ventures.
If I want to be courageous, I will ask the hard questions and speak truth to power.
If I want to be empathetic, I will care about how others feel.
If I want to be giving, I will look for ways to contribute to others.
There is any number of ways that we can be. The power you have is to choose how you want to be and then be guided by that in what you do.
We are, after all, human ‘beings’, not human ‘doings’.
How do you want to be?
I am an executive coach. My role is to sit with leaders and ask questions, listen to their answers, challenge their thinking, hold them accountable for their actions and do so in a confidential and safe environment.
I have a coach. His name is Graham. His role is to sit with me and ask questions, listen to my answers, challenge my thinking, hold me accountable for my actions, and do so in a confidential and safe environment.
Graham has a coach. Let’s call him Morgan. Morgan’s role is to sit with Graham and ask him questions, listen to his answers, challenge his thinking, hold him accountable for his actions and do so in a confidential and safe environment.
Morgan has a coach. I know this because Graham told me. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect Morgan’s coach is responsible for sitting with Morgan and asking him questions, listening to his answers, challenging his thinking, holding him accountable for his actions, and doing so in a confidential and safe environment.
Do you have a coach? Do you have someone who sits with you, asks you questions, listens to your answers, challenges your thinking, holds you accountable for your actions, and does so in a confidential and safe environment?
Who is your coach?
I’m not talking clinical-level anxiety here. I’m talking about everyday fears and discomforts that we experience due to our relationship with uncertainty.
We come across situations that make us feel uncomfortable every day.
Consider the scenario of a networking event. Potentially there are a hundred (or more) people in the room we don’t know. When we walk into the room, we experience an uncertainty around who we should talk to. There may be some mild social anxiety about whether we should even be there or if we belong.
At this point, our focus is on ourselves.
If we apply a healthy dose of curiosity about the situation, then we might ask questions like:
- Who are they?
- I wonder what industries they are in?
- Where did they get those shoes and suit?
- What are their backstories?
- Are they nervous too?
And now our focus is on others and our anxiety about our status dissipates.
Now, consider this scenario. You have been promoted to a new role at work. We are experiencing some anxiety about meeting expectations and doing a good job. Again, at this point, our focus is on ourselves, and we may ask ourselves, “Am I good enough?”
If we shift to a curious focus again, we may now ask questions like:
- Who is in my team?
- What are their strengths?
- What are the current market conditions?
- What successes has the team had recently?
- What are their primary concerns?
Now our focus is on others, and our anxiety about our performance reduces.
If you’re feeling anxious about a situation, shift your focus, apply some curiosity, and you may find that you forget about your discomfort.
This week I had the opportunity to see clients in the Western Sydney suburb of Emu Plains, the suburb where I spent my high school years and where my parents still live.
After finishing my work, I took the opportunity to walk home and spend a night with mum and dad. The walk was no more than two kilometres through a nature reserve and along roads with which I was very familiar.
As a teenager, my school mates and I would play cricket on those streets until it was so dark, we could barely see the ball. We’d play handball and ride our bikes along those streets as well. On the nature reserve, we’d practise our golf swings trying not to hit the ball into the creek at the end of my street.
All of this was over 30 years ago.
As I walked that familiar route, I noticed the trees had become taller, the bushland denser. Some houses were the same, others renovated or knocked down and rebuilt. The images of those high school years seemed clear to me.
I reflected on the good times and bad. On the whole, there were more positive memories. At one point, I thought how all those things that happened so long ago didn’t matter today. It was all in the past. A lot of those friends have moved on. We have all changed, grown and matured.
Then I thought about the stories that we tell ourselves. The events of our past form part of the narrative that shapes our identities. Those events do matter because we assign meaning to them, and that shapes how we relate to the world today.
And this is where our power lies. We have control of the meaning we assign to events. We get to write our own stories. We can, if we are conscious of how we do this, control our narrative.
In this way, we can allow our past to inform our future and not define it.