Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
The following article was first published on March 9, 2006.
Dear Crucial Skills,
How do you help “undo” a story that another person has held about you? Last fall, my husband went over to borrow an item from our next door neighbor of ten years. They’re very nice people—we wave and exchange pleasantries and small talk, we have sent their kids graduation cards, etc. My husband came back concerned. He said they’d received an anonymous hateful letter ten months earlier and they seemed quite convinced that I’d sent it. I was alarmed and went over right away to talk. The letter was truly awful—calling them morons about leaving their holiday lights up well past the holidays and being the laughingstock of the neighborhood. I didn’t write this letter and I told them so.
And yet, I still feel like there is an uncomfortable feeling between us. I’m acting as if the whole thing never happened, but feeling self-conscious about it—for example, sending over a dozen cookies when we’ve baked, acknowledging their kids’ accomplishments, etc. These are things we’ve done in the past that now I fear will be viewed in a different light—like I’m trying to make up for something.
First, congratulations. You said you “went over right away to talk.” We firmly believe that if you don’t talk it out, you act it out. So, way to go. If you had told yourself different stories, you would have acted differently. If you had become upset because you were wrongly accused and had withdrawn in indignation, you would have acted in ways that probably would not have helped—your feelings would have showed up in your facial expressions, in half-hearted greetings, etc. Because thoughts really cannot be held inside (they leak out), people often resort to gossip, and gossip has a hard time being contained—it seeks the lowest level. It has ripple effects that find their way to the person being talked about. So congratulations on telling yourself stories about the other person, about you, and about your relationship that allowed you to go talk about it. Adding to the pool of shared meaning was the right step to take.
There are two questions here that I’d like to address. First, how do we get over situations where we have been wrongly accused of something we didn’t do? Second, how can we help others “undo” their story that we wronged them when we really didn’t?
First, how do you deal with your emotions when you’ve been wrongly accused? Key to understanding your options is what we call the path to action. This model helps explain where emotions come from. A brief overview:
- We observe an event (i.e., we see and hear what happens with internal and environmental filters).
- We tell ourselves a story with whatever data we have (the events we observed). These stories can be helpful or harmful.
- We feel emotions based on the story we chose to tell.
- We then act based on our story and our emotions (we choose dialogue, silence, or violence).
The important thing is to explore why the emotions are still lingering. Why are you still worrying about how your neighbor is interpreting your actions and motives? Re-examine your path to action back to your actual observations. Are there more helpful stories you could be telling about what you’ve observed? Or do your observations point to the need for another crucial conversation?
When you’re deciding whether or not to bring up a subject, ask yourself if “that little voice in your head won’t go away,” or if you are “acting it out” even after you’ve re-examined your stories. If the answer is “yes” to either, you probably need to talk it out.
In your comments, you stated that you fear your neighbors still think you did write the letter. That could be the topic for another conversation. Mention the first conversation, and that you just want to check in and see how your neighbors are feeling now. Share your goal to be a good neighbor and have a positive relationship.
If you have observed actual behaviors that are leading you to believe there is still an issue (e.g., if you saw nonverbal clues like half-hearted greetings, lack of eye contact, or avoidance on your neighbors’ part), you may want to bring them up and hold a crucial conversation to address the story they may be holding onto. In that case, ask to talk to the other person and start by making it safe. Have a private talk. Don’t be emotional, be honestly inquisitive. Try to explore the other person’s path to action by starting with your observation. For example, “I’ve noticed that when we see each other in the neighborhood, you don’t look directly at me and you tend to hurry out of any conversation.” Don’t offer judgments about their emotions or motivations. Simply describe the facts. Then tentatively share your concern: “I’m beginning to wonder if you still have feelings about that letter you received. Can we talk?”
You are trying to learn what “story” your neighbors are telling—you are trying to understand their data. Then, when you’re in dialogue, you can share your perspective and your purpose.
The other alternative is to be patient. Suppose your neighbors say they don’t think you wrote the letter. Suppose you don’t see them acting it out. That means most of your energy around this issue is coming from your stories. In that case, wait. Continue with your strategy of being a good neighbor. Often, when we don’t have any additional data, our stories and emotions fade. Our worries decrease. That’s effectively self-managing your own path to action. Such an approach reminds me of the saying attributed to the great Anonymous: “At twenty, we worry about what others think of us; at forty, we don’t care about what others think of us; at sixty, we discover they haven’t been thinking about us at all.”
Thank you for your inquiry. Hopefully there is a lesson that we can find here that will help us get in touch with our own stories, cue us up when we need to talk, and be more patient with our emotions. All of these can lead us to dialogue.