One reason I was excited to join my city council recently is that it’s a crash course in self-awareness.

I’ve been eager to learn which new skills I need to develop and which skills I already bring to the table.

Here are a few things I’ve discovered about myself:

  1. I have a hard time down-regulating (relaxing my nervous system) after meetings and need to double down on practices that settle me (such as yoga and morning prayer) in order to fall asleep after meetings.
  2. I believe friendships are the building blocks of strong movements, and I’m reaping the rewards of having prioritized relationships with fellow activists over the years.
  3. I like to be quiet and listen carefully in meetings and only speak when necessary, later in the conversation, to 1) ask questions that no one has asked yet, 2) summarize what others have said, and 3) share my opinion. My body tells me it’s time to speak when my heart starts pumping faster.

At first, I felt bad that I wasn’t talking first because they say that the person who speaks first sets the terms of the debate. But as friends told me this week, “silence can be the most strategic,” and “she who speaks last speaks first.”

Serving on the city council, I’ve gotten an up-close view of how people perceive the same reality differently.

One skill I’ve relied on, which I want to focus on with you today, is the ability to discern between peoples’ stories about what’s happening and what is actually happening.

Let me give you some background about why I think this ability is essential for effective leadership.

How We Perceive Reality

I invite you to imagine that any situation—the wholeness of what’s happening and all the interrelated elements—is like a massive sphere.

To see the entire sphere, we need to walk around it, shift perspectives, and look at it from various angles. And even then, we’re apt to miss important details.

Additionally, each of us is viewing the sphere through channels of perception filled with all sorts of beliefs, opinions, and stories about how the world works.

And because we’re interpreting the world through these channels and from different angles, you and I can look at the same situation and see it entirely differently.

To present a convincing argument while strengthening relationships, we must try to perceive the facts of the matter as clearly as possible, while also acknowledging our interpretations.

If we cling to our interpretations without stepping back to look at the whole or trying to see through the other person’s lens, we’re likely to fan the flames of conflict.

We’re far more convincing when we name the facts of the matter and own our opinion of them.

(And that’s true in any role, whether you are a city councilor, constituent, parent, child, partner, teacher, student, boss, staff member, or person who’s deeply invested in your view of the world).

At a recent finance meeting about whether to borrow half a million dollars for our local fire station, I got a front-row look at why this skill is so important.

Part of me felt nervous that I didn’t say anything until right before we voted (because part of me has learned that smart people have a lot to say). But when it was time for a final question, I raised my hand and said:

“Now, I’m not an expert in municipal finance, but I do know I’m averse to unnecessary debt.” (Owning my opinion.)

“I want to see if I have the facts of the matter here. I’m wondering: Am I getting this right?” Then, I stated the facts as I currently saw them: That of course, we’re all committed to getting the fire station built, and that we have the money to pay for construction without borrowing.

The response from others was a simple, “Yes.” Then, we voted to allocate funds right away without needing to borrow.

Now, of course, my simple comment wasn’t the only one that moved things forward. And, of course, there are many layers of facts involved (and new facts might convince me to vote for borrowing in the future).

And, of course, you probably won’t have to vote on funding a fire station any time soon (thank goodness!).

But the same principle applies:

When we get caught up in our stories and don’t cut to the chase of what’s really happening, we risk confusing others and ourselves, provoking unnecessary emotional reactions, wasting time and energy, and losing arguments.

So, how do you cut to the chase and see what’s really happening?

One practice I’ve relied on for nearly a decade to find clarity and show up confidently to difficult conversations—and has helped countless clients of mine do the same—is called The Bare Bones.

I invite you to ask yourself: Is there a potentially challenging conversation you need to prepare for?

Choose a situation that’s about a 3 on a 0 to 10 scale (on which 0 is not at all challenging and 10 is the most). Keep in mind that there are lots of practices that can help you get clear about what’s going on. This is just one, and while it will hopefully give you some clarity, it might not take you all the way. Just engage this as an experiment.

If there is a conversation you want to prepare for, I invite you to get out an 8 x 11 sheet of paper and a pen and follow my instructions now. I recommend giving this practice about ten minutes, though you might want more or less time.

Here we go:

Practice: The Bare Bones

1.  Set up: Draw a line down the center of the paper. At the top of the left-hand column, write Bare Bones. At the top of the right-hand column, write Stories.

2.  In the left column, begin writing the bare bones—the facts of the matters, the hard data, what is actually happening.

a.  What actually happened?

b.  What did you do/say?

c.  What did other people do/say?

For example, the bare bones might be, “I asked Marta to come over at 7pm. She called at 7:15pm to say that another friend was having a crisis, and she needed to reschedule.”

In the bare bones column, you can include feelings and needs because feelings and needs are facts. Feelings and needs in this situation might sound like: “I feel hurt. I have a need for friendship.”

However, make sure that they are really feelings—physical sensations and emotions—not stories.

For example, you might think you feel betrayed or disrespected, but both of these are stories, interpretations of the other person’s actions.

3.  As soon as a part of you starts telling a story, turn toward it with love and kindness, and write what it says in the Stories column. Invite it to tell you what it thinks about the situation. You may ask it:

a.  What are you telling yourself this situation means about you? About other people? About the world?

b.  What are you assuming to be true about this situation?

For example, it might say: “Marta doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t want to spend time with me. No one wants to be my friend. When I trust people, they always hurt me. So I can’t trust anyone.”

Or “Marta’s friend sucks. She’s so selfish to take Marta away from me.”

Or “Marta’s such a caring person to drop everything when her friend needs her. I know she was really looking forward to getting together. I hope her friend is alright!”

Don’t filter, polish, edit, or argue with the story. Just write it down. One sign you’re getting the story out is that you might worry what other people would think if they read what you write. You can tear the paper up when you’re done.

4.  Go back and forth between the two columns, writing down what actually happened on the left and your interpretations of what happened on the right.

5.  Keep asking both parts (the part observing the facts and the part telling the story)—What else? Anything else?—until you feel complete.

6.  When you’re finished writing down the bare bones and your stories, take a step back and look at what you wrote. Ask yourself:

a.  What do I know is happening in this situation?

b.  Are there questions I need to ask to understand this situation better?

c.  What is my interpretation of the situation?

d.  What might be helpful for me to say in the conversation?

Then prepare to have the conversation.

I’m curious how this practice lands with you! If you have any questions, please feel free to send them to me in an email. I’d be happy to follow up!

In the meantime, may you find the discernment to see your situations, simplicity in the face of conflict, and courage to name what is.

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