Every organization I’ve worked for or with has had some form of workplace drama. Gossip, ego, taking things personally, rumors, competition, power tripping, and blowing things out of proportion are just some of the ways people become distracted from accomplishing work. These behaviors can also cause harm, not just to the organization but to other people. Therefore, minimizing workplace drama is essential. One simple way to accomplish this? Separate the facts from the story.

Making Up Stories

As humans, we love to make up stories. Sometimes these stories are for entertainment, sometimes for learning, and sometimes to connect with other people. When used intentionally, stories are a healthy and essential part of many cultures.

Unfortunately, however, in our personal lives, we create stories that work against us. We tell these stories throughout the day and constantly react to them. Stories like:

  • “My boss totally chewed me out. They told me I wasn’t good at my job and need to step it up. I think I might even get fired!”
  • “She didn’t like my idea at all. When I brought it up, she immediately shot it down and moved on to another subject. It’s a waste of time to even say anything.”
  • “I tried using a new approach, and everyone loved it! They were all blown away and it really started making them thinking about things in a new way.”
  • “We’d better tone it down, or they might feel threatened by us.”

Although these stories are typically based on fiction, we mistake them to be non-fictional, then act accordingly. (Models such as the Ladder of Inference explain more about how we do this.) Many of our stories are variations on common themes, such as:

  • They don’t like me
  • They think I’m too ____
  • They don’t understand me
  • They just want to control me, punish me, hurt me, avoid me, etc.
  • If I behave this way, they’ll respond that way

In many of these cases, what we assume to be the truth is, in fact, a story. It’s not a case of whether you make up stories or not – we all do it many times a day. What matters is how often you make them up, to what degree you believe your stories to be true, and how you respond to them.

Just the Facts

These stories keep us safe. Safe from confrontation, safe from having to change and face the unknown, and safe from avoiding potential disappointment. Unfortunately, this kind of safety perpetuates drama and keeps us from growing.

Instead, we have a choice: to go beyond the stories and see what’s really true. How do we do this? By focusing on the facts.

Facts are the behaviors that anyone else could observe and agree actually happened. Actual body movements, spoken words, and specific actions are factual. If you were to observe someone on a video, these behaviors would be easy to name. Types of these behaviors include:

  • The person raised their hand
  • The person said “no”
  • The person’s voice became louder
  • The person’s face turned red
  • The person threw a pen across the room

When revisiting the above examples, the facts might consist of something like:

  • “My boss totally chewed me out. They told me I wasn’t good at my job and need to step it up. I think I might even get fired!” (My boss asked me why I turned it the report late and said they hoped I wouldn’t do it again.”)
  • “She didn’t like my idea at all. When I brought it up, she immediately shot it down and moved on to another subject. It’s a waste of time to even say anything.” (My boss changed the subject after I suggested an idea.)
  • “I tried using a new approach, and everyone loved it! They were all blown away and it really started making them thinking about things in a new way.” (No one actually said anything after trying the approach. A few people’s eyes widened a bit.)
  • “We’d better tone it down, or they might feel threatened by us.” (We don’t know how they might feel because we’ve never actually behaved this way around them.)

Separating the Facts From the Story

The problem is that we fill in many of the gaps between the facts and make up stories. Instead, to minimize drama, we need to identify and stick to the facts. Consider this example of a client’s story:

“A colleague directed one of my team members to work on a job that I didn’t assign to them. It was totally outside of my colleague’s swim lane to do that, but I was nervous about confronting them because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

When I called to talk to him about it, they acted like it was no big deal and said, ‘Yeah, so why are you telling me this?’ I explained my position again. When I finished, they said, ‘OK, I hear you’ and hung up the phone.”

When my client told me this story, he thought that his colleague was upset and didn’t agree with his position. He took his colleague abruptly hanging up on him as evidence of his feelings. The scene kept festering in his head, which led to him growing more anxious and panicky to resolve the situation. This is usually how stories work – we replay and react to them, often without resolution.

When we reviewed what happened and looked at the facts, here’s what my client identified:

  • The colleague said, “Yeah, so why are you telling me this?”
  • The colleague said, “OK, I hear you.”
  • After the colleague said, “OK, I hear you,” they hung up the phone.

Those are the only facts in the story. Everything else is fiction unless proven otherwise. The colleague may have been upset, ashamed, or confused. My client may not have explained his position clearly enough. The colleague may have been busy and needed to go after communicating that he got the message. The bottom line is that anything other than the facts are only a story.

Rewriting the Story

As my client reflected on the facts, his anxiety dissipated. He realized how much he was making up (primarily because he was already nervous and anticipating his colleague’s response in the first place) and was able to replay the conversation more objectively. From there, he realized that he simply needed to follow up and get more information.

This is one of the keys to separating facts from stories: checking out your stories by asking the person what is true. Unfortunately, we don’t do this enough. Instead, we stay stuck in the drama and make ourselves miserable. In this case, when my client checked out his story, he learned that his colleague was put off, but for different reasons: he was distracted by people in his work area in that moment, had a hard time hearing my client, and didn’t understand what my client wanted him to do. Both of them realized the initial communication gaps and were able to get on the same page moving forward, to the relief of both of them.

We don’t always have the opportunity to check out our stories. In such situations, we have a different choice: to make up a new story that makes us feel better. So long as we’re making up stories, we may as well make up a good story instead of a bad one!

One of my personal “favorite” stories (it wasn’t such a favorite at the time) happened about ten years ago. In this story, I asked a colleague via e-mail to promote a workshop I was doing with a friend who had an unusual name. I didn’t know the colleague well, but respected her and thought she’d be happy to help.

I never heard back from the colleague, as was a bit surprised to have gotten no response. It was even more surprising when, a month or so later, I got a mass e-mail from her advertising a similar workshop, with me and my friend’s name, that totally mocked the topic of our workshop.

Needless to say, I was shocked, angry, and baffled. I couldn’t imagine what I had done to provoke her. I didn’t feel comfortable following up over e-mail and decided to let it go (even though it still nagged at me for quite some time.

A year or so later, I ran into the colleague and asked her what happened. Her response couldn’t have surprised me more: she had a couple of friends who just so happened to have the exact same first names (she only had first names in her advertisement) who just happened to be doing a playful workshop on a similar topic. Bottom line?  The whole thing was purely coincidental!

In the end, we were both amazed at the irony, and she felt bad because she really respected me. Fortunately, we were both able to laugh about it. Even more fortunately for me, it was a pivotal moment in realizing how, even when a story seems like it’s absolutely real, it may not be.

Becoming a Good Storyteller

Because we are in the habit of making up stories throughout the day, a good place to start is by identifying facts. From there, we can notice the stories we make up around those facts, name them as stories, and either check them out or write new ones. This takes practice, but the benefits of minimizing workplace drama is well worth it. The following questions can help you separate stories from facts:

  • What are the actual behaviors that occurred?
  • What story am I making up from those behaviors?
  • What solid evidence do I have to prove if the story is true or not?
  • How do the stories I make up tend to support how I already see the person/the world/the type of situation?
  • If I just stick to the facts, what are several other stories could I make up instead of my go-to story?

Note: just as with any leadership tool, we don’t want to use these tools as weapons. Telling someone that they’re just making up a story is not productive and minimizes their experience. Sometimes, especially for marginalized groups, there are subtle behaviors towards people that are difficult to identify. Tread lightly and with compassion, whether for yourself or others, while seeking to discover what is true and what is not.