3 Stories That Ruin Moments of Accountability

From our organisational research, we know that one of the most powerful predictors of quality, safety, and productivity is people’s capacity to hold crucial conversations.

But, what predicts your capacity to hold those crucial conversations in an effective way? Let me describe an experience…

A few years back, I had to give a speech in Pebble Beach. My son was getting interested in golf so I invited him come along.

We had a wonderful golfing holiday . After a round of golf, we were standing in the pro shop and I saw him staring longingly at some windbreaker jackets that had the Pebble Beach cyprus tree logo on them.

He looked up at me with big dough eyes and said, “Oh, Dad! Could I possibly have one of these?”

I thought to myself, “Why not? I’ve got some loose change in my pocket since the client picked up the bill.”

He quickly found one that fit and we headed to the cash register. The jacket cost something like nine million dollars, but it was a once in a lifetime trip so I paid and we left.

He was wearing his new windbreaker the next morning as we boarded the plane. He sat down next to me, lowered his seat-back tray, pulled out the breakfast he bought in the terminal—a box full of french toast sticks and a big giant tub of maple syrup.

He grabbed the foil top to this maple syrup and pulled and pulled and pulled— all while wearing his nine million dollar windbreaker. He finally yanked hard, and all of this maple syrup sprays up into the air and drops down on top of his brand new windbreaker.

I looked at him, waiting for some reaction—some acknowledgment of the horror and devastation that’s just taken place. There’s none. He grabs a french toast stick, jams it down in the maple syrup tub, starts sloshing it into his mouth and drooling down the front of his windbreaker.

I’m sitting there thinking to myself, “You ungrateful brat!”

Here’s the moment when I’m about to say something.

Emotions In Our Crucial Conversations

The moment that predicts how well you’ll do in a crucial conversation is the moment right before you open your mouth. In those moments, because of the emotional content of the crucial conversation, we tend to move towards some form of silence or violence.


Through ten thousand hours of observation of people who are magnificently gifted during those moments, here’s what we know: the way you’re about to act during a crucial conversation is going to be largely and profoundly affected by how you feel right now.

No big surprise there.

But, there’s a bigger insight here. If you can absorb this huge concept—if you can embrace it, deeply understand it, and learn to master this concept, it will give you enormous influence during your crucial conversations.

The insight is this: how you feel during a crucial conversation is not a direct result of what you just saw, heard, or experienced.

What I see and hear does not create an emotion. Seeing my son jamming french toast sticks into the middle of a giant syrup tub and drooling it onto a nine million dollar windbreaker does not create anger.

There’s an intervening variable called your story.

The Story Behind The Emotion

Before you can experience an emotion, you have to tell yourself a story about what just happened to you.

The problem is that you and I are hard-wired to tell certain kinds of stories.

The thing that’s creating the emotion is not the maple syrup drool—it’s the story I start to tell myself about the maple syrup drool.

If you’re like me, you frequently feel frustrated in these moments.

The kind of story you tend to tell yourself that creates frustration is that people are doing what they’re doing because they’re stupid. They’re an idiot—that’s why they’re doing that.

But, if you tend to feel deeply offended, hurt, or even angry, there’s likely a different story you’re telling yourself.

The story you’re telling yourself is that they’re doing what they’re doing because they’re evil—not just stupid, but evil. They have malicious intent. They don’t care about worthy purposes. They don’t care about my concerns. They have their own selfish motives. The problem is their evil, rotten motives.

That story is what creates an escalated emotion and therefore moves you to either silence or violence. If you can learn to intervene and affect that story it changes everything.

The 3 Types Of Stories To Watch Out For

There are three types of stories you’re going to have to learn to watch out for. You and I are masters at telling these.

1. The Victim Story

Think back with me to the airplane. My son’s sitting next to me, and I feel outraged. Offended. Indignant.

Why? Because the story I’m telling myself is a victim story.

“Look at what he’s doing after all I’ve done for him. I spent all this money. I go to all this trouble. I make this wonderful experience, and he doesn’t care about any of it.”

Look at the poor victim that I’ve made myself out to be. You tell yourself that kind of story and it subtly justifies moving to silence or violence.

Now I can move to violence with my son. I can call him names and punish him, and I don’t have to feel guilty about it because, after all, I’m an innocent victim.

But, the victim story isn’t enough. You need more to help yourself feel good about silence or violence because, for the most part, you and I really believe we shouldn’t do those things. We know we shouldn’t withdraw. We know we should speak up. We shouldn’t move to violence to control and compel, but we do it anyways.

2. The Villain Story

So we need a second kind of story to help us out. We need a villain story. “Not only am I an innocent victim, but look at this kid. He’s ungrateful. He’s selfish. He’s undisciplined. He’s obnoxious.”

The degree to which I can paint him as evil, awful, and rotten is the degree to which I can feel justified now in behaving badly as a parent.

When I tell myself that kind of story I create a certain kind of emotion and a certain kind of action as a consequence. Now, I can feel good about those kinds of actions.

3. The Helpless Story

Finally we give up our responsibility for our reaction. “There’s nothing else I could do.”

Master Your Story

What if you had the capacity to 1) notice when you told these kinds of stories, and 2) intervene and change them?

I was sitting on the plane, about to leap into “punishment and lecture mode” with my son. Then, I bit my lip because I had just taught a class on Crucial Conversations. I paused for a moment and asked myself, “What story am I telling myself that’s making me so mad? That he’s an ungrateful, obnoxious, bratty kid.”

As soon as I told that story, I found myself capable of crafting a different story. The story was not obnoxious brat. The story was normal, fifteen year-old kid.

Would that change how you felt?

Notice that I’m NOT suggesting that I shouldn’t hold him accountable. We’re going to hold him accountable.

We need to talk up to the C.E.O. We need to hold peers and others accountable but, can we hold them accountable in a better way?

As soon as I stepped back and came toward him with the story of normal fifteen year-old boy, here’s what happened:

I said, “Samuel, did you notice that you got maple syrup on your new windbreaker?”

He pushed the french toast sticks away and looked down at his jacket. Then he started bawling uncontrollably, asking me if the syrup would come out.

The whole situation changed in that moment.

What was the real problem? Why was he doing what he was doing? Was it because he’s an evil rotten villain? Or was it because he’s a normal fifteen year-old boy?

Should he learn to take care of his belongings better than he did? Absolutely. But did he need guilt and punishment? No.

If you learn to master your story—to notice what stories you’re telling yourself that create emotional responses, and then intervene and change those—you’ll gain the capacity to step up to crucial conversations that will affect results and relationships in every area of your life.

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