Office of the Ombudsman

Confidential - Neutral - Independent - Informal

Telling our stories differently: Using self-distancing to mediate our reactions

Humans are wired to tell stories.  It’s how we learn and problem-solve.  How we adapt, how we reinforce social rules, and how we create community.  And also how we get things wrong.  This is particularly true when it comes to our conflict stories. 

Imagine this scenario: You and a colleague have a disagreement about how a task should be completed. Both of you walk away feeling hurt and unsettled.  Both of you begin to replay the disagreement as a way to understand what happened.  This is where things can begin to go awry.  Our story-telling nature can interfere with our desire to mediate conflict.

For most people, the instinct is to replay this disagreement from their own perspective.  Their own perspective usually includes casting themselves as the "hero," overcoming an obstacle.  That, by storytelling necessity, casts the other as the "villain."  Now, there are two very divergent stories, both of which are powerful and can easily become entrenched.  What to do?

One option is to use our storytelling nature in a different way.  In a paper from 2010, researchers found that using self-distancing techniques can reduce emotional reactivity and allow us to engage in problem-solving behavior rather than avoidance. 

One way to use self-distancing works like this: think of a negative interaction you’ve had with someone.  Consider how you tell that story from your perspective. 

Now, tell the story as if you were a video-camera in the corner of the room, simply recording what happened, or a fly on the wall, observing what happened.  What changes in the story?  What changes for you as you tell the story? Is it easier to think from a problem-solving perspective now?  Are you better able to consider what was happening for the other person?

Most importantly, armed with a different story, what do you do next?

Self-distancing takes practice. Done well, and done with action, it can allow us to harness the power of storytelling in ways that help us disrupt and disarm conflict.