They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But which words? The viewer is the author and gets to choose those words. And every day, we are creators of the stories we tell ourselves about the pictures we see. The stories you tell influence how you interact with the world – and even the story you tell about yourself.
A few years ago, this picture went viral on social media. I immediately started using it in my conflict resolution workshops. Why? Well, many (maybe most!) conflicts are underpinned with assumptions and we all make a lot of incorrect or at least unhelpful assumptions. If I had my druthers, we would refrain far more from assuming and instead explore and inquire to find out more information. But that’s not always an option. Sometimes we just have to deduce the story ourselves. But what would happen if we crafted a better story? A more positive story?
When most people see this picture of students in front of Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, they see kids choosing to look at their phones instead of a masterpiece. The story they write is accompanied by admonitions like “Kids these days!”, “Smartphones are a terrible distraction” and similar sentiments. But that’s not the story we have to tell (and it’s also not the real story). We can choose to tell a more positive story: “The kids are using a museum tool to better understand the painting” or “They’re designing an app to increase art appreciation.”
The stories we tell ourselves about others influence us, them, and our relationships. A positive outlook can make you more resistant to pain, lower your cholesterol, and increase your longevity. It also helps you build skills to improve your personal relationships and workplace success and satisfaction. (Read more here and here and here too.) Positive story-telling is a key part of having or developing an overall sense of positivity and is a critical skill in improving your conflict management skills.
As with all conflict management skills, I encourage my workshop participants to practice using these skills before they are in a conflict. Positive story-telling is actually a fun skill to practice. There’s a scene in the comic movie Date Night where the married characters played by Tine Fey and Steve Carell amuse themselves by playing a game they call What’s Their Story in which they craft tales about other restaurant diners. (It’s pretty funny, but also pretty adult, so I’ll let you Google it yourself.) Try a twist on their game and challenge yourself to tell only positive stories about the people you observe around you. Next time you are out with time to kill, don’t grab your smartphone for a distraction. Look at the people around you and craft positive stories about them. Or better yet, engage your partner or kids in doing it with you! You’ll get a good laugh, but you’ll also train yourself to think more positively about other people.
Getting good at that? Try it for the people you know when they behave in ways that don’t make immediate sense to you. In the process, you will find that you have fewer unnecessary conflicts and also improve your ability to resolve the needed ones.