My Dad hates the flavor of orange candy. So, why did he carry a pack of orange-flavored Lifesavers in his shirt pocket when he was a teenager? Why did he force himself to suck on the wretched-tasting things? It’s because of the story he told himself.
My wife is a home health care nurse. She’s always telling me stories of non-compliant patients–people who for one reason or another, refuse to heed medical advice. Whether it be someone with diabetes who ignores nutritional guidelines, a heart-attack victim that returns to a stressful job prematurely, or a surgery patient who refuses to stay in bed, non-compliant patients refuse to do what they are told. Why? Because of the stories they tell themselves.
We all tell ourselves stories. We do it every minute of every day as we evaluate the world around us. We ingest information, compare it with our prior experiences and make assumptions. The stories we tell ourselves form the foundation of our beliefs–independent of whether those beliefs are actually true or not.
“I’m feeling good today, so I can have that ice cream sundae.”
“I thrive in stressful environments. It’s actually good for me.”
“I’ve always been a fast healer. It’s okay for me to walk weeks before the doctor thinks I should.”
The best communicators understand that their audiences tell themselves stories. They work hard to ensure that the story they tell is actually the story being heard. But the flip side is also true. The worst communicators assume that the story they tell is the same one being heard. Therefore, they run the risk of message-misalignment, similar to the false conclusions of noncompliant patients.
My Dad broke his ankle while playing High School basketball. During one of his checkups, the doctor asked about the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. While Dad stumbled his way through some lame justification, the doctor produced a picture of the inside of a human lung. He described alveoli, the tiny little sacks that were responsible for exchanging of oxygen and carbon dioxide. He said that if all of the alveoli were spread over a flat surface, that they’d fill a tennis court. Healthy alveoli, he said, were pink. Yet Dad’s smoking habit was turning them black as he clogged them with tars. Therefore, the doctor posited, the more Dad smoked, the less oxygen could enter his bloodstream, and ultimately hurt his abilities as an athlete.
The doctor’s story impacted my father so much that he never smoked again. He just needed help with the inevitable cravings. Dad needed his own story–a reminder of how bad cigarettes were.
And so he began carrying a package of orange-flavored Lifesavers.
Photo Credit: Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. A Patient, Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital. [Between 1890 and 1901] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/det1994001130/PP/.