Telling the Story

By Greg Baer M.D.

January 11, 2017

A woman, Sinead, wrote to tell me, “When I got home yesterday, my husband, Sam, looked annoyed and distracted. He told me that he was angry and didn't feel like talking about it, so he went for a walk. When he got back, I asked him how he was doing, and he said that he’d been feeling like a victim—and was judgmental and angry—but he was getting over it. I asked him to tell me more about it, but he told me he didn’t want to go into the story, because people get lost in their stories. The story wasn't important, he said. But I thought that it mattered to talk about it a little. What’s the right thing to do here?”

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of “telling the story”—using details—in discussions about how we feel.

Advantages of Telling the Story (describing the details of an event):

  • You create opportunities for other people to see you more clearly, which can result in your feeling more understood and accepted. Sometimes details tell more about you, and they can make a story more personal. If you consistently share no details, you can stay in your head—in your own little world.
  • You create more opportunities for other people—IF they choose—to take responsibility for their part in a conflict or painful moment.
  • Other people can help you find another perspective that might help you. Using the principle of Event ➝ Judgment ➝ Feeling ➝ Reaction, if someone can help us see a more accurate judgment of an event—which involves telling some details of it—we can change our feelings and reactions.
  • Other people can help us see that our memory of an event was just flat-out wrong. Brief example: In the story above, Sam might have believed that Sinead left the house and went shopping without him because she was angry at him, when the truth was that normally Sam hates shopping, so it simply did not occur to him to ask him if he wanted to go with her on that particular occasion.
  • Can help to eliminate shame. When we tell the truth in a general way—“Well, I’m not perfect”—it’s not personal enough for us to feel accepted and loved. Details sometimes help with this: “I was irresponsible and thoughtless earlier today when I did XX.”
  • Some degree of detail can provide clarity and connection, while reducing the incidence of incorrect assumptions.
  • Context. Details provide context for the feelings and behavior being discussed. Without any details, many of my own conversations with people—for example—would tend to go like this (heavy sarcasm to follow):

Other person: I was treated badly, and I’m angry.
Me: You know anger never works, so just stop it.
Other person: Okay.

Disadvantages of Telling the Story (describing the details of an event):

  • Blaming. As your account of an event becomes more detailed, it’s tempting to throw in details that blame other people for how you feel and behave.
  • We tend to get lost in the words. Often we use so many words—additionally repeating them, over and over—that we lose track of the essentials of the event, confusing both us and others.
  • Arguing the details. As you describe details to other people, they have a strong tendency to interrupt and contradict you if their memory of the same event is different from yours.
  • Hijacking. The more you talk, the more other people tend to interrupt and take over the conversation. You describe a detail, and the other person says, “That happened to me too. A couple of years ago . . .”
  • Victimhood. When we’re feeling victimized, we tend to use details as weapons to justify how we feel, so we’re free us from responsibility.

Describing the advantages and disadvantages of story telling is not meant to give you a method for scientifically balancing which way you should go with details. You can’t do that with human beings. Any one of the above advantages or disadvantages could make the decision. If a detail is blaming, for example, that’s enough reason to stop the details. Each person and circumstance is different, and my intent is simply to create a heightened awareness of what can happen with details—or the lack of them.

What can you do if someone is telling far too much story for you—way too many details? You raise your hand in the universal sign of “stop” and say, “So, let me tell you what I’m hearing. Would that be all right?” Then you briefly summarize what they’ve said in your own words. Most people have rarely been truly heard, so if you do this well, they’ll be quite happy about it and stop talking. What if they keep telling their story? Again, you raise your hand and say, “I’ve got it.” Briefly summarize again, and ask them if you have understood. Then suggest that you move on to another subject.

What can you do if you want the other person to provide more details? You can ask—as Sinead did above—but you can’t force anybody to talk more about a subject they don’t want to discuss.

Stories can cause harm and fear, or they can facilitate healing, all depending on how they’re spoken and how they’re received. Just be aware of the potential disadvantages, and you might be wiser in avoiding the stories laden with those.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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