We are natural storytellers, so it’s no surprise that we would tell stories about our conflicts, too. Story-making and story-telling about our conflict is natural and not, on its own, a problem. The problem comes with our attachment to those stories and our mistaken belief that our story is a retelling of The Truth.
We tell stories to communicate, connect, entertain, educate, persuade, inspire, unite, divide, appreciate, and demonize. Stories help us retain ideas and try new ones on for size. We use stories to understand and make meaning, constructing our world with their help. Australian psychologist Peter O’Connor says, “Not to have a story is in fact not to be human.”
Stories are part of the fabric of our lives from our earliest years. When I was very little my mother wove stories for me every night at bedtime, using a little ceramic cottage as the launching point for each tale. The cottage had a light inside and we would peer in together to see the wolf in grandma’s bed, Little Red Riding Hood nearby, a basket of goodies on her arm.
In my mother’s stories, the wolf and Little Red had many adventures together and they never involved the wolf eating anyone. I recall being very excited to hear each night’s story and to this day fondly remember the happiness and security I felt staring into that little cottage while my mother sat next to me. I still have the ceramic cottage, I still love animals, and I still have a rather positive view of wolves. My mother’s bedtime stories shaped my opinions before I knew I had any.
The story we tell of our conflict is a story that shapes, too. As we tell ourselves the story — in the shower, on our lunchtime run, as we lay awake at night — it shapes our opinions. It shapes what we conclude about the other person. What we conclude about ourselves. What we conclude about the situation and our lives. As we tell our story to a spouse, best friend, trusted colleague, or therapist, it becomes embedded, well practiced, familiar.
It is tempting to believe our conflict stories, to become committed and attached to them because they have become so well-worn and familiar. But that only serves the conflict because the conflict relies on the divide between the two stories, ours and theirs. What serves us is to mine our conflict stories for what they’re trying to tell us about ourselves and for the key they hold to unlocking the conflict.
Like turning on the light inside the little cottage, we can choose to shine light on our own stories and understand them differently.