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I want to talk to you today about a simple exercise that can help improve the clarity of your communication and the health of your relationships.

The exercise involves separating the facts about the situation from the story you make up about the situation.

The facts are the undisputed details of what happened. Think about it this way: If a video camera was running and recorded your situation, what would it see? If an unbiased news reporter was giving a summary of what occurred, what would he or she say?

The story I make up is my interpretation of what happened. Often the story I make up includes my thoughts about the motivations of the person I am in relationship with. The story I make up might have judgments of the person, such as ‘he’s lazy’ or ‘she’s selfish.’

One common problem we face in our relationships is that the facts and our story about the facts become one and the same. They get fused together. We talk and act like our story is the same as the facts. This can cause trouble in our relationships, because our story may or may not be true.

This happened to me recently. My friend and I had made plans to hang out. On the day we were supposed to meet, I texted him to confirm our plans. No response. I called him. No answer. Finally, close to the time we had planned to hang out, he texted me back saying he was going to meet up with a colleague from his work.

I was mad. The facts and my story got fused into one. “He canceled on me at the last minute!” “Now I don’t have any plans!” “What a jerk!” The stories went on and on in my head until I was really angry.

The key here, if I care about this relationship moving forward, is to separate the facts from my story about the facts. For example, the facts were: We made plans to have dinner and watch basketball. I texted you that day and didn’t receive an answer. I called you and you didn’t pick up the phone. You texted me back two hours later and said you were going to meet up with a work colleague, and asked if we could reschedule. Then my story was: ‘You are a jerk and only care about yourself.’ See how the story is my interpretation of the facts, but it may or may not be true?

I think separating facts from stories is important for 3 reasons:

  1. Separating facts from my story helps me keep a clear head. When my facts and story become one, I have a tendency to get really mad. However, when I separate the facts from my story, I can think more clearly. I can see the situation for what it is, without adding a lot of interpretation. Separating facts from story also gives space to see alternate explanations that may be more neutral or positive.
  2. Separating facts from my story allows me to own my part of the issue. Sometimes when we get really triggered by something, it means the event tapped into something about us. Maybe we were hurt in a similar way growing up. Perhaps we struggle with the same thing. One way to recognize this is to check the situation out with someone else. If our reaction is more intense than the ‘average person,’ this might be a clue that part of our reaction and story is something about us. This isn’t a bad thing. But it’s good to know and be aware of, so we don’t blame the other person for our own stuff.
  3. Separating facts from my story helps me communicate clearly. It’s tough to talk through an issue when the facts and story are fused into one. Even if the other person agrees on the facts, he or she may not agree with our story. This can lead to defensiveness and an impasse. However, if I can separate the facts from my story, this allows us to come to an agreement on the facts, and then I can check out my story with the other person and we can discuss the situation in a way that is likely to bring about a positive result.

So this is my challenge to you: The next time you are in a situation where you are upset with a spouse, friend, family member, or co-worker about a particular situation, try to separate the facts from your story. Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page. On the left side, list the facts. Remember: Don’t let your story or judgments sneak into the facts! The facts are what a video camera (or IPhone nowadays) would have captured. Then on the right side, write out your story. Remember: This may or may not be the truth. But it’s your understanding of what happened, and it is important to get the story down.

Once you have the facts and story down, check and see if there is any part of the story you can own as your issue. Is there anything about the story that relates to struggles or pain in your upbringing or family of origin? Is there anything about your story or judgment that you struggle with yourself?

Finally, if you decide to talk through this issue with the person, try to separate the facts from your story when you communicate. For example, you might say, “Okay, so from my understanding here are the facts about what happened… Is that your understanding of what happened, or did you see it differently?” After you come to an agreement on the facts, you might say something like, “Okay, here is the story I’m making up about what happened, which I realize may or may not be true…” You could even own your part in the story or judgment by saying something like, “As I was thinking about what happened and my reaction to it, I realized part of my reaction was because… [own your part of the issue].”

Give it a try! You might find separating facts from your story helps you communicate more clearly and improves the health of your relationships.

Discussion: What do you think about the idea of separating the facts from your story about the facts? How has this idea worked in your relationships? What difficulties have you found when trying to communicate clearly in the midst of conflict?