Fact versus Story Communication Skill

Righteous anger or snap judgement?

It’s Sunday as the president of the company strolls through the facility. Everyone is either at the plant or on call. Orders are at the highest level in years and margins are screaming high. The shop can’t supply parts fast enough to meet demand. At the same time, other company divisions are struggling to meet sales targets. Pressure from corporate to maximize returns for stockholders is incredible. Everyone feels it! Shop floor employees are stressed because they’re being measured in every way possible. Management is scrambling to cover every minute of the day with resources 24/7. Customers have multiple representatives in the plant to personally monitor progress of their orders.

As the president approaches a key piece of equipment, he finds no operator and the machine stopped. He shakes his head in disgust, and his temperature rises in anger. He storms a path to the supervisor, loudly and intimidatingly expressing the need to have the machine running non-stop!

The next morning, at the twice daily production meeting, the shop manager starts his usual report of production metrics when the president interrupts and asks about the machines running through breaks and shift changes. The manager states, “That is exactly what’s being done.” The president pounces! He proceeds to raise his voice and curse at the manager about lack of control, lack of responsibility, and disregard for the company goals and customer expectations. The manager’s body slumps as he glances at the faces of his peers in the room as if begging for help. His eyes are red and the lack of sleep and immense stress is written all over his face. A feeble attempt to explain is met with more yelling. He stands there in emotional and physical pain until the president moves to the next manager.


Later that day, the manager walks into the HR office and asks to be transferred back into engineering and out of supervision or management of any sort. Within 2 months he’s enrolled in an MBA program and within a year of obtaining his MBA, he leaves the company to manage engineering at a competitor and recruits several of the top engineers from his previous company.

What the heck happened?!

Step back to the president at the piece of idle equipment.

What he observed was that the machine was idle, and there was no operator present. Those were the facts he had, nothing more.

The story he told himself was the operator had left for break and supervision had not arranged for someone to cover the machine during that break. Furthermore, it was poor management and lack of care that allowed this situation to occur, at least in his mind.

The president felt angry, annoyed and disgusted. Story to feelings happened in an instant without him even realizing; this is a key communication skill that typically goes unrecognized.

The actions the president took based on his feelings were to intimidate the supervisor Sunday, then attack the manager Monday morning, if nothing else, to make a point.

His path to action produced short and long term failure.  

The Crucial Conversations curriculum provides the model below, “The Path to Action”.

Path_to_Action.png We all do this, every day, mostly without thinking. When left unchecked, the stories we tell ourselves based on limited, if any, facts are nothing short of amazing. Once we tell ourselves the story, our feelings take over and the resulting actions can be devastating.

What the president in the story above didn’t know was the operator assigned to cover the machine during the break was in fact there and doing his job. The machine had stopped because of a minor maintenance issue. A belt had broken and the operator went to the store room to get the replacement rather than wait on a maintenance crew. The operator was actually going above and beyond to keep things moving. The supervisor and manager were well aware of the issue and had approved the action taken.

Next time you find yourself in a situation where emotions are high consider your facts:

  • What do you really know as fact and what are you telling yourself as a story?
  • Are alternate stories possible?
  • Have you sought all the facts or jumped straight to stories and emotions?

The jump from facts to stories to feelings is usually lighting fast. The actions that follow just might lead to lost talent, clients, or friends.

By the way, the above story is based on actual events. It happens way too often. Think about it.


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Crucial Conversations is a Vital Smarts tool that provides individuals, teams and organization’s with the communication skills they need to perform. Trybal Performance is a proud Vital Smarts partner and training provider.

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