Coach’s Challenge for 1/11/10

Good day, team,

I fully intended to write a challenge last weekend, but with the death of my father I found myself in a state of silence. Grief stopped me in my tracks, and I made every attempt to stay in the silence it rendered.

There is much to be said about my father. This past week I reviewed the coach’s challenges where I’ve referred to him, and there are many stories, lessons and pieces of wisdom that I attributed to him. But when I think of my father, I realize that he was above all else an exceptional storyteller. And so this challenge is dedicated to my dad and the power of story.

The Institute for Co-Intelligence defines the power of story as follows:

“Stories are more than dramas people tell or read. Story, as a pattern, is a powerful way of organizing and sharing individual experience and exploring and co-creating shared realities. It forms one of the underlying structures of reality, comprehensible and responsive to those who possess what we call narrative intelligence.”

When I was growing up, my father’s storytelling abilities really shined on Saturday afternoons where he told stories to me, my sister and our friends. Our home was the place all of our friends wanted to hang out. My sister and I felt lucky and proud to have parents who were not particularly strict, were open-minded, and seemed to have a great appreciation for what young people were interested in.

My father would sit around the dining room table and tell stories about battles fought during the Civil War (a subject that most teens in the 1960s and 70s would be totally bored by) to an audience who hung on his every word. It was as though we could hear the musket fire or see the sunset over the battlefield. Sometimes he would talk about Socrates, or Leonardo, or baseball, or music or poetry and how these people and things had taught him significant lessons about life. He was a great lover of science fiction, and so there were Saturday afternoons when he would set up a crude solar system—constructed of toothpicks and styrofoam balls—in the middle of the dining room table so we could explore ideas about our universe.

When we gathered with family and friends, my father would often entertain us with off-color limericks that he could recite with perfect accents and timing. We laughed so hard that tears streamed down our faces. On All Hallow’s Eve, he would tell scary stories by dim candlelight that sent my girlfriends and me jumping out of our seats and into each other’s arms for safety. A good Edgar Allen Poe story recited by my dad was not to be missed. Years later, when my dad and his wife, Barbara, ran a bed and breakfast in New Hampshire, many of the guests would remark that yes, the inn was very nice and Barbara’s breakfasts were to die for, but it was Ted’s stories they would go back for year after year. Whatever the subject, my dad had a way of bringing it to life.

I have learned in my personal and business life that storytelling is essential in communicating ideas. Often people don’t understand a concept unless you reframe it in a story they can relate to. Stories help us define our lives and make sense of complicated situations. They allow us to tell the truth about ourselves in such a way that we can be entertained by what might be too painful to admit outright. They give us a way to interpret our lives.

While storytelling serves many noble purposes, it also has a dark side. Stories can be used to mask the truth, to help rationalize destructive or careless actions, to make someone else the bad guy. Over the last decade, I’ve realized that many of the stories my father and I had been telling about each other were not true. These stories were made up from painful interactions, imagined malicious intentions, misunderstandings and inaccurate interpretations of events.

With the help of my stepmother and husband, my father and I set out over the past decade to rewrite some of these stories and reach a new understanding based on love and compassion. We were not always successful, but we did close the chapters on many stories that were never true, but had been given life by our retelling of them over the years.

As a coach, I see my clients tell stories about themselves that are not true and serve no positive purpose. Perhaps they were true at one point in their lives. But an obsolete story, retold to themselves and others, has outlived its usefulness. I often suggest that they change their story to one that serves them, rather than continuing to tell a story that diminishes them. By changing their story, they change their lives.

In his book “The Power of Story,” Dr. Jim Loehr shares this insight:

“Telling ourselves stories provides structure and direction as we navigate life’s challenges and opportunities, and helps us interpret our goals and skills. Stories make sense of chaos; they organize our many divergent experiences into a coherent thread; they shape our entire reality. [Yet] far too many of our stories are dysfunctional, in need of serious editing.”

Your challenge this week is to hear the stories you tell yourself about yourself and others and to stop telling the ones that no longer serve you. Perhaps you work with someone who irritates you: Do you tell stories about that person which put him or her in a negative light? Maybe you tell yourself you can’t do this or that: Is it true?

One of my clients just decided to take a drawing class because she’s been hearing a story in her head for 25 years about not being able to draw. Evidently, in high school, one of her art teachers told her she couldn’t draw well, and she’s been repeating that story to herself ever since.

You may be telling yourself a story that puts someone on a pedestal or portrays her or him as super-human. That perception is sure to fall apart eventually. No one can stay on a pedestal for long. Or maybe you’re just telling yourself stories about family members that are no longer true. Forgive or seek forgiveness. You might be able to finally release these myths.

Over the last year, as my father’s dementia increased, he lost his ability to speak. The great storyteller was finally silent. How much this pained him only he can know. But I understood that my father told stories to hold people’s attention. Perhaps he worried that people would stop loving him if he lost that ability. I like to think that one of the miracles of my father’s illness was he could finally see that people loved him when he told stories, and they continued to love him when he no longer could. It really wasn’t about the stories at all but the storyteller himself.

For me, part of the grace of my father’s death is that now all of the stories are just that: stories. It’s a great relief to release all the tales of shame and guilt, pain and suffering, just as much as it’s a delight to remember those of joy and sharing, love and compassion.

This week, choose the stories that serve you best. You do have a choice: It’s just a matter of seeing the story for what it is, just a story, and then deciding whether or not you want to keep telling it.

Have a good week!

Kathleen

Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

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