We don’t always act the way we should. Sometimes, we make a choice to act against our sense of what’s right. We know we should help someone but don’t. We say yes when we should say no. We become defensive instead of listening respectfully.
When we do these things, we only have two choices: we can admit to our bad behaviour, or we can tell ourselves a story that makes us feel better.
The bad news? By default, we tell ourselves stories of justification: victim, villain, and helpless stories.
The good news? At any point, we can ditch the stories and change our behavior. We can start solving the problem instead of causing the problem.
How do we switch to a healthier, more constructive mindset? It just takes three steps:
1. Assess your role in the situation
2. Humanize others
3. Do what you can to get better results
To illustrate how NOT to follow these steps, look at how badly I messed up back in my days of coaching college basketball.
Ruining the Best Game of My Life
For about 15 years, I had the privilege of coaching men’s basketball. The last year I coached, our team made the playoffs… by one game.
If you know basketball and the way tournaments are “seeded”, you know the last place team (us) plays the first place team in the first round of playoffs. We were facing a team we hadn’t beaten in five years.
I had some questions about where they got their players. Some things didn’t add up. (See the villain story I was telling myself already?)
I could give you the play-by-play of the entire game, but I’ll just sum it up…
We played the game of our lives. There were 17 seconds left on the clock. We had the ball and were behind by one point. I could see the headlines declaring our victory already!
My assistant coach drew up a play to get the ball to our point-guard — our best player. If we could get the ball to him, we’d win!
The play was running great with one minor exception. As my star point-guard took his shot, an opposing player “tripped” and shoved my player on his way down. The ball left our player’s hands, flew to the front of the rim, bounced up, hit the blackboard, fell back down to the rim, teetered on the edge, fell outside the basket, and hit the floor as the buzzer sounded.
We lost… and I was irate.
We’d developed our basketball program around a code of ethics. We aimed to apply this code to officials and players alike — no matter how they performed. But I was choking on it. I was pacing back and forth wishing I’d never put that code together.
Finally, the two officials (who happened to be from the opposing team’s state!) grabbed their gear to exit. As they passed in front of us, I yelled to the official I knew, “Jack, you swallowed your whistle!”
Maybe that doesn’t sound much like a violation of mutual respect. But Jack knew I was also a certified basketball official. This meant someone from within his fraternity was questioning his ability and courage. Based on what we know about crucial conversations, we know that when someone violates mutual respect, the other person moves to silence or violence. Where do you think he went?
He was in my face chewing me out. “Nelson, I want to see you downstairs!” As I followed him down to the room, I mentally compiled every critique I had of his officiating for the last five years. See, when we sell out we tend to get ourselves more deeply embedded.
When Jack and I got down to the room, we chewed each other out. Until he abruptly stopped and said, “Nelson, I was wrong.”
“Wow, Jack. That’s really big of you to admit that!”
“No, no, no. I wasn’t wrong about the call. I was wrong about you.”
I knew he was right. I had failed to handle this situation the right way.
Jack and I had a great talk. But now I had another problem. As I left the room, I had 12 men waiting for me.
“Did you give it to him, coach? Did you set him straight?!”
This was a teachable moment.
So I told my team, “We need to talk. I want to be clear — there’s nothing wrong with questioning an official, but the way I did it was wrong. I sold out. I failed you.”
It was a long three-hour ride home — not because of the way we played, but because of the way I acted. At a critical moment, I had sold out based on the values I knew were right at a critical time.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Let’s walk through my victim, villain, and helpless stories. As I sold out and acted badly, these are the stories that were playing in my mind.
The Victim Story
Was I playing the victim? Absolutely. If you’d asked me right after the game if I was a victim, I could have given you a list of the reasons why. We were at their school, with their officials, and their fans. I became such a victim that I couldn’t see past my sell out when it actually occurred.
How do we combat our tendency to play the victim? Consider yourself an actor, not a villain. Ask yourself, “Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?”
Then, think about what you should (or shouldn’t) have done that started you down the path to these self-justifying stories. This helps keep you honest.
The Villain Story
Next, we need to turn others from villains into humans. See, I had turned the officials into villains. I assumed they were out to get us. I assumed the worst.
We turn people into villains by exaggerating their weaknesses. So, we can turn them back into humans by looking for their good qualities. We assume the best by asking, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?”
I wasn’t viewing the official as a reasonable, rational, and decent person. In fact, I was so emotionally flooded, I never asked him the critical question: “Did you see my player get pushed?” Instead, I’d made the assumption he saw it and ignored it. As an official myself, I knew there was a possibility that he didn’t see it. If he didn’t see it, he did the right thing.
Don’t assume the worst. Assume the best, then check it out.
The Helpless Story
We always have a choice. But in a helpless mentality, it doesn’t feel like it. So, how do you turn yourself from helpless to able?
You commit to corrective action by asking, “What should I do right now to move toward what I really want?”
Decide what you want. Then, behave in a way that will yield those results.
When Jack said, “Nelson, I was wrong about you,” I finally stopped selling out and starting thinking about what I wanted from the situation. I didn’t feel emotionally like I wanted to change, but I knew if I wanted to be a man of principle, if I wanted my actions to align with my intentions, I had to act differently.
The Real Story
Selling out is often our instinct, but it doesn’t have to be our pattern. We can choose to tell ourselves the real story — not the victim, villain, or helpless stories that creep into our high-stakes situations.
Next time you find yourself obsessing over someone’s faults or passionately defending your own innocence, examine your story. Are you lying to yourself? Are you trying to justify your own behaviour? If so, it’s not too late to change your behaviour and focus on the outcome you really want.