Finally come Helpless Stories. In these fabrications we make our
selves out to be powerless to do anything. We convince ourselves
that there are no healthy alternatives for dealing with our predica
ment, which justifies the action we’re about to take. A Helpless
Story might suggest, “If 1 didn’t yell at my son, he wouldn’t listen.”
Or on the flip side, “If I told my husband this, he would just be
MASTER MY STORIES 1 09
defensive.” While Villian and Victim Stories look back to explain
why we’re in the situation we’re in, Helpless Stories look forward
to explain why we can’t do anything to change our situation.
It’s particularly easy to act helpless when we tum others’
behavior into fixed and unchangeable traits. For example, when
we decide our boss is a “control freak” (Villain Story), we are
less inclined to give him feedback because, after all, control
freaks like him don’t accept feedback (Helpless Story). Nothing
we can do will change that fact.
As you can see, Helpless Stories often stem from Villain Stories
and typically offer us nothing more than Sucker’s Choices.
Why We Tell Clever Stories
They match reality. Sometimes the stories we tell are accurate.
The other person is trying to cause us harm, we are innocent vic
tims, or maybe we really can’t do much about the problem. It can
happen. It’s not common, but it can happen.
They get us off the hook. More often than not, our conclusions
transform from reasonable explanations to clever stories when
they conveniently excuse us from any responsibility-when, in
reality, we have been partially responsible. The other person isn’t
bad and wrong, and we aren’t right and good. The truth lies
somewhere in the middle. However, if we can make others out
as wrong and ourselves out as right, we’re off the hook. Better
yet, once we’ve demonized others, we can even insult and abuse
them if we want.
Clever stories keep us from acknowledging our own sellouts.
By now it should be clear that clever stories cause us problems.
A reasonable question at this point is, “If they’re so terribly hurt
ful , why do we ever tell clever stories?”
Our need to tell clever stories often starts with our own sellouts.
l ,ike i t or not, we usually don’t begin telling stories that justify our
ad ions unti l we have done something that we feel a need to
1 1 0 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
We sell out when we consciously act against our own sense of
what’s right. And after we’ve sold out, we have only two choices:
own up to our sellout, or try to justify it. And if we don’t admit
to our errors, we inevitably look for ways to justify them. That’s
when we begin to tell clever stories.
Let’s look at an example of a sellout: You’re driving in heavy
traffic. You begin to pass cars that are attempting to merge into
your lane. A car very near you has accelerated and is entering your
lane. A thought strikes you that you should let him in. It’s the nice
thing to do, and you’d want someone to let you in. But you don’t.
You accelerate forward and close the gap. What happens next?
You begin to have thoughts like these: “He can’t just crowd in on
me. What a jerk! I’ve been fighting this traffic a long time. Besides,
I’ve got an important appointment to get to.” And so on.
This story makes you the innocent victim and the other per
son the nasty villain. Under the influence of this story you now
feel justified in not doing what you originally thought you should
have done . You also ignore what you would think of others who
did the same thing-“That jerk didn’t let me in! ”
Consider an example more related to crucial conversations.
Your spouse has an annoying habit. It’s not a big deal, but you
feel you should mention it. But you don’t . Instead, you just huff
or roll your eyes, hoping that will send the message. Unfortun
ately, your spouse doesn’t pick up the hint and continues the habit.
Your annoyance turns to resentment. You feel disgusted that your
spouse is so thick that he or she can’t pick up an obvious hint. And
besides, you shouldn’t have to mention this anyway-any reason
able person should notice this on his or her own! Do you have to
point out everything? From this point forward you begin to make
insulting wisecracks about the issue until it escalates into an ugly
Notice the order of the events in both of these examples. What
MASTER MY STORI ES 1 1 1
came first, the story or the sellout? Did you convince yourself of
the other driver’s selfishness and then not let him in? Of course
not. You had no reason to think he was selfish until you needed
an excuse for your own selfish behavior. You didn’t start telling
clever stories until after you failed to do something you knew you
should have done. Your spouse’s annoying habit didn’t become a
source of resentment until you became part of the problem. You
got upset because you sold out. And the clever story helped you
feel good about being rude.
Sellouts are often not big events. In fact, they can be so small
that they’re easy for us to overlook when we’re crafting our
clever stories. Here are some common ones: