Episode #46: Fact vs. Story – The Most Fundamental Concept in Conscious Leadership
Hi, this is Caneel. Welcome to Allowed. Today, I’m sharing with you the most important concept that I teach when I am starting working with a new CEO or founder or an executive team. This is the first segment actually, of my online group coaching program, which we’ll be enrolling soon. You can check that out at caneel.com or allowedpodcast.com. And this fundamental distinction is the difference between facts and stories. How do you know when what you’re saying is unarguably true? No one can argue with it. Versus when are you making up a story and people could tear it down. Why is this important? Because it gives you access to seeing the world a completely different way, where you can recognize way more opportunities to break out of your own patterns and to support others in breaking out of theirs.
Our stories, believe it or not, are what keep us in suffering. So I want to tell you, this is actually, probably also the most challenging of all of the skills that I teach. It’s the one where you may experience the most internal resistance and it can feel like, what? How can this possibly be a story this thing that I’m saying? This is true. This is true. Oh, baby, I cannot wait for you to learn this one. So, welcome to the show. Thank you for making time for being here today, and get ready to have the blinders removed and to see life in a completely new way. All right. As human beings, one of the things that really defines us, is that we are born storytellers. Humans communicate with each other through stories. And we also form our own identities through the stories that we make up.
Now, what is a story? A story is simply an interpretation of observable facts and events that give them meaning. Stories put the things that we notice in our world together in a way that gives them structure and meaning, and helps us to remember them. Our stories are what create our emotions. Our stories are what move and motivate us. Our stories are often how we connect with each other. And our stories are also the source of our suffering. Not all stories lead to suffering immediately, but all suffering results from a story. Now, that may sound like a tough pill to swallow. It’s a thing you need to try on and experience for yourself and check it out. So, let’s get into this. One of my top recommendations for you as a leader, is that you learn to speak in a language that is unarguable.
Meaning, if you’re going to share a story, you’re going to claim yourself as the owner of that story. When you share your thoughts, you are going to share that you are the thinker of those thoughts. This is important because it keeps everyone’s minds really open and allows them to take it in without feeling like you’re telling them the right way to do everything, and that your way of seeing it is the only truth. Which gives them space to make an actual choice, to feel like, Oh, I’m actually invited in to seeing. Can I see the world in this leader’s way? And that really lowers other’s defenses and helps them step in and see it from your way. What’s the difference between a fact and a story? Well, first let’s talk about facts.
Facts are things that we can observe, that are concrete and objective, that nobody can argue with. So, you can think about it. If there were a video camera, you and I would both agree, yes, this is the actual thing that happened. And what you just described was very factual and objective and true. There are two broad categories of facts. The first category are the observables in the external world. This includes things I can access through my senses, my sight, my hearing, my sense of touch, my sense of taste, my sense of smell. I also might be able to put some of those facts together. Such as, I can notice what time something happened at, right? So here would be an example of a fact. At 7:05 AM I noticed that you walked through the door and you arrived at the meeting. I might also be able to reference something that I remember like, “And I remember receiving an invitation for this event that said that it began at 7:00 AM. This is a morning meeting, started at 7:00, you came here at 7:05.”
What would the story version of that be? It would be, you were late. I know it seems like, well, duh, 7:05, that’s late. It’s five minutes late. Well, not in every culture. In some cultures, 7:05 really feels like it’s quite on time. In some cultures you can be 20 minutes late, an hour late, and that feels like it’s on time. I’ve lived in several different countries, in others you are there one minute early period. Even West coast and East coast here in the US there are differences. California is famously like, there’s a broader window for arriving at a meeting than you might experience in New York City.
So, this late thing is a story. The fact would be more, you arrived at 7:05. I see that the meeting was due to begin at 7:00 AM. So, the big difference that lets you have a conversation about it, you may not want to, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, the other person is not going to feel blamed, labeled or judged, because you’re speaking unarguably about it. So, that’s the first category of facts. These are the things that I can observe with my eyes. Things I can observe with my senses. And they’re things that if there were a video camera, you and I would both agree, yes, that is true. It’s objective. There’s no extra interpretation or meaning given to anything there. Now, let’s get into the second category of facts.
These are the facts about what I can observe in myself internally, my own inner experience. I am the only person actually who can observe my inner experience. No one else can. So I can still speak unarguably about the factual experience that I am having. So I want to really be clear about, what is that? What is the inner experience? There are three categories here as well. The first category would be, my body sensations. Such as, I feel cold, or my stomach is turning, or my shoulders are tense. These are body sensations. And it’s really simple. I’m aware there’s a body part and it’s feeling something and I’m describing it in a way that’s, it’s objective, it’s unarguable. I’m not adding a whole bunch of meaning to it. It’s pretty simple.
The second category includes my emotions. The third category includes my thoughts. And stories are actually one of the kinds of thoughts that I might have. So, now let’s focus on the emotions piece. What do I mean when I say, I can describe my emotions in an unarguable fact-based way. I like using a really simple model where I’m only going to be referencing five basic emotions. I’m going to keep my language really, really simple. The five basic emotions, and there’s a lot of research that backs this model up are, joy, fear, sadness, anger, and sexual feelings. That’s a broad clump of emotions that includes things like, creative impulses, can have a feeling of ambition or motivational drive. It includes inspiration and awe. And it’s basically that set of feelings broadly that is, there’s a desire here to create. Something is wanting to come through me to be created by me. So, it’s a really broad category. That language is not palatable in many corporate settings. So, if I’m teaching in a corporate setting, I would reference that as desire.
There’s a lot to desire, right? It includes creativity and includes other things. So, these are the five basic emotions. Again it’s, joy, fear, sadness, anger, and desire or sexual feelings. And that’s it. Now, why am I not including all of the other emotions that we talked about and feel all of the time. Some of those might include things like shame, guilt, frustration, irritation, exuberance, excitement, grief, sorrow, despair. There’s so many emotions that are all quite valid and really true subjective experiences that we have inside. The reason that I like to keep it simple is, it forces me to really sit and feel into, what am I feeling that’s not actually the byproduct of a story I’m telling myself? So, there’s some feelings that I would put into the category of story feelings. Guilt is a really good example of this.
Guilt is a feeling of, in my experience, sadness mixed with fear, perhaps mixed with a little bit of anger toward the self, and perhaps mixed with a little bit of desire to repair the situation or to be seen or experienced in a different way. Maybe a little kind of a regret feeling. So, it’s a combination of a whole bunch of different feelings that has a story attached, which is, I did something wrong. So, the story piece is what ends up coming through when you say, I feel guilty. Now, I’m interested in your story. “Ooh, why do you feel guilty? What did you do wrong?” Now, if you’ve listened to previous episodes of Allowed, especially in those first 10 episodes, I really tried to cover this conscious leadership model in a very fundamental way. So, go back and listen to those if you haven’t yet.
But in conscious leadership, we are interested in being aware and taking responsibility for our feelings. We are also interested in dropping the idea that there is a right and a wrong. That I’m right. I could even be right about being wrong. That would be a really good example of the guilty feeling, right? I’m feeling really right that I did something wrong. So now I’m judging myself, and I’m in a little bit of a position of villain. I’m villaining myself, I’m shoulding on myself. So I will link to some previous episodes where I talk about shoulding on myself. That’s me when I’m in that villain position on the drama triangle. So, go to the show notes, I’m going to link to all of these other things if you have not yet listened.
So, guilt would be a story feeling. Other story feelings are like frustration, which is, someone or something is blocking me from getting or doing what I want. That’s a story. That’s a story. So many stories here that really can lead us in a direction of further deepening this idea that, I am right and you are wrong. And from that place, I cannot create lasting and permanent change. I cannot lead consciously. And people will often feel a subtle resistance because you’re actually helping to bring them below the line with you when you use language like that. Although it may be a perfectly valid and true representation of your subjective experience, because in that moment, yes, indeed you are in a story, you are experiencing your story, and you’re giving the world meaning in that way. All right. We just covered the basic emotions. And that’s that second category of my internal experience. Emotions are facts. I get some pushback on this one.
Emotions are facts. I can’t know what you’re feeling, but I certainly can know what I’m feeling. Sometimes I need to drop deeper into my body and slow down and really notice, what am I feeling? And that’s why I love this five basic emotions model. So, if you’re listening right now in this very moment, take a couple of seconds and just notice which of these five basic emotions are you feeling? It may be one or a combination, joy, fear, sadness, anger, desire. What are you feeling right now? It’s really interesting too, and we can get deeper into this in a future episode. If you’d like me to do that, please leave a note for me in a review somewhere and I will make sure to cover it more deeply. But each of the emotions actually has a specific pathway in the body, a nervous system pathway, where energy flows when you are experiencing that emotion.
So the way that we know we’re experiencing emotions is actually through our body sensations. So, when my hands are clenched and my stomach is tight and my shoulders are tight and my back is tight, usually that’s anger. Sadness might be like a heaviness in my chest and my shoulders and my neck and my head feel really, really heavy, and my eyes. That’s a different physiological somatic experience in my body. And that’s how we know what we’re feeling, but we often are just so stuck in our heads about our stories that we don’t even notice that. So, it’s really, really good to notice the body. The third category of internally observed facts is thoughts. Now, this is the juiciest, the highest leverage one for you to notice and claim. So, who creates your thoughts? Who creates your thoughts? You do. You do. Who creates my thoughts? I do. You actually don’t have any ability to make me think anything.
I make me think my thoughts. I might be listening to you and from there I make up thoughts. I have interpretations of what it means, what is what you’re saying mean to me? What is what I’m noticing and observing mean? I might start getting really attached to those thoughts and I might start thinking that they are facts, right? I think that when you walk in five minutes after the time that it says here on my calendar, it means you are late. And if you are late, that means you are a late person. And maybe I start thinking that you’re irresponsible and I start judging you. Or I might think, you don’t really care too much about me. You don’t care too much about this meeting. Can you see how it becomes a speed train once you hop on board with, oh, my thoughts are not thoughts. They’re facts.
So things that might be thoughts, these are judgments, opinions, interpretation, anything that gives anything meaning, thinking that things are right or wrong, they should or shouldn’t be a certain way. They need to be a certain way. They have to be a certain way. Once I’m in that mindset, now, what am I doing? Boom. Last category of thought is, I’m making up stories. When I am in this land of, there’s a right and a wrong way for things to be. There’s a way things need to be. There’s a way things have to be. There’s a way things should be. There’s a way things ought to be. Whatever those judgments are, those are all stories. So we often are saying, okay, things need to be different. It needs to be warmer in this room, for instance. And usually there’s some other thoughts in there too. It needs to be warmer in this room because, because why?
When we get into this because thing, and we get into this question of, why? Why? Now, we’re just asking for more and more stories. It needs to be warmer in this room because I feel cold. Well, is it wrong or bad that you feel cold? No, you just feel cold. Does it need to be warmer in this room or do you need to put on a jacket? If you want to feel warmer, you have a choice. I often tell my kids, we don’t need to turn on the heater, we put on our jackets, we put on our shoes, we put on our socks, you’re not wearing any pants, your hair is wet. These are just some things that you also could do to warm up your body if you subjectively are feeling cold. Because I’m over here, and I’m a 40 something year old woman and I’m hot. So, we’ve all got to work together on this.
And the thing is, when you can drop the story about, it needs to be different. You notice even in that example, it gives us access to so much more that we can creatively do to have impact in the way that we want to have impact. So we can still want things to be different without shoulding on life, without saying it needs to be different. I can want things to be different. I have access to my desire, right? That’s one of my basic emotions. I can have access. I feel desire. I notice I’m also feeling cold. What am I wanting? Let’s think about it. Oh, I think that if it were warm in here, I would feel more at ease. Because I’m noticing as I’m cold, I’m also feeling tense. I’m noticing my thoughts. I’m leaving presentism. I’m not able to concentrate on the things that I’m wanting to, and instead I’m just concentrating on warming myself up. So, that’s me wanting to be warmer. There’s so much to it.
I mean, it’s simple but it’s not. It can feel quite complicated when you’re trying to unravel how many stories you make up. Now, stories, I’ve covered that. Stories are everything that’s not a fact. Every single thing that is not an external objective observable fact or an internal objective observable fact. All right. So, that’s it. One of the easiest tricks I use when I’m mediating any kind of tense conversations or negotiations between leaders on the same executive team is, I make sure that they are speaking in the language of facts. And what’s cool is, you can still bring your stories in. I mean, your stories still matter a lot. They still create a huge piece of your experience and the way that you understand the world, and they’re important to share. It’s just, we’re not right about them. They’re just stories.
So, labeling them is really key. And even reminding ourselves that this is not a fact, it’s not the only way to see it. One of the practices of conscious leadership is actually to question our stories, and to see that the opposite of our stories could be at least as true as our stories itself. Such as, does it need to be warmer in here? Well, I could also equally argue that it does not need to be warmer. Or that it needs to be cooler. Or that it’s perfect just how it is. Or that it doesn’t matter what the temperature is. I could argue any of those things, just as easily as I could argue that it needs to be warmer. But I might want it to be warmer. So, when I’m above the line, I recognize that my story is simply one of many potential stories and that there are lots that are equally potentially valid in any situation.
And of the ways that I access greater influence, control and power in my own life, and that I satisfy my own needs and I create my vision, one of those ways, is I look for other stories. I look for alternate stories. I had a coaching session with a client just yesterday, and this was a really big breakthrough. “Oh, I spend too much time dwelling on the same potential interpretation of the events of what this one competitor is doing. If I could cycle through the different alternate stories more quickly, I could come up with way more creative potential solutions I wouldn’t get stuck in the weeds and drag everyone in with me.” Paraphrasing there. Dragging them in. That’s a story.
Are you actually picking them up and dragging them in? No. You can’t do that. It’s a story. Okay. So, I think you’re getting it. Now, when I’m below the line, I am going to be making up stories. The primary story, the one that everything connects back to is, the story of I am right. So, you can actually feel the sematic experience of what it feels like to have the story of I’m right. And I’ll give you a little way to taste that. So just take your two hands, cup them together and squeeze really hard, like in a little ball and little fist, and push them together with all of your might, and push them even harder, and you can even feel yourself shaking. That’s what it feels like when you’re trying to be right. We’re holding on tight to our story. We’re gripping on it. We’re insisting on it. It’s the only way.
Now, take your hands and hold them out almost as if you’re saying, I don’t know. Nice and open and broad and wide, like a shrug. I don’t know. Doesn’t that feel better? Just more ease, more flow through your body, less constriction. You might even notice that your visual awareness becomes broader when we’re in that, even just that physical position of, I don’t know. Because we’re not gripping on anymore to, I know that I’m right. I know there is a right and a wrong. Whenever we’re in this story of there is a right and a wrong, that’s when we start making up a whole bunch of stories about why we’re right. And we can get triggered into being below the line, by making up a story or believing a story about that there is a right and a wrong. And we can also just be in a state of threat generally, walking around being below the line because we are so hardwired to be there. I mean, it’s completely, completely normal. It is the most common experience of being a human.
Because we are hardwired to scan for threats. It’s just that there are not as many threats out there as our bodies sometimes believe. So, we might just walk around being below the line and then, guess what? I mean, you’ve probably had an experience like this on a bad day. You’re feeling grumpy. Now, why is it that on this day when this bad thing already happened, then this bad thing happens, and this thing, and you’re doing this, and why am I so bad? Maybe you’re just really down on yourself that day. And then every piece of clothing you put on just looks horrible, whatever it is. That’s all because, just physiologically, somatically, your body is in a state of threat. And so, everything that is coming in around you, that’s a factual, basic, simple observation that really doesn’t mean anything, is interpreted by you as a threatening story where it’s really important to be right.
And again, you might even be being right that you are wrong, and that something else is right or someone else’s right. Right can sound like should, should not, need to, have to, made me, get it? So, right now you might be able to even begin to separate this. What are some stories that you have been liking to make up lately? And just get really curious about this. I mean, we all have so many stories. Might there be a story about how things need to be different? How, somebody out there should be behaving a different way. How something in your life is not enough. Something in you is not enough. Cool. It’s fine. Now, really important, not to judge the storyteller. The storyteller is a human. We are all humans. And I don’t mean human in a derogatory way. It’s a beautiful thing. We make up stories. This is how we connect with each other. It’s a big piece of how our brains work. Without making up stories it would be really hard to interpret the world and to have memories.
However, our stories, when they define us, they trap us. When we get attached to our stories, even if the story is a joyful one, and a pleasant one most of the time, such as, “I’m a really smart person,” our life can become consumed with the attachment to that story, and suddenly you are a workaholic whose marriage is suffering and you feel unfulfilled because your life has been focused on proving that the story is right. So, the invitation to you as a conscious leader, first and foremost, is to notice, is this a fact or is this a story? If it’s a story, that’s valid, that’s creating a lot of your experience. It’s creating a lot of your emotion. Are you right about it? No. Are there other stories that you could argue are equally true, maybe even the opposite? Equally true and valid. You might have a preference for one of them, but can you see that? That’s the fundamental invitation of conscious leadership.
It doesn’t mean that we need to believe that the opposite is the one that we want to create, right? We want to create from. And certainly as leaders, we can use our storytelling abilities to inspire and to motivate. But when we want to create a lasting permanent change, we can speak unarguably about what is true. And this is particularly important today, as there are so many of us who really stand for change in the world. As we’re facing the crisis of a global pandemic, as we are facing another presidential election, as we are facing grand awakening in the level of entrenched inequity and oppression in our society, a lot of us stand for change. I do too. But when I am standing in, I’m right about it, it’s very hard to enroll those whom I need to most influence to create that change. So, try it out today and just notice, is it a fact, or is it a story? I’ll see you next week.