How To Master Your Emotions by Mastering Your Stories



“Emotional self-control– delaying gratification and stifling impulsiveness- underlies accomplishment of every sort” — Daniel Goleman

When you feel angry, scared, or hurt, it’s hard to stay in dialogue, or to think clearly.

You can use stories to take control of your emotions and be more effective.

It’s a great way to master emotional intelligence in any situation.

When other people push your buttons, or when you feel off or feel bad around particular people, you can change your emotions by changing the story you tell yourself.

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler show you how to master your stories so you can rethink yourself back into control.

Why Master Your Stories?

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler make the following points about stories:

  • Stories explain what’s going on. Stories are how you explain to yourself what’s going on and whether it’s good or bad. Stories are theories you use to explain why, how and what.
  • Even if you don’t realize it, you are telling yourself stories. Storytelling typically happens blindingly fast.Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories. Lots of stories can fit the facts, but the different stories can create very different emotions.
  • If we take control of our stories, they won’t control us. Tell different stories to break the loop. Until you tell different stories, you can’t break the loop. The best at dialogue influence their emotions during crucial conversations. They recognize that while it’s true that at first we are in control of these stories we tell – once they’re told, the stories control us. They control how we feel and act. And, as a result, they control the results we get from our crucial conversations.

When Should You Worry the Most About the Stories You Tell Yourself? — Watch for These 3 Clever Stories

We often tell clever stories because they get us off the hook or keep us from acknowledging our own sellouts.

  1. Victim Stories – “It’s not my fault.”
  2. Villain Stories – “It’s all your fault.”
  3. Helpless Stories – “There’s nothing else I can do.”

Emotions Don’t Just Happen

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler write the following claims about emotions:

  • Claim One. Emotions don’t settle upon you like a fog. They are not foisted upon you by others. No matter how uncomfortable it might make you feel saying it — others don’t make you mad. You make you mad. You and only you create your emotions.
  • Claim Two. Once you’ve created your emotions, you have only two options. You can act on them or be acted on by them. That is, when it come sto strong emotions, you either find a way to master them or fall hostage to them.

The Best Think Out Their Emotions

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler write how the best at dialogue shape their emotions through their stories:

“The good at dialogue realize that if they don’t control their emotions, matters will get worse. So they try something else.

They fake it. They choke down reactions and then do their best to get back to dialogue.

At least, they give it a shot.

The best at dialogue do something completely different.

They aren’t held hostage by their emotions, nor do they try to hide or suppress them.

Instead, they act on their emotions.

That is, when they have strong feelings, they influence (and often change) their emotions by thinking them out.

As a result, they choose their emotions, and by so doing, make it possible to choose behaviors that create better results.”

How Stories Shape Your Feelings and Actions

The path to action is:

See/Hear -> Tell a Story -> Feel –> Act

In this way, stories shape your feelings, which in turn, shape your actions:

  1. Stories Drive Feelings. Your stories drive your feelings. For example, when you see or hear something, the story you tell yourself about it, determines how you feel. Did that person mean you harm? Was their comment an insult?
  2. Feelings Drive Actions. Your feelings drive your actions. For example, if you feel hurt or worried, you might act with silence or cheap shots.

Simply put, your stories create your feeling and your feelings drive your actions.

An Example of How a Story Shapes Feelings and Actions

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler give an example of a typical Path to Action:

  1. See/Hear. Louis makes all the points, meets privately with the boss.
  2. Tell a Story. He doesn’t trust me/thinks I’m weak. If I speak up I’ll look too emotional.
  3. Feel. Hurt; worried.
  4. Act. Silence; cheap shots.

In this example, it’s not an empowering story.

It’s a limiting story.

If you change the story, you change your feelings, and you change your actions.

Simply put, change your stories, change your results.

How To Change Your Story to Change Your Feelings and Actions

If strong emotions keep you stuck in silence or violence, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler suggest retracing your path and telling the rest of the story.

Retracing Your Path:

  1. Notice your behavior. Are you in some form of silence or violence?
  2. Get in touch with your feelings. What emotions are encouraging you to act this way?
  3. Analyze your stories. What story is creating these emotions? Can you create a more resourceful story?
  4. Get back to the facts. What evidence do you have to support the story? (watch out for three clever stories: Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories.)

Tell the Rest of the Story:

  1. Are you pretending not to notice your role in the problem?
  2. Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?
  3. What do you really want?
  4. What would you do right now if you really wanted these results?

How To Retrace Your Path to Rethink Yourself Back to Control

The key to rethinking yourself back into control is to retrace your Path to Action. To retrace your Path to Action, work backwards:

  1. Act. Notice your behavior. Ask if you are in some form of silence or violence (Six Styles Under Stress)
  2. Feel. Get in touch with your feelings. What feelings are causing you to feel this way? Words matter. Knowing what you’re really feeling helps you take a more accurate look at what’s going and why. You might say you’re angry, but you’re really embarrassed and surprised. You might say you’re unhappy, but you really feel violated.
  3. Tell a Story. What story is creating these emotions? Analyze your stories. Question your feelings and stories. Given the circumstances, is it the right feeling? Are you telling the right story? Feelings come from stories and stories are our own invention. Don’t confuse stories with facts.
  4. See/Hear. What evidence do you have to support this story? Separate fact from story by focusing on behavior. What did you see or hear? To avoid confusing stories with fact, also watch for “hot” terms. For example, “Her eyes pinched shut and her lips tightened,” as opposed to “She scowled at me.””Scowl” is a hot term expressing judgement that creates strong emotion. Hot terms are story, not facts.

How To Tell the Rest of the Story

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler suggest the following:

  1. Turn victims into actors. If you notice you’re talking about yourself as an innocent victim, ask, are you pretending not to notice your role in the problem?
  2. Turn villains into humans. Humanize it. If you’re labeling or vilifying others, stop and ask, why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?
  3. Turn the helpless into the able. Stop and ask, what do you really want? For yourself? For others? For the relationship? What would you do right now if you really wanted these results?

Key Takeaways

Here are my key takeaways.

  • Work backwards from your negative behavior. Are you showing one of your Styles Under Stress? What emotion is behind your action? What story did you tell yourself about what you saw or heard is causing that emotion? Did you check your facts before jumping to conclusions?
  • Factor stories from conclusions, assumptions and facts. Sanity check your facts by asking what did you see or what did you hear? It’s easy to conclude that you saw John get angry. What you actually saw was he threw his desk. What you didn’t see was there was a bee that scared him and he was trying to escape. You won’t have time to check your assumptions all the time, but when the stake are high, stop and take the time.
  • Watch out for Villain, Victim and Helpless stories. They are limiting, not empowering. Choose stories that empower you to take action and produce more effective results.
  • Choose your stories to shape your emotions. You’ll physically react based on the story you tell yourself. Choose the right story for the circumstance.

I think Master My Stories is one of the most important, yet most difficult skills to master.

Change how you feel to change how you act.

Change how you feel by telling yourself better stories.

You Might Also Like

6 Styles Under Stress

How To Handle Crucial Conversations with Skill

How To Improve Crucial Conversations by Learning to Look

How To Make It Safe to Talk About Anything

How To Practice the Principle “Work On Me First”

How To Reduce Conflict by Starting with Heart

How To Refuse Sucker’s Choices to Get Better at Dialogue

How To Resolve a Conflict by Inventing a Mutual Purpose


  1. Hi JD

    Sounds like a very interesting book.
    It seems they are replacing “thoughts” with “the stories we tell ourselves”. That is very insightful. Really emphasizes the point that we are in fact in control of our thoughts.


  2. @ Juliet

    It’s a great book. It shows us both how we can make up stuff to connect the dots, or spin facts into fiction, or simply look at things from another angle than what’s intended.

    The key benefit of mastering our stories is mastering our emotional intelligence as well as gaining a better perspective on a situation.

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