Ask “What’s Their Story” To Understand Why People Behave the Way They Do



“What’s their story?” …

With one cutting question, my manager exposed the fact a colleague had only one side of the story… their own.

We make up stories every day either to explain our own actions or the actions of others. 

What happens when our stories limit us or hurt our relationships? 

It sucks.  It’s not good for everyone involved.

For example, have you ever jumped to the wrong conclusion about somebody’s actions and later regretted it? 

I know I have.

What the experts do is they swap stories. 

The trick is separating fact from fiction. 

First, they share the facts they know.  The more objective or verifiable the facts are, the better.  The facts help build common ground. 

Next, they share their interpretation of those facts. 

This is their story. 

Then they ask the other person for their version of the story.

It’s a simple technique, but I’m finding swapping stories is very revealing.  Sometimes I’m surprised by my own interpretation of the facts. 

Other times, I’m surprised by another person’s interpretation of the facts. 

Either way, I consistently find that a thoughtful response is better than an emotional reaction.

The next time you find you just don’t get somebody’s behavior, before jumping to negative conclusions, ask “what’s their story?”

And listen to learn.

You might be surprised – but only if you listen to learn.

You Might Also Like

Lessons Learned from Per

Cutting Questions

Master My Stories


  1. It is great practical one. I use something similar during my first meeting w/a customer. It is usually some confusion and no one knows how to start. The customer expects your to ask questions, and you expect the customer to tell his story.

    I never waste time – i just tell him “just tell me what’s on top of your head – anything.” The ice usually breaks and you can drive more meaningful conversation

  2. Excellent advice! I really try to do that when I encounter people in situations and I feel angry or confused by their behavior. I try to realize that there is probably more going on than meets the eye and that usually helps me to show more compassion towards others.

  3. Hi J.D.
    This is great advice, and it is a topic that we don’t hear about too often, “separating fact from fiction”.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  4. Funny how facts can be seen from different angles based on where you are at in life or at work. Great way to diffuse unnecessary arguments – hard to think badly of another if you actually understand why they think the way they do.

  5. Hi JD – it’s essential to listen, think before replying – so often we don’t relate to the words, ask questions and understand what’s being said – empathise with the person – it’s their story … and you can think what you want afterwards ..

    Thanks – Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  6. JD, I love this transparency! “The next time you find you just don’t get somebody’s behavior, before jumping to negative conclusions, ask “what’s their story?” We need this for unity in our world! Over half the wars are in our mind, and are simply imaginary!
    The other day I was reading from Julia Cameron’s Book: Vein of Gold! It is beautiful! She shared that ‘There is no insider’s club.’ Often times, we’ll say ‘they’ are out to get us. but who are ‘they’?
    I have found myself on many narrow rabbit trails of fiction revealing my fears and insecurities around this ‘illusory club’! Now, that I know this from the way she described it, and your blog; I have a bit more humor added in and hopefully it will help me re-condition and focus on ‘what’s the real story?’ next time! 😉
    Thanks for sharing, ~Jen

  7. Hi JD,

    Every person has such an interesting story to share and we can learn something from every story. That is why I love to meet new people and find out their story. I always learn something which ends up impacting my life for the better. And if someone is fortunate to be able to talk to their idol, then they can even get more powerful insights.

  8. Behind each face are hundreds of unsaid stories. To ask ‘what’s their story’ before jumping to conclusions can fill our heart with compassion.

    Makes me think that we don’t really need to know someone’s story show compassion and understanding, knowing that there is a story is enough.

  9. Thanks for this. One thing I’ve found is that it can actually be fun to find out about how other people experience the world — what has them feel loved, angry, and so on. Maybe we could say that the more we know about someone’s experience the more intimate we are.

  10. @ Alik

    There’s a definite power to telling stories. I think it puts bits and pieces into context, which helps us to make sense of things.

    @ Positively Present

    It’s better to disagree with behavior than question the intent, as a general rule. Another way to look at it is, people try to do the best they can with the resources they’ve got.

    @ KV

    It sounds interesting. I haven’t heard of it before, but I like the idea of storytelling for people, situations, and ourselves.

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you. I think it’s a skill to separate fact from fiction, and it’s way easier to jump to conclusions. Just like emotions, I think we need to use our fiction as input, but check against some logic too.

    @ Fred

    I agree – a little understanding goes a long way.

    @ Hilary

    You hit an essential point – empathy. Empathic listening is the top communication skill, according to Covey.

    @ Jen

    The “they” point is great. Generalizing things can give them a super power sometimes that they don’t deserve. When you make things specific and concrete, it’s suddenly a tractable problem.

    @ Nadia

    I’m a fan of hearing people’s life stories. I think everybody has a story to tell.

    @ Avani

    Hundreds of unsaid stories really puts things in perspective. I like your point that showing that there is a story is enough.

    @ Chris

    That’s great precision. Experiencing their perspective cranks it up a notch beyond just simple understanding.

  11. We humans are quick to judge the other; not giving room to any doubts regarding the reason behind a persons every action. You have posted a nice piece of wisdom here. Before we put any sense to the actions of others we need to know his/her story, we must understand the circumstances surrounding every action. Still, we don’t have the right to judge. 🙂

  12. JD
    This reminds me of the story of the new bride who was busy cutting the ends off of a roast she was cooking for dinner. The new husband asked her why she was doing that as he had not seen someone do it before. She replied that she thought it cooked the roast better but it was always something her mother had done.
    The next time she was at her Mother’s home she thought to asked her about trimming the roast and it’s purpose. Her Mother said, she thought it made the meat more tender but she was not sure because she had not thought to ask her mother why she did that.
    The Bride and her Mother called Grandmother right away and told her their dilemma about why one needed to cut the ends off the meat before cooking.
    Grandmother laughed out loud and said “I never hand a pan that fit a roast so I had to cut it to fit!”

    It is important to ask for the story and be interested enough to hear it!

    I am so working on controlling my emotions first and not later…
    I have had a good teacher, but I still am not mastering…

    Another wonderful JD post

  13. Emotional development is something that I think about a lot. When we appreciate the stories that we are telling ourselves it makes it easier to stay emotionally balanced. I was recently upset at a co-worker because she forgot to keep me in the loop on a project. I was so worried about myself that I failed to see how busy she was.

    There wasn’t any disrespect on her part, only so freaking busy that she couldn’t keep up with everything.

  14. @ Vered

    True, and I find the key is self-knowledge.

    @ Walter

    Snap judgments are definitely easier, but they certainly aren’t reliable and they can get in the way of meainingful dialogue.

    @ Partricia

    Good story and the punchlike perfectly exemplifies the point!

    @ Karl

    Our stories really are a great checkpoint, and getting in the habit of checking our stories helps with our emotional mastery.

Comments are closed.