Without meaning to, we limit ourselves from achieving our potential and becoming our best selves. Identifying and removing these unintentionally self-imposed limits is at the heart of self-coaching. Would it serve you to have a process for seeing and removing your self-imposed limits?

Today I’ll share guidance on identifying one aspect of our self-imposed limits, what I call self-limiting stories. There are two types: Stories (more fleeting, typically impact us for hours, days, maybe weeks) and ‘deep’ stories (which tend to permeate our lives). We’ll dive into micro stories today.

Example Stories

I assume you can relate to this one. You’ve sent an email to somebody (‘Jack’) and did not receive a response. You know that Jack is mad at you. Or maybe you know that Jack is not treating you with the respect that you deserve.

Or how about this one? You attended a group meeting with a new team. Jill didn’t speak after the initial introductions. You know that Jill was disengaged. Or you know that Jill was unprepared.

In both of these situations, you’ve told yourself a story about what happened. Our brains are meaning-making machines. We are wired to tell ourselves stories. One model that describes this in an easy-to-understand fashion was developed by Chris Argyris and is called the Ladder of Inference.

Ladder of Inference

We all take in ‘data’ and experiences, like a video-recorder would capture them. We then respond / act based upon that input. However, and this can happen in the blink of an eye, a lot takes place in our brains in between the stimulus (data) and response.

We ‘climb up’ our own respective Ladder of Inference. This Ladder is 100% unique to each of us as it is built upon our own life experiences. I’m not a neuroscientist and don’t want to split hairs here, but essentially we add meaning (assumptions, conclusions, opinions, beliefs) to the observable data and then act based upon that information.


The Truth vs. your truth

We often operate as if our stories are the Truth (with a capital T) as opposed to realizing that in fact they are our truth (small t).

I’m sure if you took some time to reflect, you could think of situations where you assumed something was true (e.g., ‘Jack’s mad at me’) and acted accordingly (e.g., avoided Jack) only to find out later that you had misread the situation, and made a false assumption.

This is happening all around us all of the time. We are walking around acting as if our stories are True. This practice is self-limiting.

Subjective Reality

Gary Sherman once told me something along the following lines that I found quite profound.

“We tend to believe that reality is objective, shared by all…when in fact reality is 100% subjective.”

WOW. I get that…and yet I also experience ‘reality’ as something that is shared. That would make it an objective reality. Wrapping your mind around the notion of subjective reality can be a difficult shift.

Fred Kofman talks about ‘ontological humility.’ (Yes, I had to look up ontology and found that it is the branch of philosophy that deals with the study of reality.) ‘Ontological humility’ refers to the power of being humble enough to acknowledge that one’s reality is just that – their reality. And secondly, that all other individuals also have their own reality.

Again, what a powerful and empowering idea.

A Few Simple Practices

Even after opening my mind to these new perspectives, I still tell myself stories. As a human I’m wired to do so. However, I’m much better at recognizing my stories. Just KNOWING about the Ladder of Inference and the very concept of stories helps me to see them.

You can do the same.

As you work your way through your day, pause periodically to reflect on where your assumptions, conclusions, opinions, or beliefs may have crossed the line in your mind to feeling like the Truth.

As you are preparing to interact with another person, think about what assumptions you hold about her and/or your relationship with her that might be self-limiting.

As you get more comfortable with this, practice sharing your stories with others. In a meeting, instead of stating your POV as the Truth (e.g., “Here’s what happened so here’s what we need to do”), acknowledge the story (e.g., “Here’s what happened, and here’s the story I told myself. I’m curious if any of you see it differently?”).

Good luck in seeing your stories and how they are self-limiting. As you get more adept at seeing them, your practice of sharing them with others can in and of itself lead to improved communications and relationships.

More to Come on Self-Coaching

I have lots more to share about self-coaching and how it can help organizations address common business challenges. I’ll share that in future posts. If you find these posts interesting, consider joining my mailing list. I will send you an email when I post new content. Thanks for reading and stay tuned…