The trouble arose when two of the Circle’s children had an argument over which of them had found a particular piece of quartz crystal that now sat in a large collective pile of stones.
The children had been collecting stones and crystals from the nearby creek all weekend and, until this point, had cared little for whom had found them. After a long discussion with the children, the adults found that each story contained a few similar elements but that the story tellers each remembered the exact details very differently. Even the other children who were there at the discovery of the crystal in question had different recollections. Some of them sided with one child, some sided with the other and several didn’t remember very well which of them found it at all.
So, which of these children is telling the truth and which one is lying? The answer to this question is not so simple. People commonly believe that memory is like a video tape and things that are not remembered clearly may be clearly recalled with the aid of hypnosis or with time and effort. Unfortunately, this is completely untrue.
The fact of the matter is that human memory is changeable, corruptible, and inaccurate. In short, your brain makes up details and we often perceive or hear what we want to (or fear to) perceive or hear. Numerous studies have born this out. From studies on the lack of reliable eye witness testimony to studies on how the retelling of stories changes memory over time, research has shown that there is little we can trust about our memories.
Does it really matter that our memories are inaccurate? That depends largely on who you ask. If it is a memory that involves only you in any significant way, it probably doesn’t matter much to the rest of the world. How you recall that memory though can have profound effects on how you perceive yourself and the world. Dan McAdams (as cited in Dingfelder, 2011, p. 42), a psychology professor at Northwestern University notes that "stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives" (as cited in Dingfelder) So, in many ways re-telling stories about life events can be a good thing, but not always.
If your inaccurate memories involve or affect others in a significant way, it probably will matter quite a bit. Differing memories of traumatic or upsetting incidents can affect friendships and alliances in very intense ways. John Holmes (as cited in Dingfelder), a psychology professor at Waterloo University, asserts that “telling stories about your spouse that focus on negative traits, for instance, can cause you to forget about the positive traits you used to cherish.” Many marriages and long-term friendships have broken up over the fact that a specific incident is remembered very differently by the parties involved. If everyone concerned understood the mechanisms of memory and perception better, perhaps these differences could have been worked out. So, it seems that re-telling stories can also have a negative effect as well as positive ones.
So, which is correct? Should we tell stories about our lives or shouldn’t we? The answer to this question isn’t simple either. Under some circumstances, re-telling your life’s stories can be a positive thing; under others it can be negative. It all depends on how you tell it, who you tell it to and what stage in your life you are currently working through at the time.
Some people exhibit traits that make their stories inherently more positive, while others are more likely to tell positive stories during specific stages of their lives. Generativity, the desire to provide for future generations and make the world a better place, (Erikson, 1959, p. 97) can be an inherent trait or part of a life-stage. All people are capable of becoming generative at some stage in life but fewer people exhibit a greater degree of generativity throughout their life-cycle. McAdams says that those with more generative traits tend to work in career fields that have a higher probability of making the community or the world a “better” place (as cited in Dingfelder). According to McAdams, generative people also tend to tell more stories in which “terrible things happen to them, but often these bad events lead to positive results of one kind or another” (as cited in Dingfelder). These stories are inspirational and usually have some sort of moral or learning experience attached to them.
Generative people also seem to be generally happier and more satisfied people overall. In one study, participants were asked to tell open-ended stories about significant experiences in their lives. Raters then totaled the "redemption sequences," occasions in which negative events have positive conclusions and "contamination sequences," in which the opposite occurred in each story (McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001, p. 474-485). Researchers found also that participants who told more redemption sequences also tended to be happier with their lives.
Research has found that people who tell less detailed stories about the conflicts they have experienced tend to be happier than most but that they do not make any significant advances in ego development, a measure of the sophistication with which a person perceives the world (King, Scollon, Ramsey & Williams, 2000, p. 509-536). It was also discovered that people who told more fluent stories, those with foreshadowing and without tangential details, were more liable to be happier (King et al.). This seems to imply that those who can tell stories about how they overcame adversity to positive effect and those who tell stories that gloss over the negative experiences, are both happier, more satisfied people.
Research on the stories of 104 adults in outpatient psychotherapy seems to indicate that those who tell more comprehensive stories tended to report more major gains in general well-being (Adler, Skalina & McAdams, 2008, p. 719-734). He also found that the best predictor of psychological improvement was found when the patient saw himself, rather than the counselor, as the central character of their narratives. Further research discovered that patients began feeling better immediately after telling stories in which they took more direct control over their own lives.
Evidence indicates, however, negative stories told in defense of something or someone may be more likely to have destructive effects. Professors Ian McGregor and John Holmes (1999, p. 403-419) conducted a study in which they provided an ambiguous story about a breakup to research participants, asking them to pick a side. Participants were instructed to tell a story that placed blame on just one of the individuals involved. Even after re-reading the original script, the students had come to believe their own story just two weeks later. Forty weeks after the participants first read the ambiguous story, they had forgotten almost all of the essential details but still felt that the original character they had supported was the innocent party. This study can easily be applied to real world situations in which the friends of parties involved in a conflict feel obligated to choose sides. Even after the parties have reconciled, friends can often still feel negative feelings toward the other party and may even influence the party they supported to think more negatively about an experience that has already been resolved. "Once you tell a story” says Holmes “it’s hard to get out of that story’s framework, and they tend to get more dramatic over time" (as cited in Dingfelder).
So, knowing all of this might be helpful in understanding “he said, she said” situations but does it really help you in the long run? It might, depending on how you apply this knowledge.
If you discover parties in your group having a conflict, you may want to set them down in separate areas. Instruct other members to leave the parties alone and to not engage one another in discussion about the incident. Then have each party and the witnesses write down their memory of the event as immediately as possible. Read each account and then call a meeting to facilitate discussion.
Explain that you understand that there are different perspectives about what happened and that it is not your job to decide which perspective is more accurate. Both perspectives are valid because both are real to the participants involved. Do not negate their feelings about the situation but instead engage the group in solution-focused discussion. What happened is far less relevant than how similar events can be avoided or resolved in the future.
Have each party come up with 2-5 things that they personally could have done differently. Then have each of them each discuss what they learned from the experience. Redirect accusations and ask your members to talk instead about how they feel about what happened and what they personally plan to do about preventing their part in it from recurring. Remind them that they can’t change the behavior of others; they can only be responsible for themselves. Do not blame them or chide them and be matter of fact but compassionate, while not engaging in finger pointing.
At the conclusion of the meeting, encourage them all to shake hands, hug or apologize as they see fit. Do not force them to do what they do not feel comfortable doing. Further encourage the participants to not talk about what they believe happened but what they have learned from the experience and how it has made them a better person, rather than talking about what they believe the other person has done.
You cannot control what people say to one another after they leave the group. All you can do is educate them, provide new tools for dealing with the situation, and hope they move forward. If you focus on personal growth and accountability consistently and reward members with praise when they do it themselves, you will find other members will begin to follow suit without as much assistance from you.
Keep a positive attitude and remember to practice what you preach. Lead by example and tell positive narratives about your experiences as a leader yourself. Increase the number of “redemption sequences” in your own stories. Develop more comprehensive narratives as teaching tools and be patient. It takes a long time to break old habits but it can be done.
Adler, J., Skalina,L., & Mcadams, D. (2008).The narrative reconstruction of psychotherapy and psychological health.[Quick Edit]Psychotherapy Research,18, (6), 719-734. Dingfelder S.F. (2011). Our Stories, Ourselves. Monitor, 42 (1), 42.
Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle: selected papers.International Universities Press,1, (1). 97.
King, L. A., Scollon, C. K., Ramsey, C. & Williams, T. (2000) Stories of Life Transition: Subjective Well-Being and Ego Development in Parents of Children with Down Syndrome. Journal of Research in Personality,34,509-536.
McAdams, D.P., Reynolds, J., Lewis,M., Patten, A. H., & Bowman, P. J., (2001). When Bad Things Turn Good and Good Things Turn Bad: Sequences of Redemption and Contamination in Life Narrative and their Relation to Psychosocial Adaptation in Midlife Adults and in Students.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27. 474-485.
McGregor, I., & Holmes, J. G., (1999). How Storytelling Shapes Memory and Impressions of Relationship Events Over Time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 76, (3), 403-419.