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  • Andrew Scott

Milking it?

Last week, I was due to pick up my son, Michael, from Newcastle at the end of his University term (He is studying Graphic Design at Northumbria - and did all the design for Shifting Stories). However, he went to the RVI A&E department with stomach pains, and the next day, they took his appendix out. He remained in hospital for a week, for observation (the operation was not as straightforward as they had hoped), and came home yesterday.

I am aware of a couple of stories available to me about the timing of this misadventure. On the one hand, it was very inconvenient: it made our Easter break very complex (we had the rest of the children and our grandson home for Easter, as well as a Spanish house guest). His being in Newcastle, some 90 minutes’ drive away added to the complexity. And Lizzie was still recuperating from an operation to have her wisdom teeth out.

On the other hand, the timing was excellent: it was after his last course deadline, so he had handed in all his work. It was well before his trip to Barcelona, so he should be fully recovered (and how much worse it would have been if he had had appendicitis abroad!); and it coincided with a period when I was based at home, not working away at distant clients, so visiting was easy, and the pressure on my patient wife was less.

But what I found really interesting was that, although I engaged with the second, more positive story, myself - in order to stay cheerful and manage the situation with the least stress - I found that I tended to tell other people the first, or more difficult, story.

My initial thought was that I did that as it is simply a better story; triumph over adversity is intrinsically more interesting than coping with minor inconvenience that could have been a lot worse. But then a second, and more challenging, explanation suggested itself to me: was I, in fact, milking the situation for my own purposes: to win sympathy or admiration or some other positive payoff from other people?

In any event, that tendency (assuming that I am not unique in this) to tell the more difficult story, even when fully aware of the benefits of actually engaging with a more helpful story, is surely very significant, as we seek to work with others to change unhelpful stories in organisations. But how we counter that natural human tendency, I am not yet sure.

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