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From rut stories to river stories: Take these steps to change your internal dialogue

 Angie McArthur, CEO of Professional Thinking Partners and the co-author of Collaborative Intelligence, talks about keeping a relationship “clean.” She’s talking about dealing with misunderstandings before they have a chance to damage the relationship thanks to lingering bad feelings. In her Big Think+ video, “Reconciling Differences: Keep Relationships Clean to Avoid Resentment,” McArthur presents a technique she considers powerfully useful. It’s called “CIA”: Check out, Imagination, and Ask. The video is part of the McArthur expert class Reconciling Differences.”

What CIA addresses

We can be great storytellers, especially to ourselves. It’s so easy to spin an entire story out of very little evidence, convinced of a narrative that, in fact, is simply a product of our own imagination. The CIA method offers you a reality check.

Check it out

In this first step, you dial back the presumed story to what actually happened — McArthur calls this the actual “data.” It could be an odd look that someone gave you, or a surprising response, that set you off.
The point is that this data is all you actually know. You don’t know the reason it occurred or what it signifies if anything. Stripped of your imaginative embellishment, it’s a simple thing.


Having identified that only thing you can count on really being true — the data — you can get a handle on where your imagination led you. It’s hard to resist inventing explanations, but the point of this CIA step is to recognize the possibility — maybe even likelihood — that your narrative has nothing at all to do with reality. You don’t really know what was going on in the other person’s life that caused them to do what they did.


Well, of course, you want to know what really did happen when you were given that funny look, etc. The obvious way to find out is to simply ask the other person. As the conversation progresses, as the truth behind the data becomes clear — and you share the manner in which you took it — there’s an opportunity for you to grow closer. You’ll understand each other better and clean the relationship for the future.

About your imagination

McArthur explains that when our imaginations get going, they’re likely to travel either of two pathways that she dubs “rut stories” and “river stories.”

  • A rut story is a story of impossibility. It’s a negative interpretation of the data in which things are not going to work out well.
  • A river story is a story of possibility. It tells of the opportunities presented by the data.

The distinction between these two narrative types, McArthur says, “isn’t about being pie-in-the-sky, glass half-full” or “being overly positive and not wanting to look at the negative.”
Instead, they can serve as frames of reference for a better understanding of how your imagination tends to work. In addition, if you do find that you gravitate toward rut stories, see if you can instead develop a river story to explain data with which you’re dealing, or give it a shot the next time something sets you spinning.

The Reconciling Differences videos

The lessons in this expert class are:

  • Reconciling Differences: An Introduction to Relational Intelligence
  • Reconciling Differences: Recognize the 4 Entry Points for Learning
  • Reconciling Differences: Three Types of Questions for Helping People Do Amazing Things Together
  • Reconciling Differences: Bridge Inquiry Styles to Achieve Connection Quickly
  • Reconciling Differences: Build Trust to Make the Impossible Possible
  • Reconciling Differences: Keep Relationships Clean to Avoid Resentment
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