Stuck in the Past: 5 Steps to Personal Growth

If you’ve ever worked with a colleague who tells the same old stories over and over, you understand how people can distort reality to suit their purposes. And yet, most of do our own version of repetitive storytelling.
We form an identity of ourselves as a team members, colleagues, or friends by telling personal stories about our past. And we project the lessons we’ve learned onto our present situations. We let our past influence our present reality and in doing so, affect our future.
The fact is, personal stories serve to protect our egos — it’s human nature. Our stories aren’t about what actually happened, but rather what we told ourselves happened. They’re founded on real events, but mostly on real emotions. They are stories that we’ve invented based on how we interpreted things back then.
Reframing Reality
Few of us take the time to evaluate our stories for how well they help us navigate the complexities of present day relationships and work teams. We hold onto the past because it’s all we know for sure. Then we try to figure out how we can do better the next time we’re faced with the same emotions.
Strong emotions are retained by the brain as memories of events. Without strong emotions, we forget events easily. So we end up with many memories of anger, disappointment, embarrassment, guilt, and revenge, which far outweigh our positive memories.
You can see how holding on to such memories primes the brain to be alert and distrusting in the future for similar situations. Yet with awareness of these strong emotions, we can choose to question our assumptions and reframe reality.
We can shift what we thought was reality into a more consequential story, one that promotes growth and success.
Looking Back to Look Forward
In Judith Glaser’s book Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust & Get Extraordinary Results, the author suggests an exercise to look at the past, find new meaning from significant events, and create successful behavior patterns.
You can do this on your own, but it’s much more effective to do with a trusted partner, friend, or better yet, your coach. In this exercise, choose events in your life that are significant. Write them down and then ask for each event “What can I learn from this?”
Rather than bringing along the negative feelings, revisit the event and reframe the way you think about it. Aim to extract wisdom from the situation that you can take forward into your current and future life.
Step 1: Draw a Life Timeline
You can do this graphically using a line drawing, or make a list. Outline your lifeline into three segments: the first third of your life, second third, and last third.
Step 2: Identify Significant Events or People with Big Impact
Looking at each time segment, identify the events that had a significant impact on you. Write down some key words to anchor them. Find at least one episode in each time frame. Each experience will have a key event, people, a story you made up about it, and a takeaway lesson you formed at the time.
After identifying your timeline stories, share them with a partner or your coach.
Step 3: Find Patterns and Meaning
As you share your stories, ask your partner if he or she sees any patterns you may not have seen. Help each other to step back to see the big picture. As you get to the present, see the larger patterns in your life. Capture insights.
Step 4: Back to the Future
Each partner takes turns at looking into the future to see what’s next. How is this life pattern going to impact the future? Is there a pattern that you want to replicate, change, or do differently? Find the elements of wisdom for your life’s journey.
Step 5: Map Making
As you reflect on your life from this perspective, what lessons can you carry forward to enhance your personal or professional life? What are your biggest takeaways?
Trust in the Future
Everyone grows along life’s journey, some in ways that are beneficial, others in ways that restrict their potential. The point is to grow and evolve, not to repeat the same stories and diminish our possibilities.
When you do this exercise with your coach, you use your past to enhance the future. Personal growth and wisdom come from being able to look at the past and reframe and revise our stories so that we continue to evolve for a changing future.

The Human Factor: A New Era of Relationships

Human interactions rule our lives. Our social nature may be even more valuable than we realize. In a world where technological advances increasingly provide solutions and perform jobs, our social skills can increase or diminish our value.
But most of us—professionals, employees and managers alike—undervalue our social skills. This is not an option in an era of dwindling job opportunities.
“When people in an organization develop a shared and intuitive vibe for what’s going on in the world, they’re able to see new opportunities faster than their competitors, long before that information becomes explicit enough to read about in the Wall Street Journal. They have the courage of their convictions to take a risk on something new.” –Dev Patnaik, Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy (FT Press, 2009)
The term “Information Age” insufficiently captures our future professional landscape. We face unprecedented data streams, vast knowledge networks and unknown problems.
Success hinges on how well we can work in groups. CEOs recognize that teams are more productive, creative and valuable than individual workers—as long as team members work cohesively, using their finely honed social intelligence.
There’s a growing demand for relationship workers: people who are socially astute, no matter the field. As neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga aptly states:
“Natural selection mandated us to be in groups in order to survive…that is how we are built. Without our alliances and coalitions we die. It was true…for early humans. It is still true for us.”
Most of us assume our jobs cannot be taken over by a computer, but history and technological advances prove us wrong. There are few skills computers cannot eventually acquire. Computing power doubles every two years, so more tasks can—and will—be handled by sophisticated algorithms, notes Fortune Magazine Senior Editor Geoff Colvin in Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (Portfolio, 2015).
The Critical Need for Teams
Ample evidence demonstrates that we require flexibility, agility and diverse perspectives to understand and manage organizational complexities. CEOs are turning to teams to solve increasingly intricate problems.
The most effective groups include people with strong social skills. Wanting to work with other people is one of the healthier aspects of human nature. We rely on human interactions to:

  • Tell our stories and hear others’ stories
  • Brainstorm new ideas and create new products/services
  • Share our feelings and learn to appreciate other points of view
  • Connect on a deeply human level through our physical senses
  • Form coalitions and alliances
  • Negotiate agreements

Even if a computer spits out the right words and makes the right decisions, we want to follow human leaders. We need to look into someone’s eyes.
What We Don’t Want Computers to Do
We must first identify the skills we want other humans to perform, regardless of a computer’s prowess. Most of these tasks involve projects or areas for which people are held accountable.
For example, computers have shown they’re superior to juries when evaluating criminal evidence. But there’s a social necessity for humans to be accountable for life-and-death decisions.
Humans are also critical to organizational life because priorities continually shift. It takes a human touch to redefine problems and goals. We must address the needs of numerous stakeholders, including customers, employees and the public—issues that people must work out for themselves.
Priority Skills for the Future
The Towers Watson consulting firm and Oxford Economics research firm asked employers which skills they’ll need most over the next five years. Employers’ top priorities include:

  • Relationship-building
  • Teaming
  • Co-creativity and brainstorming
  • Cultural sensitivity and diversity management

These are right-brain social skills. It’s important to note that survey respondents did not cite business acumen, analysis or other left-brain thinking skills.
Other research supports this finding. The McKinsey Global Institute reveals that “interaction jobs” were “the fastest-growing category of employment in advanced economies” between 2001 and 2009. More specifically:

  • Transaction jobs (bank teller, checkout clerk) decreased by 700,000 in the United States.
  • Production jobs decreased by 2.7 million.
  • Doctors, teachers and other highly interactive jobs increased by 4.8 million.

Historically, the most skilled and educated U.S. workers were assured the high-salaried jobs. But researchers at the University of British Columbia and York University found a decline in demand in 2000—one that has steadily dipped over the last 15 years.
Inflation-adjusted wages for U.S. college graduates have stagnated. We cannot suggest that education is no longer valued, but it’s obviously no longer enough to guarantee success.
The New Relationship Era
The key to differentiation in all fields—from engineering to law, from management to medicine—lies in our ability to socially interact with others. Those who will be hired, retained and capable of flourishing in almost all professions are the ones skilled at forming emotional bonds, persuading others and making judgments.
In the late 1950s, management expert Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe valued skills in an increasingly information-based economy. More than 50 years later,  our most valuable people can be dubbed “relationship workers.”
No matter your job or field, you must excel at being a person. Unfortunately, a focus on technology and skills acquisition has caused many of our interpersonal abilities to atrophy.
How Technology Is Changing Us
We tend to over-rely on tech tools to communicate quickly and efficiently. We text or email instead of calling or meeting face-to-face. This does, indeed, save time, but it’s impossible for us to pick up on nonverbal cues—a critical component of building relationships.
If you cannot face another person, you’re deprived of noticing facial expressions, as well as subtle shifts in vocal tone, eye movement, posture, physical distance and other social signals. Spotting these cues quickly is crucial to responding appropriately.
In one social experiment, scientists gathered a group of sixth-graders in a camp for five days, without any screen access: no computers, tablets, cellphones, music players, games or TV. They wanted to measure the children’s ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues in others. After five days of solely face-to-face interaction, the students had become far more emotionally insightful.
American adults (ages 16 to 45) with access to at least two devices report 7.5 hours of screen time daily. Indonesians spend 9 hours a day and Filipinos just a few minutes less, so this is not an affluence-related phenomenon. Imagine what this does to our social sensitivity.
Nothing Beats Face-to-Face Contact
With digital communication, the quality of real human connection is weak. When two people talk face-to-face, their brains synchronize. This doesn’t happen when they’re back-to-back, so our faces are vital communication tools. Video communication provides only weak synchronization.
Reading one another and conversational turn-taking determine how well a group performs a wide range of tasks. The personal connection helps us become smarter and more capable. Teams that have met face-to-face at least once can thereafter work well virtually. Greater communication challenges occur with those who have never met in person.
When people get together, they naturally try to learn about each other and understand what others are thinking. Face-to-face conversations are an intense, fully engaging experience that builds overall mental abilities.
Our Most Crucial Human Skill
Empathy is the foundation for sociability. At its core, it’s the ability to discern what another person is thinking and feeling, as well as respond appropriately.
Mirror neurons in the brain help us detect another person’s state. Some of us are more skilled at choosing an effective response.
Employing highly empathic workers has numerous advantages, including better customer relations, team cohesiveness and a more positive working environment. Research confirms:

  • Empathic salespeople and negotiators are more successful.
  • Waiters who display empathy earn nearly 20 percent more in tips.
  • Debt collectors with empathy skills recover twice as much money.
  • Empathic doctors make more accurate diagnoses and fewer errors, incur lower costs and are sued less.

Measuring Sociability in Teams
Team interaction is so powerful that any increase improves group performance. Colvin offers a telling case study in Humans Are Underrated:
In a Bank of America call center of 3,000 employees, productivity vastly improved simply by changing the schedule of break times so that workers on the same teams spent more time together socially. When the bank aligned team breaks, productivity rose and turnover fell. Performance improved as workers had more time to interact with each other. The bank estimated a savings of $15 million a year.
Scientists are using new technologies to measure social interaction in organizations. Professor Alex Pentland’s Human Dynamics Lab at MIT invented a sociometric badge, worn on people’s clothing, that measures tone of voice, whether people face one another while talking, gesture frequency, and the ratio of talking/listening/interrupting. A sociometer doesn’t record the words people say, as they are irrelevant measures of social signals and interactions.
Organizations that use sociometers assert that social sensitivity in the workplace outweighs all other factors contributing to team effectiveness.
Social Signals 
Our extraordinary ability to sense others’ feelings and thoughts relies on seeing faces, reading body language and assessing vocal tone. None of these abilities can be employed when we’re texting or using social media. There is some evidence that shows the next generation, known for its unprecedented dependence on technology, is showing lower empathy skills.
Each of us can learn to recognize the social signals we produce and perceive. We have innate empathic skills, but they weaken if we don’t use them.
CEOs often seem overly concerned with performance and bottom-line results in a rapidly changing, uncertain and disruptive marketplace. Long-term viability will require them to value empathy and human interactions. People cannot perform well without developing rapport and trust, talking about fears and emotions, and confronting colleagues without destroying partnerships.
“Relationship-focused success expands capacity and potential, and empathy is a business skill that actually grows when practiced and shared,” notes Cleary University President Jayson M. Boyers in a 2013 Forbes article. “Although it may be unlike any practice you have ever used within your business, empathy in the workplace creates and encourages sharing ideas free from the fear of ridicule. If we are to keep our businesses relevant and our consumers happy, we must embrace empathy and let it be the force that drives us forward.”