When Things FAIL: Recognizing and Dealing with Challenges (Part 2 of 2)

This 2-post series is taken from my contribution to:

Rooted in Grace: Essays on Dialog Without Division (amazon link)

Often, our optimism (and productive conversation) breaks down because of FAILs: False narratives, Assumptions, Interpretations, and Limiting beliefs. These inner blocks are so effective because they tend to sneak into our thinking without us ever noticing. However, if we are intentional about cultivating self and other-awareness, we can become more attuned to the presence of FAILs…which allows us to address and overcome their influence. Here is a brief description of each and some tips (drawn from a coaching approach) for dealing with them.

False Narratives

The voice in our head, our inner critic, “gremlin,” or stories we tell ourselves that in one way or another communicate that “I’m not good enough” (smart enough, talented enough, supported enough, etc.) These are typically most evident in our deepest insecurities, but are also present in many of our more mundane experiences as well.

How to respond when you notice your false narratives:

  • Draw them out into the open. Name the narrator if necessary. This can help you, or your conversation partner, recognize that the narrative, though part of you/them, is not your/their whole identity.
  • Explore why that narrative is false. (Our minds are used to looking for evidence to prove the false narrative, try giving it a chance to find evidence to the contrary.)
  • Create an if/then response to replace false narrative with a true narrative. “If I hear the narrative saying X, I will remind myself that Y.”


An expectation that because something has happened in the past, it will happen again. Assumptions operate as though the conclusion is already determined before there is sufficient data.

How to challenge assumptions:

  • Begin by recognizing assumptions for what they are, question them, and either set them aside or consciously choose to let them go in order to take positive action.
  • Primary question, “Just because that happened in the past, why must it happen again?”
  • What makes it more or less likely to happen the same way?
    • It is important to ask about both more and less. Asking one or the other can limit thinking to that one direction.[1]
  • What would make it more or less likely to happen a different way?
  • What can we/you control in this scenario?
  • What can we/you release in this scenario?


An opinion or judgement we create about an event, situation, person, or experience that we believe to be true. In some ways, this is the opposite of an assumption. Rather than deciding we know how something will turn out before it happens, interpretations claim to know the “why” behind something that has already happened. Interpretations ascribe motive and meaning.

How to challenge interpretations:

  • Recognizing that there are other ways to look at something (and exploring / identifying what those might be) can lessen the power of an interpretation.
  • We can begin by simply asking, “What is another way to look at that?”
  • What would someone else (friend, spouse, etc.) say about that?
  • What would someone with the completely opposite point of view say about the situation?
  • What might have led me to say or do the same thing?
    • This question is particularly powerful because we often fall into the trap of assuming the worst about others’ intentions, while expecting others to give us the benefit of the doubt regarding our own (this is known as the “fundamental attribution error”). This question allows us to flip the script: “If I had said or done this thing, what are the less sinister explanations I would want others to consider before assuming the worst?

Limiting Beliefs

Something you accept about life, yourself, your world, or other people that limits you in some way. Limiting beliefs are often statements that come from the anonymous “they” (“They say…” or “Everybody knows…”), or when something is stated with little or no evidence to support it; it’s just an accepted fact. Stereotypes are some of the most obvious examples of limiting beliefs. The more insidious and entrenched forms are often tied to social/cultural expectations (“this is how we do things around here”), and the self-fulfilling prophecies of labels (“I am an Enneagram 8, so obviously I…”).

How to challenge limiting beliefs:

  • Ask, “How true is that, really?”
  • Why is that true?
    • NOTE: “Why” questions can be risky. Since “why” points to motive, it is often perceived as confrontational and can cause defensiveness. However, in a situation where someone is weighed down by limiting beliefs – especially if this creates a sense of powerlessness or a victim response – the confrontational nature might help someone move from passive victim to active agent. In the context of a difficult or emotionally-charged conversation, “how” is often a better option.
  • Where does that idea come from?
  • How has this belief affected you?
  • What would be different if you were able to let that belief go?
  • How can you let go of that belief?
  • How can you put that into action, immediately?

If we hope to engage in healthy, productive conversation around difficult topics, it is essential that we begin by looking inside. What are we feeling? What do we want, hope, fear, anticipate? From there we can look for shared meaning and shared purpose with our conversation partners. We can, through imagination or through listening, put ourselves in their position and consider what we might be feeling if we were sitting where they sit. If we can maintain this posture of curiosity, rather than giving way to FAILs, we can explore what is said and experienced with a belief that a way forward is possible. We can ask questions that are intended to elicit insight and create possibility, rather than manipulate or coerce toward our predetermined outcomes.

We can find a way forward together. It is rarely easy, but it is possible. If we don’t believe that, then…well, again, why bother?

[1] For more on this idea, see: Robert Cialdini, Presuasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.

If you found these posts helpful, check out this article written in 2018 after I was interviewed by Six Seconds, Emotional Intelligence Network (6seconds.org):

another argument pic

But You’re Wrong: 5 Ways Not to Talk About Political Differences – and What To Do Instead