What Survivor can teach us about mastering our stories

I’m a Survivor fan.

My dad got me started watching the first season when I was still in high school.

After I moved out, I didn’t watch it for years, but when I was about 25 I started watching it again and have been watching it ever since.

Some of my friends used to give me a hard time for watching a reality show, but I gave them a hard time for playing World of Warcraft so I guess we’re even.

Here’s the thing I always wanted my friends to understand about why I watch Survivor.

It’s not for the drama.

It’s not for the physical survival component.

I watch Survivor as a student of human motivations, communication, and interpersonal relationships.

This season had a very polarizing, high-stakes conversation which, to me, really highlighted the importance of a principle taught in Crucial Conversations, the New York Times bestselling book on mastering high-stakes communication.

On Episode 6 of Survivor: Game Changers, the Nuku tribe goes to tribal council planning to vote out contestant Jeff Varner. Varner has spent the day “scrambling” to try to figure out a way to save his hide and survive one more day in the game, but apparently to no avail. “I know I am going home tonight,” he tells Jeff Probst (the host).

Not wanting to go without a fight, Varner reveals to the tribe his story about what he thinks is really going on. Tribemates Ozzie and Zeke, he claims, are in a secret alliance, deceiving all of the other people on their tribe.

“Vote for Ozzie,” he says. “There is deception going here. Deception on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand,” Varner says.

“There’s more,” he continues and looks at his tribemate Zeke. “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

Whoa. Where did that come from?

The next few moments of silence is staggering.

“What I’m showing is deception,” he goes on.

The reaction from the other contestants is swift as everyone jumps to Zeke’s defence – some of them breaking into tears and all of them telling Varner how wrong it was to bring something so personal into the game.

When he is accused of “outing someone”, Varner defends himself, which just seems to further aggravate the situation.

As host Jeff Probst later says, “You can’t unring the bell”.

As I watched this all unfold, many things went through my mind.

Initially, I was shocked like everyone else.

Wow? Did he just out this guy on national TV? What kind of person would publicly humiliate someone on national TV like that for a game?

But instead of becoming angry with him, I remembered the process which I’ve used many times before and began to separate my story from the facts about what happened.

Jeff Varner did in fact ask Zeke that question. Furthermore, when asked why he had done so, he responded with, “What I’m showing is deception…the ability to deceive.”

Man, it sounds a lot like he’s saying that transgendered people who haven’t come out are deceitful.

And that’s the story that the contestants and the host seemed to tell themselves – that this was done as a malicious personal attack by somebody who, under the pressure of watching a million dollar opportunity slip away, momentarily lost his moral compass.

Whether or not that’s true, if we honestly want to get to the truth in high-stakes conversations, we need to learn to master our stories.

Mastering our stories, taught in the book Crucial Conversations by Vital Smarts, is “a principle that helps us control the emotions that drive our actions. We do this by challenging the stories we tell ourselves—we ask questions. One such question is, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act this way?’ Posing the question is NOT making an assumption that all people are reasonable, rational, and decent; rather, posing the question IS an effort to consider other possibilities.”

In this case, in order to master our stories, we have to set aside the effects of Varner’s actions, which could in fact be very heavy and lasting to Zeke.

But is it possible that in doing so a different story emerges?

In reality, another story was being told before the confrontation even occurred. Varner, trying to make sense of his own situation in being on the chopping block for the upcoming vote, told himself a story. As he reveals in the following video, he thought that he was being deceived by Zeke and Ozzie, and assumed that Zeke was already “out” to everyone in America.

Look, I’m not stating with certainty what Jeff Varner did or didn’t mean. Only he knows that.

I am stating that if we want to be intellectually honest and actually get to the truth of matters we should all be working to master our stories.

So here’s my question for you.

Are you absolutely certain that your story is the right one?

Join the email list to get notified of new posts.