When we find ourselves talking past each other, it’s useful to keep in mind three different uses we make of conversation:

The pursuit of the liked story:
We seek the most immediately appealing account available.

The pursuit of the likely story:
We seek an accurate account of what’s going on.

The pursuit of the lucrative story: We seek the account that will serve us best in the long run, productive not just in lucre (money) but in every respect-the story that in the long run will pay off best in happiness and welfare.

I say the “pursuit of” because there is uncertainty with each. I might like a story for now but soon realize that things have changed and it’s no longer the story I like best. I might think I’m telling the likely story and prove wrong. I might speculate that a story will yield me the best long-term results and end up disappointed with what it yields.

These three kinds of stories have a lot of overlap, of course. Often, an immediately appealing account (liked) is also realistic (likely) and productive in the long run (lucrative). For instance, if I like to think I’m a hard-working law student who will be a great success, and that turns out to be an accurate description, and believing it also turns out to pay off in the long run, then I’ve got a liked, likely, and lucrative story all rolled into one.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Sometimes, however, liked, likely, and lucrative stories diverge. If I like to think I’m a great law student but I’m not, then my liked and likely stories diverge. If I like to think I’m destined to the next Clarence Darrow but I can’t find a job or afford to hang out my shingle after law school, then my liked and lucrative stories have diverged.

When these three kinds of stories diverge, we have to decide which pursuit to emphasize. If you’ve ever tried to give someone a reality check or had someone trying to give you one, you’ll notice that the conversation will swim from one pursuit to another. We tug and coax each other toward reality checks. We resist them, often with good reason. We ask our friends to support us in the beliefs we like. They resist-often with good reason.

We shift impulsively between the pursuit of the liked, likely, and lucrative. We blend the stories. We confuse one kind for another. We claim we’re being realistic when we’re just employing wishful thinking.

Far too rarely do we monitor how these three pursuits drive our conversations in conflicting directions. So for practice, let’s look at some mismatched combinations:

The wife is trying to find out what really went on (likely) with her husband the other night. The husband is trying to forget because it was so awkward and he’d rather feel proud than embarrassed (liked).

The CFO is trying to convince the CEO that it would be useful for the long-term health of the company to face reality, (likely) because the company can’t go on spending as it has been. The CEO ignores him because his gut tells him that everything is going well (liked).

The father has cancer but claims he can lick it. The son wants his dad to face the reality that his prospects of surviving are slim (likely). The father is “in denial,” working to enjoy every day by ignoring the prognosis (liked).

A woman with a hot temper finds she can reduce her tendency to flare up by embracing a spiritual teacher’s claim that the universe rewards a gentle demeanor. It’s not a belief that comes easy. She’d rather believe (liked) that her hot temper is a good thing. Still she manages to believe because from what she can tell it’s productive in the long run to believe it (lucrative). Her pushy scientist-fanatic friend wants to debate the accuracy of this spiritual teacher’s claim (likely). The woman with the temper isn’t interested in accuracy so much as in outcomes. Accuracy isn’t the point. The point is that this belief bears fruit.

Knowing that a can-do attitude can be very productive (lucrative), the president says that a recent report by a neutral team (likely) shows that we’re winning in Iraq. The American people don’t believe it. They accuse him of saying that to save face (liked) and declare that its time for him to face facts (likely).

An atheist and a born-again Christian are debating. The atheist challenges the Christian on the accuracy of bible stories (likely). The Christian was saved from a life of sin by his conversion. He’s happier with himself now (liked) and believes that in the long run he’ll lead a better life because of his commitment (lucrative) to religious truth (likely). The atheist’s experience is almost the exact opposite. He was born into a Christian family and lived with intense guilt and shame until he fell in with some atheists. He’s much happier with himself now (liked), and believes that he’s much better off in the long run (lucrative) not wasting his energy on what turned out to be just a bunch of cultish religious lies (likely). The debate they’re having focuses exclusively on the pursuit of the likely. They don’t broach the liked or lucrative story because these are sensitive subjects. If one accuses the other of believing for the immediate or long-term benefits, it implies a preference for self-servingly convenient lies. So they talk past each other, each denying the other’s truth and ignoring the other two motives for believing.

Notice how you shift sides in these examples, wishing the CEO would wake up and face reality, and that the son would shut up and let his father find comfort in whatever story he can. It’s easy to make a self-righteous case for any of these arguments:

Liked: Why do you come over here and try to shut me down and hurt me by telling me my story is inaccurate? You don’t know that for sure. The only thing we know for sure is that you’re trying to dilute my hopes and dreams with your negativity and pessimism.

Likely: Oh, come on. Get real. Cut out your self-serving lies.

Lucrative: Look, if believing this is going to help me get out of the rut I’m in, who are you to come along and impose your fact-checking on me?

One way to think about the relationships among these three stories is that lucrative is the ultimate story, pursued by means of some combination of the other two. The underlying issue then is whether the liked or likely story will end up lucrative. When a liked story proves lucrative, we call it a dream or a vision. When it doesn’t, we call it a delusion. Likewise, when a likely story proves lucrative, we call it a reality check or a wake-up call. When it doesn’t, we call it a downer or an unnecessary concern.  We pursue optimal illusion, favoring liked stories where they serve well and not where they don’t.

But seriously, the honest-to-God truth (likely) is that you’ll be much happier today (liked) and much happier in the long run (lucrative) if you track the comings and goings of these three pursuits in your thought and conversation. Get good at distinguishing the pursuits of the liked, likely, and lucrative story. Take it from me.

Or maybe not, if you think I’m saying that just because it makes me feel good.