Choose wisely

‘I couldn’t help it’, ‘I had no choice’ and ‘It wasn’t my fault’ are commonly heard comments, but how often are they actually true? How often are we unaware of the choices we have been making or are actually trying to disguise the fact that what we did was based on a choice (or set of choices) we made?

Of course, there will often be situations where we don’t have a choice, where things are beyond our control. For example, if we spill water on our lap, we can’t choose whether or not to get wet (although we could choose to try not to get wet by putting a plastic sheet or equivalent across our lap – if we wanted to). But, in general terms we are making choices all the time, even though we may not realise it much of that time. This is partly because so many of our choices are ‘habitualised’ – that is, we have made the same choice so many times that we now more or less do it on automatic pilot, as it were. But, a habitualised choice is still a choice, in the sense that we can choose to behave otherwise. We don’t have to do something just because it is what we normally do. Consider the legal implications of this. If you tend to drive too fast and, as a result of that, you cause an accident in which somebody dies or is seriously injured, you will be held responsible for your actions – saying that it was your habit to drive that fast does not mean that you are not responsible for the choice(s) you make and their consequences.

What also complicates matters is that so-called common sense will often mislead us into thinking that we are not making choices when in fact we are. This takes us back to the ‘I couldn’t help it’ type of response I mentioned earlier. These types of situation are quite common – for example, when someone fails to do something they promised to do and claims it was due to factors beyond their control, when in reality it was down to choices that were made.

What we have to recognise is that, whatever situation we are in, there will always be choices – however limited the range of options due to the circumstances, there will always be options (even if we do not like any of those options). And, of course, the choices we make will always have consequences, sometimes minor, sometimes major.

This is why it is important that we choose wisely. This involves, first of all, being aware of the choices we are making (including the habitualised choices) and not trying to pretend that matters within our control are not our responsibility. This is not about blame, it is about ownership. It is about empowerment.

Once you are aware of the choices, you can consider the various options and the associated consequences that arise from them. Thinking carefully about the respective consequences can then help us make wise choices.

Of course, our choices will often be made on the basis of our feelings, rather than rational thoughts, but it is still the case that being aware of those choices, the options available and the likely consequences can none the less be very helpful when it comes to choosing wisely. Choices rooted in emotional reactions are still choices. We can balance head and heart, especially if we are tuned in to our choice making and don’t play the game of trying to deny that so much of what we do is rooted in the choices we make.

Confront issues without being confrontational

‘I didn’t like to say’ is a comment commonly heard when it emerges that somebody has faced a difficult situation, but preferred not to address it. For example, imagine Person A is stereotyping Person B, but Person B feels uncomfortable about challenging this and therefore chooses to say nothing and accept the negative consequences of being stereotyped. The idea of assertiveness is that an assertive person is someone who tries to achieve win-win outcomes – that is, tries to make sure that each party benefits from the interaction. However, the ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach is actually likely, in many cases at least, to lead to a lose-lose outcome.

Consider this possibility. Person A treats Person B in a stereotypical way (making overgeneralised assumptions on the basis of gender, for example). Person B chooses not to challenge this, preferring the more comfortable option of just letting it go. Person B therefore loses out. Person A remains oblivious to the harm their stereotypical thinking has done – unless, that is, Person C comes along at some point and makes reference to the stereotyping that has been going on. Person A may then feel very contrite and regretful about the unintended harm done, and also therefore lose out. Hence the idea of lose-lose outcomes. Consequently, adopting the ‘I didn’t like to say’ option can mean everyone involved loses out, clearly not a good result.

This is where the idea of confronting issues without being confrontational comes in. ‘I don’t like confrontation’ is another comment often heard, and quite understandably. But, we need to be quite specific about what is meant here. Usually, it is being confrontational (as opposed to the act of confronting) that is what people don’t like – that is, situations where people adopt an aggressive approach. They are aiming for a win-lose outcome (I win, you lose). But, with the rights skills and attitudes, it is perfectly possible to confront issues without being confrontational. For example, if I were to say to someone who is blocking my way: ‘Excuse me please, can I get past? Thank you’, I am confronting the fact that this person is blocking my way, but I am not doing it in a confrontational way; I am not creating any problems or ill-feeling for them. And this is the key: How can I avoid having problems and ill-feeling without creating problems and ill-feeling for the other person (back to win-win outcomes again)?

I mentioned the right skills and attitudes. A key skill is what is known as ‘elegant challenging’. This refers to being able to address issues in a positive and cooperative way, raising important issues sensitively and tactfully in order to minimise the risk of conflict escalating, while maximising the chances of making a positive difference. And, when it comes to attitudes, the key attitude can be characterised as: ‘I will respect you and treat you with dignity, but I will not allow you to treat me without such respect and dignity. I want this to work for both of us’.

So, whenever you are tempted to adopt an ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach, perhaps you should consider whether you like the consequences of letting things pass and risking a lose-lose outcome any better. But, of course, we don’t have to choose between two uncomfortable options. Being prepared to confront issues (that is, address them) without being confrontational can give us a very helpful way forward that is of benefit to all concerned. Adopting that aiming for win-win outcomes and being prepared to develop the skills involved are therefore steps well worth taking.