How can you make great decisions?

General Patton said, “Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader”. I wonder though on what basis we should be making our decisions? Any fool can make a decision but how do we make a wise decision? How do we make a decision based on the right thing to do? What is the right thing to do? Who am I to be making decisions? What happens if I make the wrong decision? I remember making that bad decision way back when. What will be the punishment if it all goes wrong because of me? I think I will do something else as it’s less painful, now where is that telephone directory I have to read? Oh, my God I wish I could have decided back then now look what’s happened. I will lose my job. Why can’t I make decisions I am just so crap at this job. What must everyone be thinking about me?

Do I need to go on? If you have not recognised at least some of this in you then this is not the post for you. If however, even a little resonates, stay with me a little longer but still feel free to sign off any time I am of no use to you.

So, you are faced with a decision we all are; “Should I have the chicken and pasta meal on the red eye from LA to Boston”, “Should I get my web-site made now or a little later when all my products are ready to go” or “Should I fire this person?” Maybe we should look at where the need for decisions springs from?

Every living thing on this planet makes decisions, bacteria, plants, animals and us. For some it is a really simple decision such as letting a particular chemical into their cell based on determining if it is food or poison. Birds need to look at the length of day, wind direction, temperature etc. before they decide to migrate. Some mammals need to decide, “Do I cross that river to get to new pasture but I risk drowning or maybe getting eaten by a giant Nile crocodile?” These are all true life threatening decisions that all organisms make on a minute by minute basis in order to survive, procreate and pass on their genes to the next generation. The consequences of making a wrong decision are drastic and often final! By comparison most of our human decisions are utterly trivial but we place a similar amount of importance on them. We even invest ourselves and our valuable emotional energy in the decisions made by others. After all the whole celebrity industry is based on us caring about whether a particular young soap star is going to leave another wanabee and when they do, has this affected their popularity? How is it then that we are so worried about making decisions if they are usually so trivial? I have a theory!

Is it that we still assign a primitive degree of consequence or weight to all of our decisions instead of being able to assign a degree of importance that is in proportion to the demand of the decision? By this I mean for example, do you get a sensation of panic when you go into a new restaurant and you do not know their particular way of ordering food, is it counter or waitress service. My father got to the point where he would prefer to walk out if he could not immediately see what he had to do. I loved the man dearly but it got to the point where he was almost unable to make a decision for himself. He deferred to any and everyone else’s needs and he just fit in. Now that makes for someone that does not rock the boat but at the same time it is a person that cannot contribute themselves fully and authentically. If you recognise even a bit of this level of uncertainty (and I have been there) what is going on inside you when it happens. My recollection is that I feel a distancing from the situation and the people I’m with, I get tongued tied and I get a feeling of mild panic (sometimes major). My reflection on this is that I am driven inside myself and there is an invisible barrier that has jumped up to protect me from the situation. Several conflicting voices vie for position. The child voice is loud and panicky and wants someone else to help me out, the authoritative adult voice is chastising me telling me to pull myself together and my mature wise adult is drowned out waiting for permission to speak up. Then of course the world impinges on this internal argument, “Sir would you like a table or a booth”, “Do you want the set menu or á la carte”, “Would you like to see the specials and are you interested in joining our dining club?” The internal emotional temperature rises and you begin to think of the consequences of each decision weighing each one up, often in terms of, “What will people (in this case the waitress) think if I make a dumb decision?” You get to a point where you blurt out, “I’ll join the á la carte dining club in the booth”, or something similar. You sit down and you hear that voice, “What a bloody stupid decision that was”, “now you can’t see the sports on TV, dummy” and “The waitress thinks I’m an uncouth idiot who does not know anything”.

Well, what is going on here? This is life in a New York minute. What you have done is rake up just about every childhood insecurity and then piled them one on top of another. Let’s take a deep breath and revisit the scenario. The minute we are born we probably have few fears except some genetically hardwired systems that might make us shy away from bright light, loud noises and bad tastes. We are however, instantly equipped with our primitive but exquisitely capable decision making skills such as the need for our mothers and for food. Babies are the most powerful of computers sucking up data from many and various sources around them. We all manage to somehow synthesise this into our version of reality and we develop our social awareness. As we grow we become more and more exposed to social pressures including parents, siblings, teachers, friends etc. From them we learn our social conventions as to what is right and wrong. It is said that good parenting is based on helping a child to know right from wrong but maybe there are better and worse ways of doing this. Remember the subject of this Blog is decision making. In order to make a decision you need a degree of autonomy in that situation, if not, this is someone else’s decision not yours. The question then is how much autonomy were you given to make decisions when you grew up? Were you allowed to decide what you had to eat, what you wore, which friends you kept, what clothes you wore, did you have to go to visit grandparents every time, did you get a say which school you went to what subjects you chose. Were you told how to eat, how to talk, even how to walk? If as a child you were never given chance to make a decision and learn how to succeed and fail how can you suddenly be expected to grow “Decision Wings” and fly as an independent adult? I was very lucky in having parents who allowed me to voice my opinion from a very early age, for which I am eternally grateful.

Ah, so maybe we have something here, maybe if you go back to you childhood for a while and reflect, could it be that your fear as an adult of making decisions is that you had your wings clipped all the time? If you feel that to a greater or lesser degree that this was the case what can you do now? Well you could play the blame game, parents, siblings, teachers etc. and you may need to do that for a while in order to get it out in the open. In the end if carried on too long it is self defeating and in any case you cannot go back and change events. You can only alter how you view and respond to those events in the present. What you can do is simply notice in the moment what is happening inside you both physically and emotionally when you recall specific events in your earlier life. Really notice them! Describe to yourself what it feels like to recall those events. Saying it out aloud can be very cathartic (do this on your own). You might also feel guilt or blame in that you have let all of this history control you. Well hello there, you are not unique in this, everyone wishes they were not quite as they are. The trick is to keep investigating with the objective of simply becoming more and more self-aware. Try not to attach blame, simply investigate and notice. The philosopher Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power” and this kind of non-judgemental process of self-awareness gives you real knowledge and power. It gives you the most important kind of power deep insight into who you are and why you are the way that you are. Make sure there is no more scary stuff lurking; winkle it all out and face it down for what it is and then put it in the correct filing draw for later referral as you need it. You can bring it out at will and reinvestigate to see if you can wring out one more drop of useful life experience. What you begin to notice, as if by magic, is that less and less of life is scary, you develop a calmness you did notice before, you connect with other people more rewardingly and people come to you for advice as they see your deep wisdom develops.

If you live your life from this firm foundation of self-awareness making decisions becomes the simplest of actions because very few of your challenges will be as hard as the process that you have just gone through. You will sense intuitively what a trivial decision is and give it its due attention compared with the really big decisions in life where you need to engage all of you emotional and intellectual resources. What you will also notice is that you will begin to make decisions on the basis of caring but not too much.

So, how can you make a start? This really depends on why you are reading this Blog and to what extent you feel you are stuck. It may be that there is real trauma in your life that can only be assisted by professional therapy or counselling. If so, simply accept this as something you need to address and get help. I urge you to do this it is a wonderful experience to have someone else listen non-judgementally to you in a safe confidential space. Depending upon your specific needs in terms of what is keeping you stuck you might consider life or business coaching. I have been coached over several years and I am a qualified executive coach. It is a privilege to be on either side of this close and wonderfully synergistic partnership. Coaching has changed my life and is a major reason why I am writing this Blog. However, before diving in to any of these options you might do some simple but rewarding homework to make a start. I would encourage you to investigate your life in detail especially looking at your absolute core life values. Here is an exercise that can get you going. Before we do though what I am talking about are “YOUR LIFE VALUES”, not those you think that other people think you should have. This is all about you and is not about trying to please anyone and I mean anyone else. Take your time, maybe several days before committing pen to paper. Then—–

Values and Self-awareness Exercise.

Take 10 large sheets of paper (A3 in Europe) and write one core value on the middle of the left hand side (See Figure below). My core values include honesty, love, learning, forgiveness, etc. Then draw two short lines spreading out and to the right from this core value. Write between one and three words (no more) at the end of each line that describe or qualify your core value. Do this quickly as your first responses tend to be the most truthful and revealing. Then draw two lines from each of these words and repeat the process by writing up to three words describing the previous words and so on. For some core values you will fill the page for others it does not matter.

What have you done? You have written out in black and white exactly who you are and what makes you tick. This value map describes everything about you including your dreams, ethics, desires, fears; everything. It will give you jumping off points from which you can investigate your past in the way that I describe above. More crucially it will give you a tool with which to assist you to make important decisions in life. For example, if you are thinking of starting a new job, for moving home or starting a new relationship, on what basis can you make the decision so that the place or job or person you end up in or with fits with who you are. For example, in the world of work you might see that you like working with lots of people so, would getting a job that isolates you, no matter how well paid nurture you and make you happy? What if you find that a core value is centred on green issues could you work for a company that pays lip service to their environmental policy?

You can use this core value map for all of your decision making in work or at home. Gradually you will refer to the physical map less and less because it will be embedded in your mind and imperceptibly you will stop consciously referring to this mental core value map as you will be making decisions more intuitively, with all of the computation done in the background. Most importantly you will give each decision its correct emotional weight releasing you from everyday angst letting you give more and more attention to the things that really matter, yourself and those you love.

About Gary R Coulton

I use my 30 years experience as teacher, learner, facilitator, mentor, trainer, manager, leader, biomedical researcher, intrapreneur , executive and sports coach to create “teams for change and re-invention”. I have developed the concept of “Adaptive Intelligence” to support individuals, teams and organisations in their quest to understand and take advantage of the “Change Paradox”. I have created a range of innovative courses and training systems including “How to achieve like an elite thinking/business athlete”. I live in North Surrey, UK with my Wife and Daughter and enjoy coaching Kayak paddling technique, travelling and learning a new thing each day.
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One Response to How can you make great decisions?

  1. Great post! Research shows that it takes engagement of our emotions in order to make decisions, and a lot of people (men moreso than women for now) tend to block their emotions, as it can feel “safe” to them. Winston Churchill said that one must be “swamped with emotions to be an effective leader.” And effective leaders make good decisions. I imagine the nature of the emotion determines the quality of the decision made, but that would be another white paper!

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