Thursday, 27 August 2015

Communication: Active vs Passive Choosing

Here’s something you can try at home!

Remember a time you made what we here at Impact Factory call an active choice.  That is, you were involved in the whole process, made your feelings and thoughts know and perhaps even drove the decision. 

This can be any decision at all – whether to cook, go out for dinner or get a take-away; whether you should hire that marketing company or manage things in-house; what holiday to go on; what school to send your kids to; whether to replace the printer.

What matters is that you were an active participant in the decision.

Once you’ve identified the decision, unpick how you felt:  relieved, satisfied, doubtful, unsure, energised?

Now remember a time when you made what we call a passive choice. This is where you knew a decision had to be made but you let it happen without your input.

Again, unpick how you felt once the decision had been made:  aggrieved, relieved, put out, disappointed?

When we actively choose something, even if in the end it was a mistake or could have been done differently, we usually feel more energised, we feel our views have relevance; we feel more engaged with the decision and feel a certain amount of ownership (yes, even with the take-away!).

On the other hand, if we are passive and decisions happen anyway, we are much more likely to feel angry (“Why the hell did she get Thai?”), hard done by (“I didn’t want Thai, I wanted a pizza.”), victimised (“She should have known I wanted pizza.”) and generally dissatisfied with how things turn out.

The interesting thing for me when I think of this in terms of communication is that for some people there seems to be a reticence and reluctance to get involved in the decision-making process and yet will be incredibly vocal if the decision made isn’t what they really want.

This is true across the board, whether the decision is work-related or family and friends related. 

Now sometimes it can be quite comforting to let someone else make the decision especially if you are overloaded. That’s fine either if you are in agreement with the decision, or, if you aren’t, you are able to be pragmatic enough to accept the consequences and not blame anyone else for ordering the wrong takeaway, printer or marketing company.

Where the difficulty lies is when you aren’t in agreement with the decision and you haven’t an ounce of pragmatism to accept what happens.

Passive choosing tends to produce negative emotions in people and they fall into destructive thinking, fault-finding, floundering, discontent; additionally, they will often stir things up amongst colleague, friends or family members looking for allies and dissing those they think have caused all the problems, or what they perceive as problems.

Active choosing, on the other hand, helps improve peoples’ problem-solving abilities, they will look for opportunities and options; it helps energise their can-do attitude and they feel more connected and responsible.

People do tend to fall into one camp or another. Not always, but more often than not, people who are passive choosers will tend to be passive choosers in a lot of aspects of their lives and conversely, people who are active choosers will tend to be active in most aspects of their lives.

Which are you?

If you’re an active chooser, well my advice is to keep on being active as it will continue to be beneficial.

If you are a passive chooser, the process of changing to become more active may be a bit trickier than you’d like, so I recommend starting small. I know someone who would say he didn’t know what he wanted so whatever everyone else wanted was OK by him.

Except it wasn’t. He really did know what he wanted but he was afraid of being shouted down, ridiculed and humiliated so it was easier for him to remain passive and suffer the consequences.

So even if you can’t initially verbalise what you want, make a decision in your head (“I really want pizza.”).  Then see if you can take the next small step by asking a question, “I’m fine with Thai but is anyone else is interested in pizza?” 

You can begin see the problem, can’t you?  As soon as you become active, doors open (pizza may become a reality) but also cans of worms can be opened as well (“We all want Thai, so if you want pizza you’ll have to get it yourself.”  Or  “Oh another country heard from just when we’ve all decided.” Etc. etc. etc.).

Personally I like the challenge of doors opening and even the occasional can of worms.

You choose.

Check out Impact Factory’s Communication, Change Management, Conflict Management and Assertiveness courses.


By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory

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