The Edge: Peak Performance Psychology

Essentials of optimal performance

Getting to Yes...Or No

Decision making power may be external or internal

When it comes to decision making, what’s a person to do? And who has the power, anyway? Sometimes it’s someone else. Sometimes, it’s our inner self.

A classic assertiveness dilemma can be represented as: Arthur gets asked by Beatrice to teach a course in her department. Carl, Arthur’s department chair, says “no, you can’t.”

Whether in teaching, business, sports, performing arts…or life in general, this situation is of course very frustrating. Stripped to its bare essentials, Person A receives an offer from B but C intervenes and thwarts the possibility.

Sometimes, though, the challenge is internal. Using our ABC’s: Adrienne, a free-lance musician, gets asked by Brian to perform in an upcoming gig. In this scenario, only her conscience is telling Adrienne that she should think this through before deciding. Instead, the question is: since she’s been asked, should she just say “yes”?

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In this situation, Person A receives the offer from B. The relevant decision maker is C, Person A’s (benign) conscience.

What’s a person to do? Well, of course, it depends. Let’s examine these scenarios more thoroughly.

A mild, pleasant, gentle teacher, Arthur feels energized by the idea of teaching a new course in a different department. Carl, however, puts up all kinds of obstacles to this apparently innocent offer. Although he’s seething inside, Arthur responds to Carl’s thwart with a shrug. “Whatever,” he comments.

Enter Assertiveness Training 101. It’s been around for about 40 years, so it’s an old hand in assisting Arthur. (Many of the classic books about how to be assertive still top the best-selling “Assertiveness Training” list.) Assertiveness Training offers Arthur the “Goldilocks” approach: It reminds him that, on the one hand, he doesn’t have to respond aggressively, as if all that matters are his needs. Nor does he have to stay passive and shrug, letting Carl determine his life. Assertively, he can explain to Carl his own reasoning about why he would like to teach this course.

This Assertiveness plan presumes that Carl, being a reasonable person, will change his mind and let Arthur teach the class.

But what if Carl digs in his heels? Does Arthur need to stop there? Another classic, Fisher and Udry’s Getting to Yes, describes principled negotiation, in which emotions are defused; the focus is on shared options. This nuanced approach would encourage Arthur to pay particular attention to Carl’s objections—both those that are spoken and underlying concerns or external pressures that he may be responding to.

How definitive a “no” is Carl’s response? Perhaps it’s a matter of sustaining the conversation—or picking it up later, after Arthur has had the opportunity to figure out, and even practice, some of what he might say. When he discusses their shared larger goals—such as improved inter-departmental communication—Carl may be willing to shift to a mutually satisfying resolution.

In some situations, the “person” you need to reason with is yourself. What should Adrienne, the musician, do?

It’s flattering to be asked to participate in something, and for that reason alone, Adrienne might think that she should say yes. She may feel that she “owes” Brian. As a fellow musician, maybe she understands what it’s like to stand in his shoes. Perhaps she’s concerned on his behalf: “If I don’t do it, can he find someone else?”

And then there’s the free-lancer’s constant underlying thrum (one that, as an independent practitioner, I can relate to easily—even while recognizing that it’s irrational and catastrophic): “If I say no, will anyone ever ask me to participate again in anything?”

Adrienne might ask herself a number of questions. They are not mutually exclusive, nor are there right or wrong answers. They’re just things to consider:

• Do I want to do this particular gig?

• Does it potentially have some implications for my future? Even if I’m lukewarm about this specific gig, is it opening up some doors that matter to me?

• Alternatively: Is this something that I could do but it just doesn’t especially interest me?

• Do I think this gig will be fun (i.e., not necessarily any implications other than my enjoyment—of the process, my colleagues, my own appreciation of the ease or challenge of the music)?

• Do I have sufficient time/energy/resources to commit to this project? How full or empty is my internal reservoir?

• How am I going to fit this into my current life? Are there things I was planning, or that I do routinely, that I would need not to do, in order to do this?

Adrienne might decide not to take up the offer if it doesn’t meet any of a number of criteria. Some really obvious reasons that she might “just say no”:

• She doesn’t need the money (OK, that one’s pretty unlikely, especially for a free-lance musician).

• She doesn’t like Brian or his musicianship.

• She thinks her reputation might suffer from playing with this group.

• She isn’t interested in the music.

• She finds the performance venue inconvenient.

• …And on and on.

Maybe Adrienne can graciously thank Brian and choose not to perform. She says a verbal “no” to Brian’s “yes” (his request).

But here’s the most difficult Yes and No challenge: The gig might be one that would satisfy some elements for Adrienne. Realistically, though, there are too many “costs” for her to jump in. Rather than bargaining or negotiating with herself, she has to be internally assertive. No appeasement here. She needs to figure out how to give her internal “yes” a reasonable “no.”

As someone who is often excited by a new project, a different adventure, or a complex challenge, this kind of dilemma is the one I find most challenging. In this kind of situation, the “siren song” of interest and desire draws my boat of time and energy toward rocky shoals. So, too, Adrienne. At this moment, she needs to conduct a “fearless inventory” of her current life. Desire (“This would be fun to do”) may clash with reality (“I’m already spread too thin”).

How does Adrienne sort out these competing internal voices? Rationally, she can certainly draw up a pro/con list and weigh each of the elements. Or she can write out a dialogue, putting into tangible form the mental “conversation” she’s been holding about doing this gig.

Alternatively, Adrienne might find it helpful to ask herself: “Supposing my best friend—with similar life and obligations—were about to say ‘yes’ to Brian’s request. What would I say to her?” If her advice to her friend would be “no,” perhaps Adrienne’s internal self needs to take heed.

Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author whose practice in Toronto, The Performing Edge, focuses on sport and performance psychology.

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