Mastering Difficult Moments

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Facing a Big Decision Like About a Job or a Relationship?

In your work or key relationship feels iffy, here's 3 key decision-making steps.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Are You Agitating or Thinking? by Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

Every so often, in everyone’s life, important decisions that may require a major change loom up. It  might be time for a decision about changing your job, getting medical help for a nagging problem, exiting from a relationship, or signing up for couples counseling to save your relationship or marriage?  What's the best way at that time to proceed with tough decision-making?  That's the question this post addresses.

How do you know the time for a change is now?

The sign that it may be time to face the music usually is negative feelings like annoyance, frustration, anxiety or the blues. 

Signs that it's time to take a big leap can include positive positive feelings like excitement.  “Shall I trust my gut about who to marry?” is likely to yield a combination of excitement plus anxiety.  A potential job change or the need to choose a new career path direction can become evident from anger, frustration, boredom, overload or other stressful negative feeling in your current work situation, and also from looking elsewhere and feeling positively attracted to the new option. 

How can I decide what's the right leap of action to take? 

The usual paradigm for decision-making on important issues is to think of options and then list the pros and cons for each.  Pros and cons lists often yield pendulum-swinging back and forth, a hung-jury that can't come to a clear conclusion, or a suboptimal decision. 

Here’s a better model, one for facing your feelings and emerging with a plan of action that feels great.  I referred to this model in an earlier posting on making decisions as a couple as the win-win waltz.

A Helpful Decision-Making Paradign: The Three Steps of the Win-Win Waltz

Step #1: Clarify the problem, and some initial solution options. 

Step #2: Explore the underlying concerns, listing all of them, pro or con, on one list.

Step #3: Create a solution set (a multi-faceted solution) responsive to all the concerns on your list.

Beware.  Men tend devote insufficient attention to step two, exploring underlying concerns.  Instead they often leap prematurely straight to step 3, seeking solutions.  Women by contrast have a tendency to get mired down in excessive time in the second step, and sometimes need to remind themselves to start generating solution options. I’ve written about these typical win-win waltz glitches in an earlier posting on gender differences in typical decision-making mistakes

By contrast, in the humorous video below, a couple avoids these potential gender-typical mistakes.  They succeed in using the three steps to make a speedy decision in a particularly high-stress situation. The video example is meant to solidify your understanding of the three steps which we'll then apply, after the video, to work decisions.

How can these three step guide decision-making about jobs? 

Here's two case examples.  In the first, Joe is considering leaving an unpleasant job situation.  In the second example, Louis is trying to figure out where to head for a more gratifying career path.

Case #1: Joe's Job-Change Dilemma: Stay or Leave?

Joe felt so stressed that he was getting stomach aches every morning as he thought about going to work. Should he treat the stress as useful data that was telling him he should change jobs?

Step #1: Clarify the problem, including your initial proposals

Joe could stay and hate the job.  Or he could leave and try to find something else.

Step #2: Explore the underlying concerns, listing all of them, pro or con, on one list.

To figure out his concerns, Joe closed his eyes and allowed images to come up of work.  He saw immediately what he hated there.

  1. My boss unpredictably yells at me.  I hate that.
  2. After he yells at me I can’t focus on my work and then get behind.

At the same time, there were aspects of the job that Joe liked.  He added these to his list.

  1. My industry, health care, feels like a growth industry.
  2. My specific job, marketing for an excellent health clinic, is creative and fun.
  3. I like my colleagues.

Next Joe added concerns about leaving and having to find another job.

  1. I’m anxious about finding one that pays as well.
  2. The economy is not great so jobs are not all that plentiful.
  3. What if that job also has an anger-prone manager?

Concerns include both positive and negative aspects of each option. Plusses with regard to leaving for a new job included

  1. I do enjoy starting new things.
  2. My resume is good so I’ll probably find something else.

Before moving on to Step #3, creating a plan of action, Joe added one more question to his exploration of underlying concerns.  Again he closed his eyes to see what answer would emerge from his trustworthy subconscious.

“Of all these concerns, which underlying concern is most important to me?”

The answer was clear.  Joe hated being yelled at.

Step #3: Create a solution set (a multi-faceted solution) responsive to all the concerns on your list.

To create a solution, Joe aimed to first figure out the best plan he could if he were to stay, and then a full plan around leaving.

“How could I stay and yet not be yelled at anymore?”  Joe asked himself.  As his therapist, I suggested the plan that I write about in my PT posting on dealing with angry people.  While that article focuses on responding to an angry little girl, the principles apply as well to dealing with angry adults.  The solution is to exit. 

That is, if he doesn’t want to be yelled at, Joe could walk out of the room when his boss begins to raise his voice.  As he leaves he could say nicely, “I need a drink of water.”

With regard to building a solution-set based on finding a new job, Joe resolved that he’d check out the tone of any new company and ask about the management style of the boss before taking any new positions. 

While he could now create a plan of action fully responsive to his total list of concerns either by staying or leaving, Joe felt right away clear about his preference.  If he were no longer standing around like a small child being yelled at by a frightening daddy, his current job would be great.  At the same time, if his boss fired him for walking out when the ranting began, Joe then would go ahead with looking elsewhere. 

Lastly, making his list of concerns had reminded Joe how invigorated “new” always felt to him.  “Maybe my wife and I can take up tango dancing…that would add a new spice to my life without the risks of trying to find a new job.”

Case #2: Louis is struggling to choose an alternative career path.

Louis felt stressed as he thought about his current career.  He'd been a journalist for five year.  It was becoming increasingly clear to him that the job opportunities and also the salaries in journalism were shrinking.  Was his stress a further problem, or a helpful sign that it was time to explore new options?  Instead of continuing to feel anxious, he decided to treat his stress as a positive "Pay Attention" signal.

Step #1: Clarify the problem, and some initial proposals. 

What next?  Public policy?  Business school? 

Step #2: Explore the underlying concerns, listing all of them, pro or con, on one list.

I encouraged Louis to begin by closing his eyes to see what came up in response to the following question. "Allow images to come up of work-related activities that you have especially enjoyed.  What about these activities especially appealed to you?"

"I loved the debate team in high school and college," Louis began.  "I also see myself doing college papers.  I loved doing research for a paper, analyzing what I've found, and then writing about it."

Louis listed three additional current concerns, producing the following list altogether:

  1. Taking a point of view and convincing others of it.
  2. Doing research, analysis, and writing.
  3. Doing a job with potential for significant earnings.
  4. Doing something that takes high-level thinking skills.
  5. The topic should interest me.

Of these concerns, the strongest felt was that the career be in a subject area that he found compelling.

Step #3: Create a solution set, (a multi-faceted solution) responsive to all the concerns on your list.

Louis closed his eyes to picture what he most enjoyed reading.  When he realized that his one of his favorite reading materials was Supreme Court opinions, the decision made itself.  “I’ll go into law!”

In sum, nagging feelings, including positive as well as negative feelings, can indicate it's time to make important decisions.  Using the win-win waltz decision-making paradign can increase the odds that your decision will be a good one.

Decision-making with the “win-win-waltz” is a waltz in that it has three steps, and because once you learn the steps it’s fun and easy. 

It’s win-win when the ultimate solution is responsive to all of your underlying concerns.

So next time you face an important decision-making moment about a job change, a career path, or a relationship, or even a small decision like what to do for dinner, try using the win-win-waltz.  Hope you like it!

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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., author of the book From Conflict to Resolution, specializes in conflict resolution and decision-making.  Her current project is a web-based program, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, that teaches couples how to replace their stressful conflicts with collaborative decision-making.

To further understand the interactions in a relationship that's important to you, try Dr. Heitler's free relationship quiz.

Mastering Difficult Moments