While getting a facial from a student at a beauty school the other day, I overheard a conversation between another student and her client.
“Would you like me to tell you what I’m doing as we go through your facial, or would you prefer silence during your treatment?”
The same question had been asked of me, and because I want to learn how to take better care of my skin, I opted to be talked through everything. (Also, I just like hearing people talk.)
But the woman in the next room, given the same choice, didn’t choose that option.
In fact, she didn’t choose anything. “Either way,” is what she said.
I was dumbfounded.
An hour of silence is very different from an hour of listening to someone talk. Surely she must have had a preference. Why would she say “either way?"
Common Decision-Making Traps
Leaving aside the possibility of serious cognitive impairment, which can obviously affect decision-making, there are three psychological reasons why the other woman might not have said what she wanted when asked if she preferred silence or conversation:
1. Lack of self-knowledge. She didn’t know what she wanted, because she’d never thought about it before. Maybe she’s not used to considering her own preferences, and so she doesn’t have any strong ones.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, you can use it to explore your tastes. Instead of choosing from options that you’re not sure about, say something like, “I’m not sure. Could we try both? How about if we start with silence, and I’ll ask you to talk if I feel uncomfortable?”
2. Unnecessary care-taking. It’s possible that the woman knew what she preferred, but wanted to avoid offending or imposing on the student with her choice.
The antidote to unnecessary caretaking behavior like this is to feel the fear (or the guilt) and do it anyway. Take the risk of asking for what you want regardless of how the other person might feel, and tolerate whatever feelings come up for you.
There’s no other way to escape the prison of unnecessary caretaking. It’s better to feel bad about speaking up for yourself than not to do it at all.
3. Analysis paralysis. Perhaps my fellow client answered “either way” because she could see the pros and cons of both silence and chatter, and simply couldn’t decide which was the better choice.
Again, in this situation, you don’t have to make an irrevocable decision. The question becomes, which one is it easier to change to from the other?
You might start with silence in this case. For most of us, it’s easier to ask someone to talk than it is to ask them to stop talking, even if they’ve offered both options.
By now, you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the obvious fourth possibility, which is that she really just didn’t care, “either way.”
What If You Just Don’t Care?
The apathy excuse (e.g., “I don’t care which restaurant we go to; why don’t you decide?”) is commonly used, but rarely legitimate.
You’ll have a different experience eating shrimp in the cushioned booth of a seafood restaurant at the pier than munching on a buttery croissant on a wooden chair in a tile-floored bistro downtown. Think about it. Right now, which would you prefer?
Of course, your preference can change depending on your mood. Shrimp today, croissants tomorrow, or vice versa. But if you look closely, given a choice, you will tend to have a preference in the moment.
What If It Really Doesn’t Matter?
We’ve been talking about decisions that are largely inconsequential. No one’s going to be arrested or lose an eye if you pick pastry over seafood for lunch.
But if you can’t or won't make these little choices, how will you fare with bigger, more significant decisions?
It takes effort to figure out what you want, especially when your “choosing muscle” hasn’t been used much. Use it or lose it.
Do the work of making those small decisions, and when the bigger ones are in front of you, you’ll be better able to cope with them.