The subject of choice has come up regularly in the therapy room recently. Usually because clients feel that they’re stuck in a given situation.
At the basic level, if something is not right in our lives, we always have three options:
Walk away from it
Change our response to it
And it all comes down to have much control we have over the situation.
One of the questions I ask clients in the therapy room is, ‘What would be different if some aspect of your life was better?’.
Sometimes they say, ‘The sun would be shining.’
Obviously, we have no control over the weather, so if our happiness depends on whether the sun is shining, we’re up a gum tree unless we leave the UK.
But we do have control about what we wear when we go out, what activities we choose to do, whether we decide to go out regardless of the weather or to adapt our plans.
Another common response is, ‘My partner / boss / colleague wouldn’t be so bad-tempered.’
If we’re unhappy about someone’s else’s behaviour then we usually only have two options, walk away or change our response.
We cannot directly change someone else’s behaviour unless they’re motivated to change.
Walking away isn’t always practical.
But changing our response to how someone else behaves is absolutely, 100%, in our control. And it’s weird how, when we interact differently with someone, they often adapt their responses. I’ve seen huge shifts in client’s relationships for the better, simply because they chose to deal with the other person’s behaviour differently.
I remember when I worked in IT, we often found ourselves working at client sites where we weren’t welcome. They saw outside consultants as a threat and it meant that we had to be very diplomatic in our dealings with sensitive staff.
On one project I worked alongside an older client manager who was determined to make life difficult for me. No matter how hard I tried, he would not share information that we needed to progress the project. I pulled out all the stops and tried hard not to come across as threatening. I could fully understand how difficult it must be for him and his colleagues, so I was as pleasant and accommodating as I knew how. But I just met with outright hostility.
After several months of his aggressive behaviour, I’d had enough. I decided ‘no more Mr Nice Guy’, so I switched off the charm and became completely matter-of-fact. Not rude, I just stopped trying to cajole him.
Within hours he went to my boss and said, ‘I think there’s something wrong with Debbie, she’s not her usual cheerful self’. He was genuinely concerned.
From then on, he only saw the cheerful me when he co-operated in some way, and gradually our relationship improved.
By changing my approach to the relationship, he adapted his behaviour.
And this same principle of changing our response to situations is key to being able to cope with whatever life throws us. We may not be able to change things directly. We can’t always walk away.
But once we recognise that, at some level, we are choosing how to respond to unhelpful situations, all kinds of possibilities open up.
We all have the power to choose.