My Way or the Highway

Do you prefer simple, definitive answers to questions? Suppose you hear on the news about a man who lives in your town. A local business where this guy worked was losing money and was forced to lay-off 50% of its work force, and he was one of them. Over a period of months his financial situation worsened. He was unable to find another job and his unemployment benefits ran out. His 10-year old son has a life-threatening illness that requires medication he can no longer afford. Desperate, our unemployed dad breaks into a pharmacy and steals the medicine. He gets caught. How should this man be punished?

Simple Answer: He committed a felony and should go to trial. If found guilty he should go to jail.

Complicated Answer: If found guilty maybe he should receive a suspended sentence so he can continue to look for work. Could the pharmacy put him on an affordable payment plan for the medicine? Could the drug company supply him with the medication and put him on an affordable payment plan once he is back at work? Maybe local media could run his story, and local businesses and neighbors might work to help him financially until he is able to find a job.

If you like the simple answer, and believe that life is really an either/or deal, the odds are that you’re going to have some coping problems somewhere along the line. Why? Because you want life to be something it isn’t: Simple. You want things to be black or white, right or wrong. You believe that if something is right for you, it should be right for everyone, and everyone should see it as right. You have no tolerance for ambiguity, subtleties, nuance, or dissenting opinions. 

Let’s face it, stress results when the answers to problems are not simple; it results when others disagree with you, and don’t see your way as best; it results when others show creativity, independence, and initiative, but you are unwilling – or unable – to do so.

When faced with complex stressful situations, coping requires compromise, courtesy, humility, empathy, and teamwork. If you insist on living by simplistic, either/or, black/white rules, you will not be equipped to solve the challenges posed by life’s complexities, shades of gray, and nuance. If you believe, “There’s only one way to solve this conflict,” you will fail, and stress will continue to haunt you.

In the Spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, some people took to the streets to demonstrate against stay-at-home restrictions. Many TV viewers watched, fearful for their health if reopening occurred too soon, yet also empathetic with the demonstrators, understanding their frustration. Stress was in ample supply all around.

A major contribution to everyone’s stress resulted from the either/or manner in which choices were delivered to the people: Close or reopen society; follow the President or your Governor; think like a liberal or like a conservative; be guided by the medical or by the financial aspects of the crisis; choose us or them, your needs or your neighbor’s. In other words, some leaders preached either/or thinking, and encouraged us to think like simpletons!

Unfortunately, simplistic either/or thinking encouraged everyone to take sides and overlook the complexities of the problem facing them. The result was emotional upheaval, anxiety, frustration, and anger that made coping difficult. Emotions! Decisions were approached from an emotion-based context, when they needed to be approached from a problem-based context. There were problems that needed solutions, but everyone worried about how much they were worrying.

Imagine that your boss tells you to decide to make Pete or Joan –it’s your decision – the leader of the team for an upcoming important project. When you see the issue as either/or, Pete or Joan, you put yourself in a decision-making straitjacket that is almost guaranteed to maintain your stress level. Your focus on emotion will make you anxious about how you will be seen by your boss if your choice is terrible.

Give yourself a break. Your emotions do not need solving – a problem needs solving. Why not make Pete and Joan provisional co-leaders? If one obviously shines, you slowly elevate that one to leader. Notice how you have removed the either/or stressor, and made the conflict data driven: “I will let their performance determine which one emerges as leader.”

Assigning Pete and Joan as co-leaders is a middle-ground solution that allows you to design a flexible plan of action, and continually measure how well the plan is proceeding. The resolutions to most conflicts are usually most successful when they include features from all possible options, and allow for feedback – data – to evaluate their effectiveness. Let Pete’s and Joan’s performance determine your final decision.

Note how this strategy makes your accountability much easier. You convert an emotion-based approach to your decision to a problem-based approach. That means you are guided by results, not by a gut feeling. A problem-solving analysis involves actions based on realistic evaluation of measurable outcomes. Over the long run, your problem-focused approach – unlike an emotional-focused approach – will allow you to be accountable for your decision, and a lot more confident that your decision was valid.

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