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Communication is Choice: The Third Principle of Intentional Communication


Jan Pedersen

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Webster defines "to choose" as "to pick out by preference from what is available; to decide or prefer or think proper." To choose implies the exercise of judgement in settling upon something offered or available. "Choice" is defined as "the right, power or chance to choose."

How many of us actually exercise that right or power before we open our mouths and let some words fall out?

As a matter of fact, if you ask most people a question about why they said something in particular, they'll tell you, "I don't know...it just fell right out of my mouth!" Or worse, "I had no choice." "The devil made me do it."

In the words of Ross Perot, "That's just sad."

It's sad because it leaves most people thinking, behaving and acting like victims, with no right, power or chance to choose.

Granted, our particular ways of looking at and responding to the world are pretty much etched in the wrinkles of our gray matter by the time we reach puberty. And granted, with the proper stimulus it may look and feel like there is no time to choose -- they do that thing they do, and we react automatically, immediately, without exercising any judgement whatsoever.

But have you ever had the experience--maybe lying in bed at night on your way to sleep--when you said to yourself, "Oh, I KNOW what I SHOULD have said--" and it's perfect? In French, there's an expression: l'espirit de l'escalier. It means, literally, "the wit of the staircase" or thinking of the perfect retort when you are halfway down the stairs.

Have you ever asked yourself why you couldn't have said that perfect thing right then and there as the event was happening?

Do you then beat yourself up in that classic "I coulda hadda V-8" way -- calling yourself stupid, lame or slow-witted?

Notice that no amount of hindsight, head-bashing or name-calling ever helped you get better at thinking of that perfect thing to say while you are in the moment?

Notice that no amount of gossip, blaming, or whining about what a creep the other person was gets you access to a more powerful, considered way of interacting?

In one of the oddest, and saddest, conversations I ever overheard in a restaurant at lunchtime, a woman compained to her friend: "He really upset me when he wouldn't let me talk."

Sure sounded like "no choice" to me.

Since the second principle of Intentional Communication is that All Communication is Creative, look at the powerful ways we create paralysis in our own minds. We tell ourselves we have no choice--we experience no choice. We tell ourselves we can't possibly stay focused in the moment and select from available options--we experience no options at all. We call ourselves powerless--we experience powerlessness. Our mouth to God's ear, all over again. And so it is.

Here's the good news: The third principle of Intentional Communication is WE ALWAYS HAVE A CHOICE.

Always. Have. A choice.

Guess what. When we are acting powerless, when we are temporarily brain dead in an interaction with someone, we are exercising choice. Choosing not to choose. Choosing to make ourselves powerless. Choosing to flee--or worse--to fight. We tell ourselves those are our only two options and--voila!--those are the only options we can see.

What if we could stand still enough in the interaction with someone to merely notice the automatic, unconscious and immediate way our brain wrinkles offer up only two options -- fight or flee -- and go beyond to the realm of exercising judgement and selecting from ALL available options?

How would we go about that?

One way to go about it is to create intentionally, by asking our gray matter a powerful question, right there in that moment with that person.

A question like, "If I had an option other than fight or flee right now, what would it be?"

A question like, "If I could say anything right now that could alter the outcome of this conversation, what would I say?"

Or an even simpler question: "What do I want right now?"

Asking questions like these gives you access to that creative, wise part of your brain that knows. Asking yourself a powerful question gives you the chance to select from more powerful options. Asking that powerful question buys you a very profound opportunity -- to experience first silence, then choice.

In my early days as a trainer, I connected with this silence and choice in public. My dad the fighter pilot always told me, "If you're going to take a risk, make it a big one so you'll learn more."

At 9:15 in the morning, during a time management seminar I was teaching in Salem, Oregon, I was getting to know my audience by asking them to tell me about their conflicting priorities and hectic lives.

A woman volunteered that she was a single parent of three teenage children, who were very active in school. She tried to participate in their lives as much as she could, but it was difficult because she worked full-time at the Environmental Protection Agency and was working on her Master's Degree in biology at night. The dilemma she was facing was how to find the time to run marathons.

The room chuckled, I went one step further and said "We should make you the poster girl for 'I am woman, hear me roar.'" Most of the room chuckled. One person didn't.

He came rocketing out of his chair, planted both hands firmly on the table in front of him, and turned purple--and before he said a word, my brain was busy figuring out how to fend off the coming attack. He said, in a strident voice dripping with sarcasm, "I'll ignore that sexist remark you just made to let you know that women aren't the only ones that are busy!!!"

The silence following his remark was deafening.

The audience was alert, ready for the inevitable "clash of the Titans."

My brain was calculating only two options: flee or fight, in that order.

As I stood there, paralyzed like a bunny in the headlights of a wolf, I could hear myself thinking:

"Hmmm. He just attacked me. I know--I'll simply excuse myself and go to the back of the room until my head clears." (FLEE!) I remained silent, and the wise part of my brain calculated the possible outcome. "Sure," it said. "You could do that. And if you do, what will be the result?"

I could see that yes, I could flee. And if I did, half the room would feel sympathy with me, and the other half would cheer him on, human nature being what it is. No pass.

"Well," my brain continued. "You're an adult, this is your seminar. Just get right in his face and tell him to sit down, shut up, and stop talking to you that way, and maybe he might learn something." (FIGHT!) And what would be the probable outcome of that choice? Another no pass.

About five seconds passed. He glared at me, the room was silently placing bets on who would win.

A third option presented itself, slowly drifting into my awareness. I could find out about HIS hectic life.

Was I uncomfortable? You bet I was. Did I know how the conversation would end? Nope. I just chose to act on that third option.

"You strike me as a busy guy," I said as amiably as I could. "What do you do?"

Then I had to wait for him to review HIS options. It took awhile, about five seconds.

"I'm a Neurosurgeon," he sneered.

From my new-found place of choice, I realized his sarcasm had nothing whatever to do with me. I realized I had never met a neurosurgeon before, and could not imagine what his life must be like. So from the silence, I said that.

"I have no idea how hectic your life must be. But I can imagine there are plenty of things you'd like to do that you just can't find time to do. Am I right?"

Before my eyes, this aggressive, bullying man melted into the posture of a timid seven-year-old boy. He listed the things he would like to do: to date, to sleep through the night without his pager going off, to play golf like the other doctors. He was just another frustrated human.

For the remainder of the day he was not only on my side, but at my side--acting like a protective guard dog during breaks, buying me lunch, carrying my luggage to the car.

Point? The power of choice altered the future of that relationship in a marvelous and unpredictable way.

You will probably feel uncomfortable the first time you take a risk and encounter that silence where choice lives. But I guarantee you that the discomfort of that moment will be far less painful than lying awake at night mentally smacking yourself around.

And the person you're interacting with might feel uncomfortable, too, because they are used to you reacting and communicating the way you always do.

I promise you that the discomfort is minor. And living through the discomfort of the moment will give you dramatic proof that you are not a victim, but a creator of your own outcomes.

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