Decisions, decisions …
… and then more decisions
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Bertrand Russell
Tony and Julie
Tony is a self-made man. He runs his own, small marketing company. He made good money from it. In the boom years. Tony is quick to make decisions. He sees the world in black and white, and has firm, unwavering opinions. On everything. He has a gut feel for things, he tells himself, so does not need to dwell on the detail. He lives life at a fast pace and does everything with a sense of urgency. He is a risk-taker and proud of it. He hates people who dither and moan. They should just get on with it, in his view. They should be more resilient, more decisive. Like him. He does not ‘suffer fools’. “The world is made up of winners and whiners,” he says, and he is a winner. He is short-tempered and quick to anger. He will manipulate and mislead people to get what he wants. “This is not about making friends,” he has been known to say. “It is about making money.”
He points to his office, his smart suits, his Mercedes as signs that he knows what making yourself happy is about. Meanwhile, his personal life has fallen apart, he is having an affair, he has a poor relationship with his children, and his marriage is crumbling.
Julie is cautious. She needs a lot of reassurance before making any decision, no matter how small. Her decision-making is good, but she overthinks things and always needs persuading, pushing even, to take that leap. She is passive, quiet and unassuming. Although she is very bright, she was in a dead-end job which she ultimately lost through depression. “Anyway, no one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time in the office,” she tells herself.
She is self-deprecating and polite. To a fault. She takes no space for herself; she would rather leave the space for others. She is giving, thoughtful and kind. She is a listener and is prepared to sacrifice her own interests for a friend in need. Julie hates it when people tell her what she should or should not be doing – implying she should be more decisive or assertive. She is not interested in ‘solutions’ she will tell them, she is interested in ‘empathy’. She points to her close friendships as proof that she knows what making yourself happy is about.
Julie is married to Tony. They are opposites that attracted at one point, but the strain has been growing recently and the relationship is in trouble.
They are both looking at the same issue but from opposite ends of the spectrum: the pressure to be considerate and thoughtful on the one hand, and of having the courage of your own convictions on the other – between getting on with others and getting things done. Both are important, but it sometimes feels like the two things pull us in opposite directions. Both Tony and Julie are getting the balance wrong, of course, but in equal and opposite ways …
The insurance salesman
Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ addresses this same question – albeit from the salesperson’s perspective. In the book there is an anecdote about an insurance salesman. His company is about to introduce a new product which he thinks might be appropriate for one of his clients. He talks to the client to explain the new policy. The detail has not been finalised, so he suggests they should hold off for now, but once the policy has been formally released, they should sit down together with a view to signing a contract. In the meantime, a colleague of the salesman approaches the same customer, and, before the detail of the policy has been settled, signs him up. Dale Carnegie’s conclusion is that the second salesman was right – you should seize the opportunity when it presents itself, and not wait in case the sale passes you by.
Carnegie might be right about this from a salesperson’s perspective, but I’m not sure he’s right from the ‘winning friends’ angle. The decision is easy for salesman 2 because he has loaded all the risk onto the customer. If the fine print means the policy proves to be less attractive for the customer than it seemed when he signed up, the cost will be borne by him. From the customer’s perspective, therefore, he should have waited before agreeing to anything. What the first salesman had done was to put the customer’s interests into the equation. The second salesman had put them to one side in order to secure the sale – and his commission. Salesman 2 might have been the better salesman, but I would argue that salesman 1 was the more rounded human being.
There are two questions that the salesmen and the customer are having to think through: ‘should we go ahead and sign the contract before we have all the information, or should we hold back?’ and ‘is it in our own interests and in those of the other person?’
Sometimes it is right to go ahead (and sign the contract), sometimes right to hold back; and we should be thinking both of our own interests and those of other people – we need all four ‘skills’ to make sensible, fair decisions.
You risk making a poor or an unfair decision if you lack any one of these skills:
- if you don’t think things through
- if you are too cautious and hold back when you should act
- if you put your own interests above those of the other person
- or if you don’t stand up for yourself
This applies not just to financial or material decisions, but to just about any decision that impacts more than one person. It’s about how readily or easily you make the decision, and how much thought you give to other people.
Rather than ‘winning friends and influencing people’, we can see these two things in terms of needing ‘esteem’ and a sense of ‘belonging’, to use Maslow’s terms for his two psychological needs.
It is often difficult to get the balance right between the two – for all of us. Sometimes, it feels like they are pulling in opposite directions – wanting to be measured and conscientious can upset those people who just want to push ahead; and, likewise, wanting to take the risk can upset those who want to be more cautious.
We need both ‘esteem’ and ‘belonging’, but it can seem easier to take other people out of the equation, as salesman 2 is prepared to do. He is comfortable taking a risk and signing the contract because he is less concerned than salesman 1 with the customer’s interests. That doesn’t make him right. He will say he is being ‘positive’, but really, he is just being self-centred.
The customer may himself be happy to take the risk in signing the policy. My guess is that he is somewhere in the middle, or on the other side of the equation, at least – he wants to be cautious but has allowed himself to be persuaded by the salesman, in effect taking himself out of the equation to please the other person, possibly against his better judgement.
Most of us avoid the extremes, we are in the middle, somewhere, but a lot of us still tend to one side of the equation or the other side – either a little too generous or slightly too tough.
Tony is the ultimate ‘taker’ – someone who always defaults towards the rash and selfish; Julie is the ‘giver’ – who errs on the side of being too cautious and complaisant. That’s how each of them tries to make the equation fit, even though they are both wrong.
Under the surface is a person’s sensitivity or resilience to the pressure these decisions create.
There is the pressure not to make a mistake on the one hand; and the pressure not to upset people on the other. It is balancing these responsibilities that makes it difficult.
We want to avoid the extremes, of course. We don’t want to be so sensitive to the pressure that we can never make our mind up (vulnerable to stress, anxious); nor so resilient that we piss people off the whole time (impulsive, aggressive, lack empathy).
To use Eric Berne’s language, we want to be the adult in the conversation, not the child or the parent.
Tony and Julie live at the two extremes. Tony is the parent and Julie the child – which creates an unhealthy ‘synergy’ in the relationship, where there is an imbalance within each individual, but perhaps a sort of dysfunctional balance between the two of them.
That doesn’t make them right and certainly doesn’t make the relationship easy. They are constantly niggling at each other. Tony thinks Julie should ‘toughen up’; Julie thinks Tony should be kinder and more considerate. They are both right about each other, yet completely blind to the faults in themselves. She thinks she is just being thoughtful, prudent and considerate when she is actually being indecisive and complaisant; he thinks he is being big and tough when he is just being selfish. They criticise each other so they can feel better about themselves, of course.
Julie is depressed and in counselling; Tony is increasingly angry with the world, lurching from one fight to the next. And neither one is happy …
We cannot be dependent on someone else to ‘complete’ us; we each need to take responsibility for finding something approaching a balance.
“Work hard and be nice to people.”Anthony Burrill
– end –
A colleague at work once told me a story about his mother. She was in a care home at the time and was getting a bit confused, possibly in part because of the drugs she was on, but she didn’t always know what was happening. He went to visit her regularly and, on this oneContinue reading “‘Attitudes are more important than facts’”
In English we say ‘Good Luck’. The direct translation into French is ‘Bonne Chance’, but I believe they more commonly use the expression ‘Bon Courage’. And I think they might be right. Note: photo from Cecile Hournau on Unsplash
We went to an introductory talk on my daughter’s school walking trip to Italy. Part of the presentation was by one of the women who would be leading the group; part was by one of the local, Italian guides. The woman was in charge. She had been doing this for many years and was clearContinue reading “Warmth”