Category Archives: Choice Theory

You determine the ‘meaning’ of what happens to you

Recently I have re-read a book that is now a classic, Breakpoint and Beyond by George Land and Beth Jarman. One of the major tenets of the book is that organisational change and transformation must start with personal change and transformation.

One of the key requirements for personal transformation is the ability to activate a creative mindset. The creative mindset provides you with the power to choose the meaning that you add to events. Let me demonstrate what I mean.

One of my friends seven year old daughter spilt her cereal on the floor. “Oh, look sweetheart! Look at what you’ve done. You made a big mess!” my friend exclaimed. His tone indicated that he wasn’t pleased with what his daughter had just done. She had done a ‘bad‘ thing.

“It’s okay Daddy. When I clean and vacuum it up the floor will be cleaner than what it was when I first sat down for breakfast.”

Out of the two characters in this brief example, who had chosen to be more upset about the event? My friend.

“But it would have been a mess Gary!”, you might exclaim.

Well, only if we choose to see it that way. If we had a video recording of the event what would see is the cereal fall to the floor. Any meaning that we make from that event is added by ourselves.

Let’s look at another example. Plane travel. You arrive at your destination and your bags do not appear on the baggage collection carousel. Everyone else has been able to collect their bags except you. What would your reaction be?

Would you be angry, frustrated, annoyed? How would this affect your frame of mind going forward? Would you continue to be angry, frustrated, annoyed? If so, how long would that last? How would it affect your interactions with other people?

The issue with events such as this is that you cannot change the reality of the event. It is what it is. Your bags have not arrived. They are therefore somewhere else.

Imagine if the meaning that you gave to this event was, “Okay my bags have not arrived. this means that right now I don’t have my bags and I don’t know where they are. I don’t know why they haven’t arrived – I just know that they haven’t.

Notice that at no stage have I labelled this event with an emotional label such as this is bad, good, annoying or that I’m angry and upset. I have labelled the event with the facts as I can see them, including being honest about what I don’t know.

Please note that I’m not saying that the event might not be annoying or upsetting. What I am saying is that in these circumstances you have a choice about how you label the experience. In this way you can use the label in the complete understanding of the consequences of the label.

If I were to say, “Gee these people are hopeless. This really P_ _ _es me off! This just stuffs everything up. I’m screwed. Those stupid people!!!” what are my interactions with the airport staff going to be like? And then the taxi driver? And then the people at the hotel? And any colleagues I might bump in to? I’ve just determined that an event, the fact that my bags haven’t arrived, completely influence a negative mood and negative behaviour for a significant period of time. Yet the airport staff with whom I will be seeking help from to find my bags, the taxi driver, the hotel clerk and so on will have had nothing to do with the event that I have chosen to let influence my behaviour.

We are not robots. We do have choices. We have choices even when it might seem like we don’t. You can create a more positive future after having experienced an event that may have challenging consequences, simply by recognising that what has happened, or is happening is just an event. And I have the power over how I let this event impact my immediate future.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that a person who approaches baggage staff in an angry, upset mood isn’t going to receive the warmest of welcomes. Is such an attitude going to get you your bags more quickly? Not if they are currently halfway across the Pacific Ocean they won’t.

What I am suggesting here is not easy to put into practice. I certainly struggle with it, every day. But when you are self-aware enough to catch yourself labelling an event, you can slow yourself down and see it for what it really is – an event from which you have choice over how you react.

Give it a try – it’s worth it!

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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