December 4, 2019

Conscious Decision-Making: Getting to Know Your Yes and No

One of the biggest challenges my executive coaching clients face is optimizing their process of decision-making. We all have different approaches to making decisions, and we bring our own context and patterns to the game. Those patterns may be based on personality type, prior work experience, upbringing, and more. 

I view life and career stage as the result of a long series of decisions. In short, making “good” decisions matters, and I like to help my clients get more aware of the conscious and unconscious drivers of their decision-making system. I believe that bolstering the quality of one’s decision-making can lead to improved alignment with one’s personal priorities, values, career or life goals, passion, zone of genius, and satisfaction.

So making better decisions more often is a really big deal.

One way I see leaders get stumped in the decision-making process is they struggle to find conviction around whether they have a “yes” or “no” to a proposed option or plan. I try to help my coaching clients get more clarity about their true wants or beliefs. It’s worth noting that some leaders struggle to make decisions on a reasonable timeline and some leaders make decisions far before they fully understand  the options. In both cases – and all the ones in between – it makes good sense to pause and get more clear on what decision would best serve the company or the leader in a more conscious way.

In service of that objective, I invite leaders to engage in more conscious decision-making by first paying attention not just to their brains when they’re making decisions but also to their bodies. I introduce the concept of a “full-body yes.” A full-body yes is a yes to an opportunity, decision, or moment in time that resonates overwhelmingly with you. It’s not only an intellectual yes, but a near physical yes; something you can feel in your body and heart. In conscious leadership, anything other than a full-body yes is the same as a no.

A full-body no is the opposite. Something where the facts, circumstances, dynamics, people involved, tone, and more signal a clear no for you.

I like helping leaders build more self-awareness about their yesses and their nos to increase clarity in decision-making. For many leaders, becoming more self-aware in decision-making not only requires increasing their ability to really feel a yes or a no but also to get a fuller understanding of the reactions that lie in between these two poles. The area in between an obvious yes and no is the tricky part for leaders. 

Different personality styles engender different decision-making approaches. You may be inclined to say “yes” without pausing to see if you actually have an authentic, full-body yes. This approach can lead to pretty messy agreements as authentic consent has been skipped over.  More analytical types may find it more natural to start from a no and evaluate the wisdom of an approach with a more critical eye. For people who lean toward that style, most decisions carry risks, and often those leaders end up caught in the purgatory of “maybe.” 

I built this fairly straightforward exercise to give leaders a fuller understanding of the ways they interfere with their ability to make clear decisions. For those who make rapid decisions and often later regret them, this structure should also be of service. Instead of noticing where indecision is in the approach below, those leaders should pay attention to when they’re making instant decisions from compulsion.

Exercise: Conscious Decision-Making Worksheet

Start with this worksheet, then find a colleague, a peer, a significant other, or a few of these to play with. This is a fun exercise to do in a group.

Step 1: On the left side, in the red box, jot down a few examples of absolute nos. These might be choices to end a relationship, turn down an offered role, or make an ethically compromised decision.

Step 2: In the green box, jot down a few moments from your past or a few decisions you’ve made that felt like full-body yesses. This might have been true at that moment or it might feel true in retrospect. List three or four examples.

If you’re doing this with one or more other people, share your yesses and nos with your group.

Now, on to the fun part of looking at the area between the two poles. 

Step 3: Think about what you do when you don’t have a clear yes or no. When faced with a choice and you are not certain or not in touch with your intuition, what do you find yourself doing instead?  You may be doing more analysis, creating pro/con lists, procrastinating, or having a couple glasses of wine. Make a few notes here reflecting your go-to behaviors when you’re not sure what to do. Read this list back to yourself, and share these with others. Reminding yourself of these tendencies can help you avoid them later. Over time you’ll build more awareness that these are things you may be doing to avoid making a decision.

Step 4: Now let’s get even more insight on what we’re up to when we’re not finding a clear answer. Think about what kinds of situations, or which people, tend to trigger the behaviors you just wrote down in Step 3. It could be choices around money, decisions around work, a question of terminating a team member or direct report, or a matter involving a significant other or a family member. Again, taking notice of these triggers can help you become even more aware of situations in which you may be taking yourself out of full responsibility for making clear decisions and not truly connecting with your intuition (even if you overrule the triggers for some reason).

Step 5: Now for the finale. Take another look at your answers from Steps 3 and 4. When you are in this cycle of decision-making, what is one thing an ally of yours (or you, if you like) can say to you as a prompt to alert you to your unconscious behavior of evading your true knowing? This is just a push that specifically brings you to presence around your evasion techniques. It might be “what do you want if you were to stop worrying about what other people might want?” It might be “what would you do if no one could see or judge you for what you did?” Or your own personal version of these questions.

This structure is simple but can be incredibly valuable if your input is thoughtful. I look forward to your findings, and I’m hoping this exercise helps you get to know your decision-making strategies and evasions better. There’s no right or wrong here. We’re just looking for more awareness about our own patterns, and decision-making is a key source of patterns in leadership.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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