Last week, while having dinner at a café with my wife and her brother, a ragged, tired-looking man approached our table. As the man mumbled something about “diabetes,” “travel,” and “need money,” I found myself assessing him and my environment, looking for cues as to how I should respond.
I glanced at the couple seated in the booth behind us: they cringed when they saw the disheveled man at our table, then averted eye contact in the hope that he wouldn’t approach them next. I checked the expression on my brother-in-law’s face—was he patient and concerned, or dubious about the validity of the man’s story? Then I judged the man for myself: Did he look like a drug addict? Was he drunk? Was he really traveling or just looking for easy money?
Of course, all of this analysis happened in a matter of seconds. By the time the man finished talking, I had only a few seconds to answer the inevitable question: Would I open up my wallet and give him some cash?
Caught in the Headlights
Since each of us responds differently when faced with tough moral dilemmas, I don’t mean to debate what I should have done in that situation. I did give the man a few bucks, but I’m not implying that there was a particular correct response from a moral standpoint. Instead, I’d like to focus on one question: Why was I so uncomfortable and uncertain how to act?
Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve probably been approached dozens of times by people asking for money. After so many encounters with this very specific social situation, you would think I could respond confidently, almost automatically, rather than relying on social cues and my environment to make a split-second decision.
And most of us have felt this way. Despite the fact that some uncomfortable situations occur time and again in our lives, we often allow them to repeat rather than putting effort into learning to overcome the discomfort. When the situation arises, we tense up, feel uneasy, and look around to see how others are reacting. Although we like to think that life experience has made us intelligent and mature, these circumstances leave us fumbling like a child.
In fact, until recently, I never stopped to ask myself how I would respond the next time someone asked me for money. Since I’ve never practiced or prepared for this specific social situation, there’s no reason to think it will be anything less than uncomfortable the next time it happens.
Learn a Skill
I once heard Kerry Patterson, one of the authors of Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Change, tell a story that illustrates this principle well. Years ago, Kerry explained, when his daughter was still a young child, a neighbor girl had knocked on their door to see if his daughter wanted to play. His daughter had already been assigned some chores for the morning and knew that she would not be allowed to play until they were complete. So, when the neighbor girl asked, “Do you want to come play with me?” Kerry’s daughter answered “No,” then immediately closed the door and went back into the house.
It wasn’t that Kerry’s daughter didn’t want to play. She was friends with the neighbor girl and enjoyed playing outside with her. But since she was still very young, she had never learned the appropriate way to graciously decline an invitation and suggest an alternative arrangement. Knowing this was the case, Kerry spoke with his daughter to explain how the neighbor likely felt when her offer was rejected. He gave some examples of what his daughter could have said instead and then role-played the situation to teach her the skill she could use the next time it happened. With an apology to the friend, the situation was resolved, and Kerry’s daughter learned a valuable skill to use the next time she encountered this previously unfamiliar situation.
We still fumble
Despite our age, wisdom, or experience, we all have personal situations in which we feel clumsy or inadequate because we haven’t armed ourselves with the right skills to address these situations appropriately. And when we embark on dramatic lifestyle changes like weight loss, financial freedom, or life without cigarettes, everything is uncharted territory and these situations multiply.
For example, if you’ve spent the greater part of your life ordering a large Coke, a New York Strip steak, and two different kinds of dessert each time you go out to eat, you might not know how to turn down the waiter’s persistent offers or explain to your group of friends why you prefer to eat a personal salad rather than sharing large entrees family-style. Or rather than telling a co-worker that you’d like to end your daily smoke breaks together, you’d prefer to leave the status quo and avoid having a conversation that you’re not sure how to handle. Regardless of our unique personal situations, we each have skills that we could practice to boost our confidence and ease our pathways to change.
As you work through your personal change goals, you will encounter situations that leave you uncertain how to act. But if you identify these moments in your life, then practice and plan how you will act when they occur again, you will be able to respond quickly and confidently rather than relying on the actions of the people around you.
Max Ogles is a writer and content expert at Change Anything. Follow him on Twitter.
Image Credit: Maveric2003