Exploring the Deep Structure of Choice in Decision-making

One important guideline of dialogue is listening to understand,
not to agree with or believe. I do not have to agree with or believe
what another person is saying in order to come to
a new understanding of their experience.
– Kay Lindahl

A number of years ago I began helping groups of people, mostly women, as a facilitator of strategic planning and collective decision-making processes. These groups wanted to be more inclusive and participative in their planning and decision-making. Yet, they also were aware that they lacked as a whole the awareness and skills to do that effectively.

I had become interested in learning communication and collective discernment skills as a part of my own journey into working with others intent on making the world a better place. Much to my disappointment, I had often found that such groups, which claimed to be about creating nonviolence and justice in the world, could not get through a single meeting of their own membership without individuals around the table doing great violence to one another. My mantra became, “How can we preach peace and social justice to the world when we cannot create them in our own homes, in our own meetings, in our own institutions?”

As I eventually began to work professionally with such groups, I began to explore the deeper reality of the process of decision-making. Having an evolutionary point of view coming out of the new Universe Story helped me with this.  I began to see more clearly that every person is a story of his or her life experiences. More importantly, his or her perspectives on and values related to any topic or decision flow out of that story-line of experiences.

In other words, if you and I are part of a group considering a challenging decision, and we find that we disagree on how to make the decision, the reason for that difference is based in our previous life experience. It is not because my opinion is right and yours is wrong, or vice versa. What is really going on is that I have had different life experiences than you have had. That line of experiences has resulted in my seeing the situation differently than you do. My perspective on it differs from yours. My different perspective may also mean that I draw on different values in considering the decision than you do.

An example of this reality of different perspectives came to me around climate change. Imagine for a moment that you are a Bristlecone Pine, one of the oldest living organisms on our planet, living high up in the Colorado Rockies at the edge of the tree line overlooking a glacier.  Lately, you have noticed the glacier melting much more so than it has in past centuries. you begin to speculate on why that might be, based on your experience of life in the Rockies. Now, imagine you are a Palm Tree living on a small island in the southern Pacific Ocean. You notice that the water seems to be rising around your roots in a way it has never done before. Now imagine, and I realize this is of course far fetched, that in the Tree World they hold five-year conventions, and both trees decide this year to travel to one. The two trees meet and start speaking to one another about the critical problems that in their view need to be addressed at this session. Initially, the one would say, “We have a glacier melting problem high in the Rockies. We need it be much colder.” The other one would say, “We have a rising water problem in our area. We need it to be drier.” All the trees can speak only from their own experience.

What becomes clear in this example is that each tree has only a piece of the whole reality. Only in telling the story of their experiences, can they put together all the facts and come up with a total vision of the problem of climate change. It’s a fanciful story, but I think it illustrates my point. We are all unique, and approach life’s decisions, large and small, from the vantage point of our own perspective, which is shaped by our life experiences.

Making value-laden decisions

Along my journey, I also learned that the hardest decisions for groups to make are those that involve a difference in values. Decisions based on objective criteria are easy. If you want to buy a new copier machine, you poll everyone to find out how each wants to use it and purchase the one that best meets those needs.

However, the question of how much money you want to spend on a copier machine is a very different conversation. Some people’s life experiences may have led them to be very frugal with money. They may even be fearful of spending large dollar amounts. Others may have had experiences of “You get what you pay for” and are hesitant to pinch pennies on a machine that is used every day by every person. They want to spend more now to save later on the frustration arising from a machine that constantly breaks down.

To reach consensus on a value-laden decision, we need first to do our own personal work. This means first that we each individually need to be able to explore the life stories that influence our decisions. We need to explore the stories behind the values we have related to an issue to get at the basis of our own perspective on it.  Then, we need to be willing to share those stories, and to honor the stories of others. We also need to be open to having our story placed into the mix with others, and also to the possibility of reaching a new conclusion based on the collective wisdom derived from those stories. All of this personal story work needs to happen prior to actually making a choice.

I have tried to show this dynamic with an illustration I call The Deep Structure of Choice.

A counter-cultural process

Values in our Western culture that often hinder such a process are “expediency” and “efficiency.”  We have come to value doing things quickly  – “getting it done” – over doing things effectively. All of the research on group decision-making and organizational leadership now concludes that an effective decision is one in which all the individuals in the affected group can take ownership of the decision through their own input. Only then will they be willing to implement rather than ignore or even sabotage the decision.

An evolutionary story of our Universe and our place in it also opens us to new ways of looking at how our human journey of evolution and our present embodiedness impact our ability to be in relationship around decision-making with others.  We now know that our triune brain evolved from that of earlier species on the planet. We still carry within our brain the structures that helped the early reptiles and mammals survive.  Some of this is instinctive, and a lot of it is emotional. Daniel Goleman pioneered the work on “emotional intelligence,” helping us to see how our emotions impact our behaviors and decisions.

With the help of another colleague, I began in my work to invite people to take an “embodied” approach to listening to what another is saying or proposing in a decision-making process. It is important for us to recognize that anything we hear being said by another may trigger various reactions in our body, and in our brain’s emotional and cognitive centers, all of which is triggered by our past experiences. Here is a listing of some of the words or phrases we came up with to invite people to explore what is going on for them as they listen to another.

Reflections for Embodied-Self Listening:

How am I FEELING about this Suggestion?

Fearful? Joyful? Grateful? Excited? Angry? Sad?

Hopeful? Bored? Resistant? Open?

How am I in my BODY about this Suggestion?

Tense? Relaxed? Exhausted? Dancing? Asleep? Tight? Energized? Free? Nervous? Unsettled?

How am I THINKING about this Suggestion?

I can’t do this!

I totally agree!

How will this work?

This is great!

I don’t understand!

This is impossible!

This is unjust!

I remember the last time
we tried this. It didn’t work then and won’t work now.*

Getting in touch with how we bodily, instinctively, and emotionally react to what someone else is saying is very important to our ability to choose an appropriate response to him or her when it is our turn to speak. Remembering that there is a story connected with how we react invites us to mine that story for the values and perspectives that it has helped to shape. As each of us tells our story, revealing our different perspectives on an issue, we as a group come to greater clarity, and often, to a solution that none of us individually could have proposed.

*Patricia M. Bombard and Jo Giarrante 1997
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