Friends B and C are visiting Friend A, and dinner time rolls around. Friend A starts a discussion about what to eat, knowing she has nothing to serve in the house. Has this type of scenario happened to you?
A: "I'm having such a great time, I'm so glad you guys are visiting; how about we get dinner together before you go. What would you like?"
B: "Oh, I don't care, anything is fine."
C: "Me, either. I'll eat anything. I'm really hungry."
A: "I'm hungry, too, so let's make a choice so we can get food faster. Should we go out, or order in?"
C: "Doesn't matter to me."
A: "Didn't you just say you were really hungry? What do you guys think will be faster?"
B: "I have no idea. What do you think? Is there anything either of you would like?"
C: "Yeah, let's just eat."
A: "That's what I want us to do, "just eat." Please, guys, what would you like? There are so many choices: pizza, sushi, and Thai take-out; we could walk to the diner; we could get in the car and go to that place you liked so much last time...have you guys eaten any of these foods lately? Is there something you don't want?
B: "It's your place, A, why don't you decide?"
A: "Okay, sushi."
A: "Are you not in the mood for sushi? WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE?"
C: "No, that's fine." (averts eyes, crosses arms across chest.)
B: "Sushi is fine if that is what you want." (sighing)
A: "Do we NOT want sushi now, or do we want sushi? Do we want it from another restaurant? Forget it, get in the car, I'm driving us to the place we went last time."
B: "I can't remember if we liked that place or not...hmmm..."
I'm not sure at what point we all decided that the best way to get along in the world when asked our preferences is to say, "Oh, I don't care! Whatever you'd like would be fine."
I get the premise: if you subordinate, then you don't have conflict. If you really don't care much, why should you be the one to assert yourself, right, and "make trouble?" And of course, no one wants to be THAT PERSON, you know, the one who is bossy and mouthy and says exactly what he or she thinks. The one who "always wants to get his/her way."
You know what, though? I want you to be that person, at least when you are making a decision with me. Why, you ask?
1) People always have an opinion; not stating it doesn't mean it isn't there.
2) You cannot possibly meet anyone's needs if you don't know what any of them are.
3) You cannot make compromises, (i.e., "Jim doesn't care much about XYZ, so we'll go with Sara's plan for that, but Sara isn't even going to attend ABC, and that's Jim's favorite, so we'll follow his lead there,") if no one states what they believe, or how important that belief is to them.
4) You will always find out later how disappointed everyone was, often when you can do absolutely nothing to assuage the sentiment.
When trying to make plans, nothing aggravates me more than working to create consensus with a group with seemingly no opinion about anything. I'm annoyed by myself when I find that I'm shying away from asking for what I really want, worried to state what I would like or need in order to ensure I don't upset anyone.
In grad school, we studied the Abilene Paradox, the story of how a family, all wanting to make each other content and not "rock the boat," end up going on a miserable roadtrip in a sweltering car for a yucky meal that none of them enjoys. It is not until after arriving home that each of them realizes that none of them had wanted to do this in the first place; no one stated what their preference was, each choosing to say a variation of "Sounds good," despite the fact that they were all happily playing dominoes when the idea for a roadtrip was pitched, and none of them wanted to leave their pleasant afternoon. When we read this story in class, you could hear laughter and sighing all throughout the room—how many times could each of us describe a moment with family, friends, or coworkers that felt like a hot, dusty ride to and from Abilene that no one really wanted to take.
Have we become so decision-averse or conflict-avoidant that we can no longer state an opinion about something as banal as take-out food without feeling anxious? And if we can't be honest about the little things, how on earth do we expect to be able to manage the discomfort of our big choices?
So, here's my decisiveness experiment, should you choose to join me: for one week, be honest about what you want/don't want. Don't be afraid to state those preferences, politely, and see what happens. Be vulnerable, and share what you think and feel.
Don't worry, this won't mean:
1) Being a pest about everything: if you truly don't have a strong preference, and someone else has stated that they do, let people know that you are very flexible, and don't care much about what is decided, but wanted to contribute. Feel free not to fight for anything; just say what you'd like or dislike. See if others chime in once someone has broken the decisiveness ice.
2) Having a fit if you don't get your way: not getting your way is going to be the reality a fair amount of the time; being a jerk isn't any more polite than saying nothing about what you want, then simmering with resentment.
3) Giving up on being kind: honestly, if stating, "I've had pizza twice this week, and I'd really like something a little lighter," or "I'd like to go shopping, if others would rather rest, I can go by myself," feels offensive to others, there may be a problematic dynamic in play that has little to do with you, or anything you say or don't say. Being honest and decisive, continually, may set the stage for others to break out of the communication breakdown; if it doesn't, at least more of your own feelings and wishes will be considered.
One final note: as the mom in this household, I think the most tiring thing I have to do all day, everyday, is manage a thousand points of scheduling/decision-making/planning, all at once, all in my brain as a running monologue. At any given moment, I am thinking something like this:
"I've got to get the laundry in right away, because I have to leave early to pick up groceries on the way to school dismissal, and won't have time to run the dryer if I don't start the wash now...I was in the middle of this freelance work when I went to bed last night, so should I finish that first then run the washer?...no, start the washer now and then work, as EJ needs her ballet outfit clean by tonight—wait, I should find her gym clothes, now, too, so those are ready for Friday?—what should I pick up at the store that I can make quickly after ballet is done?...we had chicken twice this week...Mike prefers the beef from the store further away, will I have time to get that?"
IT NEVER ENDS.
So, when I have the opportunity to make decisions with others, and not have to manage all the choices and contingencies by myself, even if I don't get exactly what I want, I am so happy. Maybe that's the heart of the problem—we are all so mentally taxed with decision-making fatigue, none of us want to take charge when we have the opportunity to let others take the lead. In this way, saying "I don't care, whatever you want!" becomes our default. The problem is that, whenever anyone has to cajole opinions out of a group in order to make simple choices, everyone feels more exhausted, especially the person kind enough to try to move the process along in the first place, knowing a decision must be made. Personally, I can verify that my brain is already full, worn-out, and spinning much of the time, especially during the holidays. The kind thing for you to do for me, I promise, is to tell me what you want, even if you think I won't like it. I can take it. I won't think you are being a jerk, or emotional, or pushy. I will say, "thank you."
If we all just tried to say what we'd like—kindly, respectfully, but honestly—then dealt with whatever discomfort might follow, what could happen? Could we ease the manic brains of millions? Of ourselves? Could we find out that, more cases than not, we can all agree on something that works for everyone, and when we don't, we can find a way to make further compromises on other issues so that each person gets a turn at maximum happiness?
Join me. One week. Say what you want. Really. It is a holiday gift to everyone. Then please share stories of either your past experiences with maddening indecisiveness or current discoveries with newfound outspokenness here, in the comments section, and watch tomorrow for a post on what I don't want for Christmas this year (in the spirit of sharing the truth.)