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The Leader's Battle Between Choice and Impulse

July 20, 2020

By Randy Hall


I yelled at a kid last night.  It’s one of the things that is really difficult for me to say in any kind of public forum because I’m not proud of it and I work really hard not to raise my voice at my kids.  There are times that I still do it though.

I know all the reasons that it doesn’t help.  I know that it’s not in any way supportive, or beneficial, or helpful in the moment.  I also know that it does absolutely nothing to help them make a better choice or change anything about how they think, even though that was really my goal with the conversation. Yelling doesn’t do that.  It just causes them to be more defensive, feel more alone and unsupported by a parent, more isolated in solving their problems or issues, and in general it really has no value.  I know those things, but I still yelled at a kid. 

I yelled because it was my impulse.  I yelled because I got angry at the kid and felt in the moment like I needed to exert my authority, overpower the conversation and force some kind of change.  All I got was a slammed door and an even more detached, disengaged kid. 

Leadership, in any setting, is a constant, almost never ending battle it seems, between what is in the person’s best interest and what we feel like doing in the moment. 

We can have great intentions, and then follow our less positive impulses instead sometimes.  It makes our job harder and their world more stressful. It moves us further from our actual goal instead of toward it, and we would often be better off not having the conversation at all when we allow our emotions, our impulses, and our own human insecurities to get in the way.

But we are, after all, human and the struggle between impulse and choice is glaring evidence of that, daily. 

There are some things we can do to make most of our interactions happen as our best self, but perfection probably eludes us here.  Nevertheless, doing the things we know we can, will mean that we get to count the times we follow impulse as outliers, not patterns. 

  1. Plan our conversations.  It is much easier to let our impulses guide our decisions when we weren’t ready for a discussion, hadn’t thought about it ahead of time, and started it off in a way that had no chance of success.

  2. Use questions more than statements.  They keep us and the other person in our executive brain more than our emotional brain and that helps.

  3. Practice.  We need to practice our preparation and our questions so that they are habits, because in the moment we will often retrieve habits more readily than intentions.

  4. Follow up.  When we do crash and burn, we have an opportunity to repair or even deepen the relationship by genuinely apologizing, not justifying, and calling ourselves out for being less than our best in that discussion. 

There is no foolproof plan for keeping our emotions from driving a conversation sometimes, and there are times we simply can’t or don’t execute these steps well.  We are never going to be perfect at disguising, corralling, suppressing or redirecting what are sometimes incredibly strong human emotions.  But when our goal is to help someone, rather than just get our stuff said and let them know how we feel, we have to build a process that makes us successful more often.

Make no mistake, there are times we just need to be heard and let people see our raw emotion in all it’s glory even if it doesn’t help the situation.  That’s probably a good thing as a human sometimes.  But let’s be clear - that’s about us, not about helping them.  We don’t have to lead every moment of our lives, but when we choose to, it’s important to have a set of tools that lets us do it well more often than not. 

My goal was to help, my actions didn’t.  And now if you will excuse me I have a kid to apologize to.  He deserves a dad that is willing to do that.

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