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Choosing wisely

It’s important to distinguish between the Downward Spiral and Radiating Possibility.

Choosing wisely
By being aware of our mindset in the moment as an open-minded observer of ourselves, we have the possibility of choosing.
In their national best-seller “The Art of Possibility,” authors Ben and Rosamund Zander describe two worlds that are completely different in nature: the Downward Spiral and Radiating Possibility. Because of our natural bias toward negativity, the Downward Spiral is the world that we ordinarily inhabit. Conversations (internal or external) that stem from this point of reference are based on the fear that we will run into brick walls and be unsuccessful, and they are often reactive to circumstances that appear to be wrong, problematic and in need of fixing. The Downward Spiral is a world of hierarchy and survival where we compete and struggle to maintain our position in relation to others. Downward spiral talk creates an irrefutable story about the limits of what is possible and convinces us that things are going from bad to worse. Do any of the following downward spiral statements sound familiar?
  • The veterinary profession is too slow to change.
  • Veterinarians are not good business people.
  • Corporate consolidators are ruining the profession and the livelihood of traditional practices.
  • Google is interfering with our ability to provide sound advice and services to pet owners.
  • We can’t find decent employees who are willing to work hard.
Fortunately, we can choose a different point of reference and, by doing so, improve both our outlook and our actual experience.

Committed to Learning

In contrast to the Downward Spiral, the world of Radiating Possibility prompts us to remain open, curious and committed to learning. As we introduced in our April/May column, it reminds us to accept the circumstances we’re faced with and work with them, not against them. Resisting things will never be helpful and likely will produce negative emotions and energy that are harmful to us and others. When operating from the world of Radiating Possibility, we realize we can tell a different story. Instead of meeting events with anxiety, defensiveness or resistance, we remain openhearted, at ease and in a state of contribution. In the world of Radiating Possibility, nothing is inherently good or bad; it is the story we tell ourselves about it that makes it so. It’s important then to be aware of the kind of conversation we’re participating in at any given moment and to distinguish between the Downward Spiral and Radiating Possibility.   Our default point of reference is critical because of two important principles we’ve learned from the field of appreciative inquiry:
  • What you focus on becomes your reality.
  • Humans and human systems move in the direction of the questions we ask, what we study and what we think about.
Downward Spiral thinking and talking come naturally. It happens automatically whenever things aren’t going exactly the way we want. But if left unchecked, our inherent focus on obstacles and problems allows them to multiply exponentially, keeps us stuck and limits our options for positive action. A Downward Spiral mindset leads to predictable results:
  • Defensiveness
  • Inflexibility
  • Inactivity
  • Being judgmental of self and others
  • Being reactive
  • Fearing differences
Developing a mindset of Radiating Possibility, on the other hand, requires discipline and practice — LOTS of practice. (Trust us on this!) The upside, though, is far greater and worth the effort. The world of Radiating Possibility is one characterized by:
  • Curiosity
  • Learning
  • Inspiration
  • Being accepting of self and others
  • Being responsive
  • Valuing differences

Constructive Change

So, how can we enhance our ability to think and speak from a Radiant Possibility mindset? In her book “Change Your Questions, Change Your Life,” Marilee Adams provides some sound guidance. Becoming more aware of and selective about the types of questions we tend to ask is one of the most empowering tools we have for creating constructive change. According to Adams, “Questions are at the very core of how we listen, behave, think and relate. Virtually everything we think and do is determined by the questions we ask.” At any moment we’re faced with two basic mindsets to choose from: judger or learner. Each mindset is associated with a fundamentally different set of questions. Learner questions are open-minded, curious and creative. They promote progress and possibilities, and they typically lead to discoveries, understanding and solutions. By contrast, judger questions are more closed-minded, certain and critical. They focus on problems rather than solutions and often lead to defensive reactions, negativity and paralysis. Learner questions facilitate progress by expanding options. Judger questions impede progress by limiting perspectives. Here are some examples of questions asked from each mindset:

Judger Questions

  • What’s wrong?
  • Why is this a failure?
  • How can I stay in control
  • and protect my turf?
  • How could I lose?
  • How could I get hurt?
  • Whose fault is it?
  • Who is to blame?
  • Why can’t they get it right?

Learner Questions

  • What’s right? What’s good or useful about this?
  • What are my choices? How can I help?
  • What can I/we learn from this?
  • What possibilities does this open up?
  • What am I responsible for?
  • How can we stay on track?
People intuitively recognize the value of a learner mindset but often find it difficult to enact. Consider the following process for shifting from judger to learner:
  1. Be aware. Ask: Am I in the judger mindset? Is that where I want to be? Will this get me the results I want?
  2. Explore choices: Where would I rather be? How can I get there? How else can I think about this? What assumptions am I making? How can I be more objective and honest? What am I missing or avoiding?
  3. Commit yourself to your choice and act on it. Judger and learner are both part of being human. We will always be a blend of both parts, moving from one to the other as we navigate through our lives.
The bottom line, according to Adams, is to “accept judger, practice learner.” By being aware of our mindset in the moment as an open-minded observer of ourselves, we have the possibility of choosing. And in choosing, we open up the possibility of shaping our results to be closer to what we really want. So, here’s to choosing wisely! Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services. Co-columnist Trey Cutler is a veterinary transaction attorney.