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Stop-Challenge-Choose: A Formula for Improving Work and Relationships

In their book, Play to Win!, Revised Edition: Choosing Growth Over Fear in Work and Life, Larry and Hersch Wilson offer a simple formula for changing how we respond to events around us: Stop-Challenge-Choose. Here's how to use it to reduce stress, reach a state of calm and improve your overall experience at work and in relationships.


Step 1: Stop

When something occurs (we also can call this a “triggering event”) that sends you into fits of depression, anger, or other non-productive, negative behavior, just stop. This is a full stop! Stop moving.  Stop thinking.  Stop driving. Stop doing whatever you were doing.

Breathe with this rhythm:


·     In for 7 seconds

·     Hold for 7 seconds

·     Exhale for 7 seconds


Do this three times.


That is roughly 1 minute to interrupt your body’s response to a trigger and through your breath, control your heart rate, and the chemicals flooding your brain.   Note that you are purposefully managing physiological change in your body.  (This has also been called“becoming the boss of your brain”.) THE BREATHING TECHNIQUE AND the process of moving into a calm state shifts your thinking management from the amygdala, a.k.a.the emotional brain, to thinking managed by the neocortex, the cognitive (rational) brain.


Another way of thinking about this is that you are interrupting your primal response to what your body might believe is a threat.  This response is commonly referred to as “fight or flight”, and while important when you are actually in danger, it usually doesn't help us when we need to think clearly and make a good decision in business or your personal life.


Once you are at calm, (if you aren’t feeling calm yet, do the breathing exercise again) take notice of what is going on---most importantly, the facts of the situation.  Our goal is to eliminate all your subjective responses and fear-based assumptions to get crystal clear on reality.


For example, a customer walks into your restaurant and complains about the service, threatening to write a bad review on the Yelp! App and tell everyone in the local community that he was treated poorly.  Before reacting with anger, fear, withdrawal, or any other non-productive emotion, stop (breathe: 7,7,7 x 3) and get clear on the facts of the situation.  The customer is complaining.  That's all you know at this point.


Step 2: Challenge


Now it’s time to examine and then challenge your thinking about the situation. 


Most of my coaching clients will "catastrophize" in a situation like this.  That means he or she will imagine the worst possible scenario and outcomes.  As humans, we automatically make up catastrophic future scenarios that have no basis in the reality that is in front of us. We do this because our mind believes that this strategy will protect us. It tells us that if we can predict and prepare for the worst, we will be able to handle anything that actually takes place in real life. Unfortunately, this usually backfires because emotions this extreme thinking evokes are intense, causing an emotional hijacking and potentially a response behavior that is erratic.  


Examine your thinking patterns. Do you naturally interpret situations negatively?  Do you lead with assumed negative outcomes? Do you envision the most extreme responses from other people, including failure in your job, business or a relationship? Do you confuse what is possible with what is probable?


The act of examining and then challenging your thinking is an important part of this process because the goal is for you to improve your outcomes and decisions. You do this by witnessing what is rational vs. irrational about your story.  Below is a very successful technique used in Cognitive Behavior Therapy to help you challenge the parts of the story.


Ask yourself the following three questions and if you answer “no” to at least three out of the five then you know your thought is irrational.


·       Is my thinking based on obvious facts?

·       Is my thinking going to help me protect my life and health?

·       Is my thinking going to help me reach my short and long-term goals?

·       Is my thinking going to help me avoid my most unwanted conflicts?

·       Is my thinking going to help me feel the way I’d like to feel? 


Step 3: Choose

Once you have challenged yourself, you most likely will notice alternative interpretations of the situation emerging.  By asking the questions and challenging your own thinking, you have given yourself a menu of options of what to “believe” as real.   Now you are free to consciously choose the interpretation that will lead you to take the most constructive next steps.


As you begin using this technique, you might consider journaling the results of your experiments with Stop-Challenge-Choose.  Journaling will enable you to reflect and absorb the learning for future use.

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