How to make better decisions under pressure

decision making powerful questions stress Feb 19, 2020

How many times have you walked away from a conversation or looked back on a stressful situation either minutes or hours after the critical moment only to think “WHY did I say X, not Y”, “I should have done this”.  You had “reaction remorse”.

80% of our decisions are intuitive, gut reactions and we tend to default to our own least effortful way of thinking about things. Neither of these promotes “good” decision making under pressure. Stress shifts the priority and bandwidth for processing things away from our prefrontal cortex - or logical, rational, creative, empathetic part - and into our emotional center... we will tend to "think" with our survival hat on.

Taking a few deep breaths can take us out of panic mode and into a more relaxed state, as well as buying us a bit of time and space to respond, but how do we re-engage the best part of our brain in a hurry?

One of the UK’s leading firefighters, Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, was so intrigued by how we can improve our decision making under pressure (for obvious reasons!) she did a Ph.D. in behavioural neuroscience to find answers. Her solution – ask yourself these 3 questions

“What do I want to achieve?  What do I expect to happen as a result?  How do the benefits outweigh the risks?”

These are great questions because they

  • Channel attention and focus on what is most important and the underlying goal.
  • Encourage active risk/reward assessment not just in the moment, but for the future (which usually holds less weight than now)
  • Look for alternatives to our defaults and assumptions
  • Foster creativity
  • Inspire action
  • Don’t seek to blame or judge (try to avoid questions that start with why) so don’t start a downward thinking spiral

Asking almost any question will force your more deliberate, rational brain back online … it's not something your emotional brain is that good at!  But this is a helpful structure to think about when coming up with your own questions.

A good way of finding questions that work for you is to turn “reaction remorse” into an opportunity. Don't beat yourself up with “coulda, woulda, shoulda” thinking. Instead, take a moment to come up with a question that would trigger a better decision, one that moves you closer to what is most important or the end goal.

Some of my favourite questions catalyze interaction between my intuitive and thoughtful thinking

  • "What would be another way of seeing this"
  • "What if my assumptions aren't 100% correct?"
  • "How would the best person I know (my superhero) look at this"
  • "In a week's time, what will I consider the most important outcome?"
  • "What is really at stake here?" 
  • "How will I know if this has been a success?"

What questions could you ask yourself under-pressure or in times of stress to take you closer to a “good decision”, to what is most important in the moment and longer-term? 

How could you practice asking questions under pressure, even on small things, so it becomes easier to do in moments of high stress? 

Share some of your favourite questions below.

You can read more about Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, and her book "The Heat of the Moment", here



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