Decisive Answers: How We Should Approach Our Responses To Others

photo by jd mason on unsplash

This past summer a colleague relayed to me the following story:

He was attempting to get his son involved in an upcoming family trip to the lake. It would be a few days of boating and wake boarding, and as the group packed and planned for the trip, he talked to his son about joining them for a weekend of fun in the sun and hanging out on the water. His son’s attitude was ambivalent, showing neither great enthusiasm nor great resistance about the idea. A paraphrase of the conclusion of their verbal exchange:

Dad: “Don’t you want to go?? Bring a friend along. It’ll be fun!”

Son: “Meh….maybe. I don’t know…”

After several days of attempts at persuasion, the son ended up staying home while the rest of the family went to the lake.

This lack of clear communication and a decision irritated my colleague greatly and he was flabbergasted by so wishy-washy an approach as his son’s attitude and answer. If the answer is “Yes”, then it should be a definitive, excited “Yes!”. As my friend put it, if it’s a “Yes” it should be a “Hell yes!”, and if it’s a “No” that’s fine, but it should be a definitive, straightforward “No.”, even a “Hell no!” Fundamentally, what my colleague desperately wanted from his son was a decisive and definite answer.

Hesitancy

Far too often, wishy-washy responses indicate our hesitant attitudes and lack of clear direction. We should work diligently to steer clear of both of these in our lives. If it’s something that we are excited about, then we should be energetic and committed. If it does not pique our interest or is not one of our priorities, then we need to be just as clear and decisive in our response as we steer clear of it.

Scripture talks about this need for clear communication in a variety of places, but two of the most well-known verses are Matthew 5:37 and Revelation 3:15–16. Matthew 5:37 instructs us with the following: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Anything more than a “Yes” or “No” comes from evil. The verse is giving us a warning: if you say “Yes”, then mean it and follow through on it with energy or say “No” and leave it at that. Above all, your answer has become your promise and your word given should be reason enough to follow through on your answers. And we should feel impelled and energetic about following up on our promises and the commitments that we’ve given.

Revelation 3:15–16 puts ambivalence and halfheartedness in more graphic terms: “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Just like tepid water is good for little, a wishy-washy attitude, lacking in commitment and energy, is useless and should be discarded. We need to guard our answers and attitudes, making sure they are not at the temperature of tepid water.

Wasting Time

There are real costs to being indecisive: it wastes time. And we should not waste time, either our own or that of others, with halfhearted answers. We need to respect them, and ourselves, by providing definite and clear answers to questions and requests. From my own experience, this lesson has been hard learned: over the years I developed an annoying habit of not wanting to give a definitive answer to an inquiry, a suggestion, or an invitation for fear of causing annoyance or offense. In fact, it was offensive and annoying not to provide that clear answer. In my desire to not cause offense, I was being disrespectful of others’ time, wasting it as they awaited a definite answer from me, typically on questions that should have been quickly and easily resolved.

Stop Trying to Please Everyone

Another cost with indecisive answers: an erosion of respect in the eyes of others. Everyone respects honesty and a straight-answer, particularly if it’s delivered respectfully and clearly. Even if it’s not the answer they would like, they appreciate knowing where they stand and having clarification. Our problem now is that we are so used to halfhearted answers and ambivalence, that a clear and straightforward answer comes across as rude, blunt, and selfish. Most of us naturally steer clear of conflict, and we like it when others are happy with us, so we couch our answers in caveats and wordy explanations (Matthew 5:37 could also be applied to the brevity of answers). We are not going to be able to say “Yes” to everyone and everything in life; we should make our peace with that, stop trying to please everyone, and instead focus on providing others clear communication and responses.

Creating Decisiveness

Decisiveness and clarity of language is a learned skill; none of us arrived in the world with our mind made up or armed with the words to express ourselves. To facilitate providing definitive answers, we need to make up our mind, in advance, about what is important to us. This will influence how quickly and firmly we can make decisions in the moment. Some of us are naturally more decisive than others; for others, this can be a learned mental skill. We need to train our brains to value being clear and definitive, to value communication, and to appreciate the resolution that a decisive answer brings. If we know our priorities and have decided how we want to spend our time and resources, then when questions arise in the moment, the pathways to a decision are already established, facilitating decisiveness.

Out of the blue this past week, a friend called and asked if I could help him move a variety of appliances out of his basement, obviously a two-man job, and it needed to be completed that same night. This was not on my radar or schedule for the day; it would be an extra stop and alter my own plans, but the reality is that my decision about this request had been made weeks, months, perhaps even years ago. In my thinking, I had already prioritized community, contributing to that community, and being helpful where I could. The request was not an inconvenience but an opportunity to be engaged in one of my priorities and a definitive answer of “Yes, I’ll be over within the hour” was easy to give.

But let’s not be misguided and think that every request or situation is urgent and needs to be addressed immediately; many things deserve further consideration and take some time. The value of decisive responses should not be confused with the mere speed of reply.

Choosing The Delivery

So often it’s not only the words we use but how those words are delivered. Several responses (paraphrased) that we should look to steer clear of when responding to others include:

“I guess…”

“I suppose…”

“Okay…”

Oftentimes these words are delivered with a tone that obviously lacks commitment, energy, or enthusiasm. Their delivery belies an attitude which would actually like to say “No.” but lacks the conviction (for whatever reason) to do so. Such a lackluster tone and delivery are counterproductive, providing neither party with resolution.

As mentioned above, not every decision or response needs to be made immediately in the moment. Some alternative, definitive responses that are clear and straight-forward, while still providing room for further consideration before a final answer are:

“Let me think on it and get back to you.”

“I’ll need some more time to consider that.”

This all sounds self-evident except that too often it’s missing in our everyday lives and we lack a deliberate practice and habit which fosters definitive answers. Communication is both sending and receiving. We should be aware of our speech, our tone, and our body language, and know that each is being received by the other person to reinforce the answer we are attempting to convey.

The Importance of Words

Language is the vehicle that we use to express ourselves; it is the body that we give to our attitudes and outlook, the face that we present to the world about our thoughts and opinions. We need to be careful with our words and our responses because they also act as a feedback loop to influence our actions. If our words are lackluster, uncommitted, and nebulous, they may indeed be symptomatic of an outlook that matches it. If our responses lack clarity, there is a good chance that so do our priorities.

There is also a level of excitement with being alive, being involved, and doing things. It’s easy to lose sight of this excitement; often our days are heavy with routines and repetition. But when one’s responses are “Yes!” and “No.”, delivered with excitement and confidence, it provides us–and others–with value.

Moving Forward:

Do you tend to answer others with a firm and enthusiastic “Yes” or “No”?

If not, what’s holding you back from doing so?

Originally published at fjwriting.com on September 18, 2018.