The Choices And Consequences Approach

People make choices all the time. The choices they make have consequences both for themselves and other people. Choosing not to do something is an option – but is also a choice.

Everybody experiences both successes and setbacks. The ways they choose to respond to these experiences can have a profound effect on their futures.

A person who achieves a success can celebrate for a while. They can then be complacent or use the success as a springboard towards continuous improvement.

A person who experiences a setback may need time to reflect. They can then choose to develop or dwell on the disappointment. They can be decisive and shape their futures or just drift.

Viktor Frankl described this approach in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. This described his harrowing journey through the Nazi concentration camps.

Surrounded by terror, he wondered how to make sense of this madness. Viktor concluded each person had the freedom to choose their attitude. He described this in the following way.

Man is not free from his conditions, but he is free to take a stand towards his conditions.

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Chance played an enormous part in the death camps, of course, but each person faced choices each day. Viktor describes how it was vital to look alert and ready to work. New arrivals found the ordeal began when the railway trucks drew into the camp sidings.

Recalling his own experience, he describes joining a long line which shuffled towards an SS Officer. The Officer looked at each person and casually pointed to the left or the right. Viktor explains: 

It was my turn. Somebody whispered to me that to be sent to the right side would mean work, the way to the left being for the sick and those incapable of work.

My haversack weighed me down a bit to the left, but I made an effort to walk upright.

The SS man looked me over, appeared to hesitate, then put both his hands on my shoulders, I tried very hard to look smart, and he turned my shoulders very slowly until I faced right, and I moved over to that side.

Viktor survived the Nazi camps, emigrated to America and worked as a psychiatrist. Working with suicidal people, he recognised the similarity between them and prisoners in the death camps. He recalled two prisoners who talked of taking their lives.

Both men used the typical argument: that they had nothing more to expect from life. The challenge was to show the men that life was still expecting something from them. Viktor continues:

We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person.

This was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.

The choices and consequences approach is strongly influenced by decision making theory and existential psychology. It can be used to help people to explore and expand their potential options for achieving their goals.

This approach is sometimes used in what can be called Choice Therapy. It is strongly influenced by existential psychology, reality therapy, logotherapy and the work of some self-help groups. The following section explores how it can be translated into action.

The Choice Therapy Approach

Choice Therapy, like all schools of therapy, it is based on certain assumptions about people. These involves encouraging people yet also expecting them to take responsibility for shaping their futures. 

Imagine that you are qualified to provide therapy sessions and that somebody has asked for your help. Here is an overview of some of the guidelines you may follow in your own way.

There are many ways to apply this approach. The follow pages describe one example of somebody I worked with several years ago.

Dave – Choosing To Improve
His Communication Style

Dave was several months into taking a leadership role in a high-tech company. The early signs were promising but then people began complaining about his communication style.

Whilst they admired Dave for his drive, they became upset about his mood swings and sniping. His home life was also deteriorating, especially the relationship with his teenage daughter. She was doing well in several school subject but he criticised her efforts in other areas.

Dave’s view was that his daughter had to get used to what he called ‘the real world’. But comparing her unfavourably to other classmates did not have the desired effect.

He approached me soon after receiving a warning from the company’s board. Whilst they believed in his business expertise, they were questioning whether his leadership style would get the best from the company’s knowledge workers.

Dave explained that, for one of the first times in his life, he felt like he was failing. He felt the need to take stock as a professional and as a parent. He had good intentions but these did not reflect in his communication style.

We explored his choices – the various routes – he could take in the future. Each route had consequences with both pluses and minuses For example:

He could continue to communicate in the same way but that may continue to produce the same challenging results;

He could try to improve his communication style in way that helped to achieve his personal and professional goals.

Dave had a strong personality and the way he expressed this had consequences. He could inspire or intimidate people. As with all decision making, the key question to answer was:

What set of consequences did he want?

Dave said he wanted to help people rather than hurt people. We therefore explored how he could improve his communication style. The involved focusing on the following steps.


Looking ahead, we clarified the real results he wanted to achieve when communicating with people. This involved focusing on his team members and daughter. Bearing this in mind, did the following exercises.

My Team Members

The actual words I would like the people in my team to be
saying about the way I communicate with them are these.

“Dave acts as a positive model. When communicating, he gives us the big picture and context. He outlines the strategies for going forwards in a way that encourages us to achieve them.

“He is not shy in presenting ideas for improvement. But he does this in a way that is supportive and provides us with practical ways we can get results.”

My Daughter

The actual words I would like my daughter to be saying
about the way I communicate with her are these.

“My Dad always supports me. When I ask him for help, he helps me to build on what I do well. He always listens to me. If I ask for advice, he shares his ideas in a way I can use.

“My Dad wants the best for me. Whilst I know he may have differing views from mine, I know he will always be there for me. He is a good friend who I know I can trust.”

Dave clarified the results he would like to achieve when communicating with his team members and daughter. We then moved on to the next stage.

Communication Style

Looking ahead, we explored the specific situations in which Dave would like to communicate with people. Looking at what he wanted to achieve in each of these, we focused on the following theme.

How could he communicate in a way that was most likely to achieve the desired results?

We began with his professional life and concentrated on an upcoming meeting with his team. How could he prepare properly and set things up to succeed?

This highlighted a key point regarding growth. People often find it easier to develop by building on their strengths rather than by attempting radical change – even though the outcome may appear to be change. Bearing this in mind, we focused on the following theme.

Building On His Strengths
As A Communicator

Everybody has successful patterns. Everybody has followed these at some point – even if only for a few moments – to achieve success. Taking this approach, we explored the following themes.

When did Dave communicate successfully? What did he do right then? What were the principles he followed? How could he follow those principles in other situations?

Dave’s successful pattern was clear. He was good at communicating with clients. What did he do right then?

He prepared properly. He clarified the results he want to achieve – such as helping the client to achieve success. He followed a certain structure when planning the meeting. He aimed to make the session as predictable as possible – this helped him to deal with any surprises.

He contacted the client ahead of time about what they wanted to achieve from the meeting. He rehearsed properly before the session. He behaved in a positive and professional way in the meeting. He made clear contracts about the goals to achieve.

He followed a certain script but was also fully present. He focused on helping the client to achieve success. He was patient and managed any triggers that could send him into a negative spiral. He aimed to make it a positive experience for everybody involved.

Dave could follow similar principles with his team members. This called for him to prepare properly, be positive and be professional. It also required him to be patient when faced by any unforeseen challenges.

Previously Dave often went into such meetings with all guns blazing. He began by pointing out people’s mistakes and then expected them to be open to ideas. This did not work.

The consequences were that people got scared. They stopped listening, stayed silent and waited for the meeting to be over. This approach did not encourage them to be proactive or focus on self-improvement.

Dave and I explored how he could translate the principles he followed with clients when working with colleagues. He wanted to create a positive environment but also get people to take responsibility. During the meeting he wanted:

To encourage people to focus on the team’s goals;

To communicate the key strategies the team could follow to achieve the goals – but to do this in way that also allowed people to add to them.

To encourage people to take more ownership for improving the team’s performance.

Dave was bright and intellectually he knew the best way forwards. But sometimes he got impatient and spoke without thinking. He could also be sarcastic and belittle people. This was followed by him feeling guilty.

Looking ahead, Dave needed a framework he could follow that would increase the chances of success. He therefore sent people an email that described the purpose of the session. This included giving them the following messages.

The Team Meeting Agenda

I am looking forward to our next team meeting on … Here are some of the topics I would like us to explore. Please feel free to add any other topics that it would be good cover.

The Team’s Goals

As you know, our goals for the year are:

To …

To …

To …

I will start by giving an update on our progress. Then I want us to do exercises on the following themes.

First, the specific things we are doing well that will help us to achieve the goals and how we can continue doing these things.

Second, the specific things we can do better – and how – to help us to achieve the goals.

Third, the specific action plan we can follow to do our best to achieve the goals.

As the team leader, I obviously have views on these topics. At the same time, however, I would like us to pool our ideas. Certainly I will share my ideas. But I try to do this in a way that encourages good conversations.

The aim will be to finish the session with clear action plan: a) that gives us a good chance of reaching the goals; b) that people have contributed to building.

We will also need mission holders who are prepared to take responsibility for delivering parts of the plan. It will be important to give these people the support they need to do the job.  

Let me know ahead of time if you would like to add any other items to the agenda. Look forward to seeing you at the meeting.

He sent the email and got a positive response. Several team members sent along topics to add to the agenda. This led to the next stage.

Concrete Results

Dave did his best to follow his successful communication style during the meeting. This involved following the framework he had sent to people ahead of time. It also involved him aiming:

To continue to be positive, professional and encourage people to contribute their ideas;

To keep focusing on the results to achieve, build on what the team was doing well and tackle areas for improvement;  

To conclude by producing the action plan – together with scheduled progress reports – for achieving the team’s goals.

Dave managed to follow these principles and the meeting proved successful. There were times, however, when he had to be patient and remind himself to be professional.

This involved recognising and managing any triggers that would result in him going into a negative spiral. He later reported:

“This was the most difficult part. I had to remind myself how I would behave with clients in such situations. I managed to keep my temper, however, and we found solutions. This was hard work but it was worth it in the end.”

During the following months Dave chose to build on his successful communication style. It wasn’t all plain sailing but eventually it paid off in both his personal and professional life.

There are many ways to live life. One approach is to focus on your choices and the consequences. Bearing this in mind, it can be useful to choose the route that produces the most positive consequences.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation where you may want to follow elements of the choices and consequences approach? How can you do this in your own way?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to complete the following sentences.

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