In my professional and personal life, I’ve adopted a framework for facing emotionally charged decisions. The next time you have a challenging decision to make, here are five things you can do to work through the choice.

Recently my wife, Stacey, and I had to make an agonizing decision about what to do about our 10-year old beloved cat, Ajax, who was experiencing some significant health issues. This past month, he suddenly stopped eating and drinking, creating obvious cause for concern.

We took him to the vet and she ran a battery of blood tests, worked up x-rays, prescribed an appetite stimulant, anti-nausea med, and trained us on administering subcutaneous IV fluids and feeding him through a syringe to get his necessary calories.

We thought it might be the end of the road, and then he suddenly rebounded within a week’s time of starting these new treatments. He began eating and drinking again, his x-rays came back clear, and the vet identified a calcium issue that could be addressed with medication. During the weeks that followed, his energy returned and he seemed to be his normal self.

We had hope. And then a month later, without warning, he began exhibiting respiratory issues. After a nearly all-nighter in the emergency veterinarian clinic, and a follow-up next morning visit to our veterinarian, she discovered his lungs had filled with fluid and a sizable mass she speculated was an aggressive cancer.

She laid out the options and the risks, and was honest with us that with his pre-existing conditions, the prognosis would likely not be good. We were shocked. This was not at all what we expected. After all, he seemed to be in good spirits and health, relatively speaking, by most outward appearances. We struggled with the cognitive dissonance this new information created for us.

I asked what she would do if he were her pet. Ironically, she had experienced a nearly identical situation with her dog a number of years ago. She pulled up his x-rays and shared them side by side with Ajax’s. It was uncanny the similarity in the case. She attempted to treat her pet, she told us. And then, she added that if she had known then what she knows now, she would not have put her dog through that treatment path that didn’t end well.

We were heartbroken. We felt cognitively clear on what we needed to do, but our emotions swirled. I drove home, staving off the tears so that I could bring my daughter to be with us when we said goodbye to Ajax. We Facetimed our son, who was out of state. We all sat and spent time with Ajax, and held him, and softly shared our tearful goodbyes until he was at peace.

Why am I sharing this vulnerable story with you? We all have difficult decisions to make from time to time in our various life’s contexts. As grieved and reflected upon this situation, I couldn’t help but see parallels in a particularly challenging professional situation an executive client recently experienced within their organization.

My client recently needed to pull funding on a generally popular initiative within the company because it became clear it was not serving the intended purpose. The decision they needed to make was clear. But, as is often the case, it didn’t make it any less painful or difficult, particularly since there would be personnel ramifications.

In my professional and personal life, I’ve adopted a framework for facing emotionally charged decisions. The next time you have a challenging decision to make, here are 5 things you can do to work through the choice.

Get altitude from the situation

When you are in the middle of a challenging situation, remove yourself from the immediate urgency. Find a way to step back from the emotional intensity of it all.

At 2 am, when we were at the emergency vet clinic, it was clear that we were tired, emotional, and not capable of clear thought. After Ajax’s situation had been stabilized, we chose to call a timeout. We took him back to our normal vet when they opened in the morning, after we had some sleep to clear our minds.

Similarly, in my client’s situation, they took the emotional time and space to step back from the day-to-day situation to gain perspective.

Get other perspectives / seek support

When you have this time and space, trusted advisors can help you consider various options and provide further clarity on which options might be most prudent, given the circumstances.

Our vet not only had the clinical expertise to advise our decision making process, she had also walked through it herself. This made her objective perspective particularly helpful in that moment.

Similarly, my client sought confidential counsel from trusted colleagues who were tuned in to the situation. They corroborated his perspective and helped him process his thinking and clarify the best course of action.

Consider whether you’ve normalized something that shouldn’t be normalized.

Ask yourself, what might someone new to the situation make of it?

We are complex, resilient, and adaptive creatures who do a great job at acclimating to new and changing circumstances. So much so, that if we aren’t careful, we can normalize toxic or dangerous circumstances.

In the case of Ajax, his outward symptoms initially stabilized with the new treatments and created a perception that everything was going to be okay. But the additional tests suggested a very different clinical reality.

Similarly, in my client’s situation, because this initiative had garnered a lot of attention and was generally popular conceptually, it was easy to overlook the fact that it wasn’t meeting the desired performance metrics to remain sustainable. Unfortunately, the longer this initiative was left unchecked, the more challenging the associated personnel decisions became. It was a proverbial “frog boiling in water” situation.

Consider the options and the associated implications

Once you’ve gained some space and additional perspective, play out the various options and their implications. While optimism and hope are powerful forces, it’s important to objectively consider the circumstances and play out different scenarios. Consider both the potential upsides and downsides to a given decision tree.

Take decisive action and move forward with the intention of creating the healthiest solution possible

We are complex emotional beings and, as such, it’s normal to experience a whole host of emotions around challenging decisions. It’s okay and healthy to permit yourself to grieve a particularly difficult decisions. Mindful reflection is one thing. But, once you make a decision, commit to your chosen course of action and be careful not to ruminate or relitigate the past. Sometimes no good decisions are available—make the least terrible bad decision and commit to it. Some ambiguity may remain. Don’t ruminate once you’ve done your due diligence and made your call.

In closing, making the decision is almost always the most difficult point of a process. Once a decision has been made, we can begin to move forward. Do so with a commitment to make the best of the situation and the associated outcomes. Your mindset is a powerful force that can either serve to sabotage your decision making, or enhance it. Commit to the latter as you seek to apply this framework to your next challenging decision.

Patrick Farran

Patrick Farran

Co-founder and CEO

Patrick’s 25+ years as a senior organizational leader and consultant, with specialties in change management, systems/process improvement, culture transformation, and employee engagement, spans multiple industries (professional services, government, healthcare, education, non-profits, manufacturing, financial services, insurance, high-tech, and energy), and organizations from start-ups and non-profits, to mergers and acquisitions, to established global organizations and Fortune 100’s. Prior to founding Ad Lucem Group, Patrick served as Director of Consulting for the SAS Institute serving state and local government agencies, educational institutions, and health care organizations. In addition to his work with Ad Lucem Group, Patrick currently serves as Associate Director for Graduate Business Career Development within the University of Notre Dame where he teaches and mentors students in the consulting/strategy and entrepreneurship concentrations within the full-time MBA program and serves as a mentor to start-ups through Notre Dame’s IDEA Center as well as the 1871 and Workbox start-up communities in Chicago.

Learn more about Patrick here.

Let’s Grow Together

Sign up for our email list to receive updates on exclusive offers and tips on how to be an influential leader. No spam, we promise.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.