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How to Improve Your Decisions by Recruiting Your Own Small Council

A lesson from therapy that everyone can use

Ryan Engelstad
Aug 10, 2017 · 8 min read
Bring some more people to the table. Photo: Breather on Unsplash

a therapist, I often work with client situations that seem tougher than the situations I think I’m going through in my own life. But sometimes that’s where the best tactics and solutions come from.

The “small council” tactic might be timely because of Game of Thrones, but I first used it at a substance abuse facility that had originated as a therapeutic community (TC). This type of community emphasizes social learning and mutual self-help, wherein individual participants take on some of the responsibility for their peers’ recovery.

The approach at the facility was to inform a client that their decision-making privileges had been revoked.

Now, before you get all concerned about this being cruel and unusual, it was more of an intervention as thought exercise than actual punishment.

There were no consequences for clients who “made their own decisions.” The point was more to get them to notice how often they made decisions and who they could seek council from to help them make better ones.

The intervention would proceed as follows:

  • I would discuss with the client the (usually obvious, based on some rule-breaking behavior) poor decisions they had made.
  • I would ask what would happen if their decision-making privileges were revoked.
  • Who would they ask for input about what they should be doing each day—each hour, even? Who would they ask about when they should wake up, when and what they should eat, when and how they should exercise, who they should socialize with?

Chances are the client rarely, if ever, consulted others on these decisions. So I would suggest that while I didn’t expect them to ask someone for advice on every single decision they made, they should look for opportunities to consult with people, especially people they see as having accomplished something they want.

For example, I would ask my clients which of their friends eats the healthiest, or which was the most productive, or who has been the most successful at advancing through the program. Those friends might then form their small council.

Inevitably, in our next interaction, the client would share that this tactic was “annoying” or “frustrating” because they didn’t realize how many decisions they made throughout the day. They also typically didn’t realize how embarrassing some of their unconscious eating or socializing habits were.

“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” — Helen Keller

I can relate to this, because I know I would benefit from handing my eating decisions over to a dietitian. But I also know a dietitian would probably have me make a food journal, which would make me confront my frequently poor food choices. So instead of using the advice of a professional, I continue making bad decisions.

The resistance to getting advice melts away, however, once you have it.

This tendency was researched by Sean Young, PhD, and documented in his book Stick with It. In his discussion on the importance of community being a factor in behavior change, Young gives the example of gay men who were at high risk for HIV but didn’t get tested for various stigma reasons.

Obviously, avoiding getting tested was a bad decision they were making on their own, but when these men joined an online men’s health group called HOPE, they started connecting with people going through similar situations who could relate and give them advice. Young shared a story about one young man named Jordan:

Before joining the group, Jordan wouldn’t have gotten an HIV test and would have thought it would have been the end of his life—literally—if he tested positive. But because of his involvement in the HOPE community, he was able to psychologically deal with it when he tested positive, and has stayed involved in the community as they help him stay healthy.

This community is dealing with a very serious health risk, yet the tactic is applicable to goals large and small. Your behavior improves based on the qualities of the people around you.

We don’t have to go at our decisions alone. Think about your friends or family members who have had success in different areas of their lives. Chances are they may be more than happy to share what worked for them and may even be willing to help you find the same success. Two or three people like this, and you have yourself a small council capable of guiding you in important decisions big and small.

One particularly successful individual who I believe would support the benefits of having a small council is Ramit Sethi, the hugely successful author and personal finance guru behind I Will Teach You to Be Rich who has expanded his course offerings into things like helping people find their dream jobs, improve their social skills, and even start their own businesses. Throughout his courses, and especially in his regular emails, Sethi consistently mentions his mentors and people he consults with on a regular basis, people like author and consultant Jay Abraham, behavior expert B.J. Fogg, and his gym trainer.

Here is an exchange between Sethi and his trainer that exemplifies the importance of a small council and why we make terrible decisions on our own:

A while back, my trainer and I were working on a pretty advanced workout plan: 2 brutal workouts on Monday — twice in one day — then I was supposed to do 2 again on Tues.

I texted my trainer Tuesday afternoon:

“Legs killing me, can we move to Wed night”

My trainer wrote back:

“Come in anyway, let’s do it.”

My trainer is a positive guy, so this text surprised me. I shook my head and hobbled to the gym. That evening, I had one of the best workouts of my life.

My takeaway: Sometimes, it takes someone to push you to the next level.

Left to his own, Sethi would have canceled his workout and missed out on one of the best workouts of his life. We can replicate this exact experience through consulting with people in our own circles who have experienced the success we are after.

Picking Your Own Small Council

I wouldn’t go around just asking anyone to “be in your small council,” unless they are a Game of Thrones fan, in which case they might be flattered.

Instead, I would start by making a list of people close to you who have experienced success in specific areas of their life. Areas to think about might be:

  • Diet
  • Exercise routine
  • General productivity
  • Career success
  • That really calm person who never seems stressed
  • Other areas of personal interest to you

Then, acknowledge to them that you are impressed by their success in that area of their life and that you’d like to pick their brain about what has helped them. If they are receptive to this request, you could proceed with asking them if they would mind if you reached out to them from time to time with questions or requests for feedback. Not everyone will be so willing to share their success or time. You might have to make it worth their while by taking them out for a meal or by offering them insight into a skill or area of expertise of your own.

One caveat to this practice would be if you are a person who is prone to anxiety or needing reassurance. This may not be an appropriate form of support, at least not yet. I have worked with patients who need frequent reassurance for a variety of reasons, and while it might feel helpful to have a small council to get this reassurance, we should think of the small council more as a resource for expertise and less as an anxiety antidote.

Your small council should be people you are asking things like “I’ve struggled picking a diet to follow—what made you choose yours?” instead of “Can you help me decide what to eat for dinner tonight?” In other words, they should be helping more with big-picture processes and less with day to day decisions.

Starting Can Be as Simple as Texting a Friend

Small council, ASSEMBLE!

As you can see in the above text message threads, this is something I have put into practice myself. What I learned from this process is that people willing are to help, and asking can lead to really valuable discussions that not only helped me make decisions in important areas of my life but also led to fascinating discussions I might not have had otherwise with these people.

I chose people—family and friends—who have skills that I feel I lack for one reason or another, either due to unfamiliarity or difficulty staying consistent. Having access to these “experts” will help me build those skills.

Additionally, I can certainly advocate for the benefit of having a paid professional with whom you can seek counsel. We therapists often have group supervision to help us get mutual support and guidance on particularly difficult cases. There is a reason the president has a cabinet and that is he or she can’t be expected to fulfill all of their duties and supervise every single executive department at the same time. Well, maybe we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be able to manage all of our own day-to-day responsibilities alone, either.

“None of us is as smart as all of us.” — Ken Blanchard

So, whether your council is made up of family, friends, co-workers, mentors, a paid coach/therapist/trainer, or other medical professionals, using them for feedback and advice will go a long way toward meeting your goals and making better life decisions.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Ryan Engelstad

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Therapist writing about mental health and behavior change. Check out my podcast, Pop Psych 101:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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