This is the true story of a recent backcountry hike I went on in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in northwestern Montana.
As I hiked around another bend on a seemingly endless climb, I saw a woman coming down the mountain, the first person I had seen all day. But something seemed off. I noticed she was limping, badly, and trying to use a stick as a trekking pole. I winced to make out her facial expression: she was crying, or trying really hard to hold back tears.
We were deep in the backcountry of Montana.
What happened next is a series of choices, by myself and others, that highlights the complexity of making decisions – of priorities, vulnerabilities and more – and the potential for changing one’s mind.
Injured, Alone and Afraid: Decision Making In the Wilderness
A tale of strangers deciding to – or deciding not to – help a young woman in a pretty bad situation in the mountains. And the light it sheds on the decision making process that we all go through every day.
I’ll Be Fine, Really: The Decision to Help and Accept Help
I had been thinking about turning around for about a mile. I wanted to make it to this glacial lake tucked away in the mountains, but I had already been walking up switchbacks for a couple hours – on a rough, rocky path. I stopped for a drink and to soak in the mountain views, and decided to keep going at least a little further, and that’s when I saw this woman limping along.
She looked up at me and stopped as I got closer.
“Hi,” I said gingerly, “I’m Michael. What happened?”
“Sarah,” she said, sniffling. “I took a tumble and sprained my ankle.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, grimacing. There is hardly a worse place to sprain an ankle. And as I looked down, I could see her ankle had already started to swell. She couldn’t put hardly any pressure on it, and she had picked up a random stick to use as a trekking pole.
“Do you have any aspirin?” she asked, again trying to hold back tears.
“I don’t think so, but let me check,” I said, setting down my backpack to rummage through it. Even though I knew I didn’t have any, I had some sort of hope that some would magically appear. I felt so bad for her. “No, I don’t, sorry… but I am happy to help you get back.”
“No,” she said, without any hesitation, “I’m fine, really. I should make it back by dark.” Both those points seemed very debatable to me. She had about 7 miles to go, down rocky switchbacks, and couldn’t put weight on her left leg. She would probably make it, but only after enduring a lot of pain.
We both stood there in silence, unsure of what to say or do. She broke the silence.
“Are you going up to the upper lake?” she asked. I nodded. “You should finish your hike,” she insisted. “Just let me slip by you here.”
And, for a moment, I let her go by me, limping badly. I wanted to believe her, that she was and would be okay, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary.
But then it hit me: this is a moment of choice. I have a decision to make here, and is this the one I want to be making?
I stood there and thought about something I heard Josh Freedman say at the EQ Facilitator Training in June: “We make a lot of to do lists, but should we make more to be lists?”
That had really resonated with me because I really, really love to do lists. And I live in a culture that prizes busy-ness and getting things done, so I doubt I am alone on that. And certainly, that morning I had made it my goal to do this difficult hike to the lake, and I am very driven by my goals. That’s why I decided to keep trudging up the mountain right before I met Sarah. She recognized that and didn’t want to keep me from crossing it off my to do list.
But I had to ask myself: who do I want to be today, and is that more important than what I want to do? What’s on my to be list?
I want to be empathetic. Loving. Kind. Not someone who prizes finishing a hike over helping an injured person in a tough situation. So I walked down to catch up with her, which didn’t take long – she hadn’t made much progress.
“Look, I can’t let you go down like this. Let’s do it together.” She grudgingly accepted, and I have to applaud her. She made a decision to allow me to help her even though that seemed really difficult for her, to be vulnerable with a complete stranger. But she did, and down we went. At first, she kept using her makeshift trekking pole, and we chatted a little bit. Then I offered my shoulder as a crutch, and she accepted. Within a minute, I realized what a long trek we had before us, at this pace. It was already 3 pm, and even with the endlessly long summer days of Montana, we’d be lucky to make it back by dark. But that didn’t really matter. Thinking about my to be list had opened me up to empathy, and I felt grateful to be making the decision I had made.
But then things took a turn, and another turn, that neither of us saw coming.
Hey, Bear! What Will You Decide to Protect?
As we walked, we heard a sound coming from behind us. “Bear,” I thought immediately, and I calmly yelled, “Hey bear!” to avoid a surprise encounter. (A big thanks to Colby, my friend who works in Yellowstone and made sure I knew how to hike safely in Montana) But then the sound got closer, and it wasn’t a bear, it was … horses. And not only horses, but 7 horses and only 3 riders, probably a group coming back from dropping off supplies at a backcountry camp. It seemed too good to be true.
The riders, with really sharp looking cowboy hats and belts, stopped and chatted. Sarah asked if she could get a ride back down, clearly relieved. The guy who was in charge hesitated, and hesitated, and seemed uncomfortable. “Look, we’d love to help,” he started, “but we can’t. We’re with an outfit and everyone who rides a horse with us needs to sign a liability waiver. And we don’t have any on us. Sorry. Good luck.” And they continued on their way.
We stood there, stunned. I felt indignation rising up inside of me. “A liability waiver? Are you bleeping serious?” Sarah didn’t say a word, but the look on her face said it all. They decided to protect their policy, and their jobs, instead of a person in need. The priorities there are clear. “We can’t” is a way of giving up the power of choice, to excuse oneself from accountability.
I felt so angry, but in retrospect I have to admit… don’t we all do that? Edit ourselves, limit ourselves, paralyze ourselves with what we can’t do, about decisions we can’t make?
How often do I not take care of myself, and my wellbeing, and come up with a thousand excuses for why I can’t?
When the dust from the horses settled a bit, we started again, limping along.
“That seemed so perfect…” I started to say, and just at that moment, the cowboy came back up the trail, this time on foot. “Look, we’re happy to take you, but we have to do a verbal liability waiver. Can you be the witness?” he said, nodding at me. “Of course,” I said, and he went into a very professional and detailed liability waiver. When Sarah agreed, he said, “Okay, come on. The horses are tired anyway and they have riders all the time. You’ll be fine.”
Sarah and I hugged, she said thank you, and she went on her way.
A verbal liability waiver… That’s what made the difference and got Sarah, and myself really, out of a very difficult situation. But the fact that they moved from “we can’t” to “here’s what we could do…” felt like an enormous, inspirational shift. It obviously solved our predicament, and it made me ask myself more generally:
It’s easy to think we can’t, but what if we can? What if we could try again… decide again? How would the world look if a lot more people felt empowered to do that?
And it turns out, my decision to change my mind and not let her go by me and the riders’ decision to turn around and help her have something very important in common. And that commonality can teach us a lot about the decision making process and the scientific secret behind changing one’s mind.
The Science of Making Decisions
Research from Cornell University has found that when people decide to change their minds, it’s often because of some new information that comes to their attention. I can imagine the riders going down, questioning the decision they had made, and someone saying, “What if we did a verbal liability waiver?” And it was just that new bit of information that changed their minds and led to a different decision.
And when I let Sarah limp past me, remembering that advice about to do lists versus to be lists is what served as a new data point that changed my mind. Basically, new information helps us reevaluate and reprioritize. That is probably why exercising optimism is the EQ competency most highly predictive of good decision making, because it helps us see new perspectives and brings new information to light. This finding on optimism and decision making, by the way, is appearing in print for the first time right here, and it’s forthcoming in the State of the Heart 2018 research about emotional intelligence around the globe. Has EQ continued to decline? Is it particularly in peril some places, but not others? What other skills besides optimism are highly predictive of good decision making? If you want to stay up to date and read the State of the Heart when it’s first published, you can subscribe here.
The whole experience of this series of decisions in the Bob Marshall Wilderness highlighted for me the importance of checking in with myself and taking a moment to go through the following process when I am making decisions:
I ask myself:
What options do I have? What are the pros and cons of each? And what do I really want here?
These activate 3 emotional intelligence skills that ultimately lead to better decisions:
To make optimal decisions, it’s essential to generate multiple options to consider. According to research from Ohio State University, generating at least 3 options leads to better decisions. This is the EQ skill of exercising optimism. Learn more about Exercise Optimism.
Apply Consequential Thinking
Once you generate options, the next step is to evaluate them. And the advice to keep emotions out of it is officially outdated and harmful. Instead, ask yourself: How does each choice make me feel, and what is that telling me? Learn more about Consequential Thinking.
Pursue Noble Goals
As you weigh your options, it’s a great opportunity to connect the current decision you’re making – whether it’s big or small – to your bigger purpose. Does this get me closer to the world I want to be in, the legacy I want to leave? Learn more about Pursue Noble Goals.
At the end of the day, that is emotional intelligence at work. Blending thinking and feeling to come up with an optimal outcome. And even if a bit haltingly, this is what everyone did that day to get Sarah safely off the mountain.
Here’s to making the right call, even if it’s necessary to decide and then decide again…
Decision making insight: people often change their minds due to some new piece of information they come across. The key to making good decisions is to actively question if there are more options or ways to see a situation, evaluate them, and connect it to a bigger purpose.
Have you ever changed your mind because new evidence surfaced? Or do you have a story about a stranger deciding to help you when you were in a tough spot?
If so, share your story below in the comments.
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