The Choice Tree and How to Use It

Let's face it. We're all reactive to some extent. Some people more than others. Some people do better at staying calm and remaining on an even keel than others. But even those who are rarely ruffled can describe instances in which they were not so cool, calm, and collected. They too, succumbed to reacting defensively.

Because of our human tendency to react defensively, I believe it is crucial that we learn to recognize our defensive reactions, develop the skills necessary to quiet our nervous systems, and learn to respond in a constructive manner. Years ago, when teaching folks about defenses and more specifically, how to shift from a defensive reaction to a thrive state, I drew a diagram which I immediately called, The Choice Tree. It is a simplified model of the complex neural firing that is going on in our brains when we get stressed and go into a survival state versus when we are on our game and are thriving.

The Choice Tree

Here's a brief explanation of the Choice Tree and how to use it.

Before the brain's appraisal system becomes engaged, adrenaline is running through our bodies. When an event occurs (which can be the result of an external or internal stimulus), information is taken in through the senses and is directed to a part of the brain called the thalamus. The thalamus then sends the message to two recipients simultaneously: the amygdala, which is our survival center, and the neo- cortex, which is where executive functioning occurs.

Though the information is sent simultaneously, the route to the amygdala is faster than the road to the neo-cortex. Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist who studies fear, calls this the 'low road.' It is faster for good reason. Since the amygdala's job is to keep us alive, it is more important that we determine if something is a threat sooner than later. Imagine if our neo-cortex got the message first and started deliberating, “Hmmm, I wonder if that is a stick or a snake. I don't see it moving.” Chances are, the snake would have struck before we got to the thought of “I don't see it moving.” LeDoux called the road to the cortex the 'high road.' The message that goes on the high road takes just slightly longer than the low road.

Since we're no good to anyone if we don't survive, it's better to err in the direction of thinking something is a threat and later finding that it is not than to think that it is not when in reality, it is. Daniel calls the former mistake a Type 1 error whereas the latter is a Type 2 error. It is also called 'negativity bias' and is crucial to our understanding and appreciation of how our brains work.

Getting back to the Choice Tree: When our amygdala appraises the situation (all outside of our conscious awareness) and determines that the situation is a threat, all kinds of stress hormones and neurotransmitters start flowing. You may have heard of cortisol, which is one of the primary stress hormones. When a threat appears, it gets us ready to freeze (which is one of the first lines of defense when a predator enters the scene), fight (if the predator doesn't go away), flight (if the predator stays around), or appease (which is seen as either tending to someone or befriending someone just enough to escape to safety).

As cortisol and other stress hormones stream through our bodies, we get tight, taut, and on edge. Not a good state from which to collaborate or innovate. When we are in this state, conversations easily go south. When one person speaks with a tone of voice that is even a tiny bit in a 'survive' state, others pick it up and react to it, all unconsciously. Their amygdalas are looking out for threat also and the voice is a dead give away.

If we react to the threat intensely and our nervous system becomes highly aroused, it takes a minimum of 20 minutes to have the stress hormones dissipate. The sooner we become aware that we are on the survive side of the tree, even a little bit, we can have a much better chance of quieting our nervous system, moving up the thrive side of the tree, and behaving in a way that will create more positive results. Conversations go better and are more effective, satisfying, and relational from the thrive side.

When we are able to do what a course participant called 'reactivity management' well and shift our consciousness to the thrive side, our brain sends signals to start releasing lots of feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters. Some of the common ones you might know are oxytocin (which nursing mothers have in spades), endorphines (which gets many people hooked on high levels of exercise), seratonin (which regulates mood and helps us feel calm), and dopamine (which gives us a high from the reward center of the brain). When we are flooded with these hormones, we feel joyful, more at ease, more optimistic, are better at solving problems creatively, feel more open, more relaxed, and generally report a sense of well-being. This is just the reverse of the experience with stress hormones.

From this state, it is much easier to listen to others, to respond rather than react, to make comments that are thoughtful and compassionate, to treat others as people rather than objects, and to connect deeply. It is also the state from which great brainstorming, innovation, and decision making occurs. The skill set necessary to shift from survive to thrive is necessary for anyone who works with others, who needs to communicate, and who works in a fast-paced, stressful environment. It is, I believe, a skill set we would all do well to cultivate.

The more facile you become in recognizing when you are starting to go into the survive mode, even just a little, the sooner you can shift into practices that take you to the thrive side. The practice this week focuses on noticing when you are starting to go into survive and then moving yourself into thrive. Practices that support thriving will continue through the month.

Enjoy and thrive! :-)

Judith Bell, M.S., Master LHEP™

Judith Bell, M.S., Master LHEP™

Judith is the founder and president of Rewire Leadership Institute®. A master facilitator, consultant, teacher, and coach, she has created and facilitated personal growth, team development and organizational change seminars, coached executives and teams, facilitated strategic planning and high visibility meetings, and supported culture change for over four decades. Judith works with a diverse range of companies from government agencies, non-profit, Fortune Global 500, to small and mid-sized family owned businesses including such organizations as NASA, Seaflow, Total Oil, Restoration Hardware, San Antonio Water System, and Culver Company.

Superb at supporting individuals, pairs, and teams in developing the skills necessary to realize their full potential, Judith helps executives, managers, and staff gain the ability to respond flexibly and rapidly to their changing environment. Through extensive experience and research, she utilizes a number of different approaches including the FIRO theory, systems theory, cybernetics, neuroscience, cognitive, positive, and success psychology.

As one of the world’s leading experts on the FIRO theory, she trains consultants internationally. A consultant’s consultant, Judith mentors facilitators, coaches, therapists and other professionals in the integration of the FIRO theory in their work. From 1981 until 2004, she worked closely with Dr. Will Schutz, the creator of FIRO theory. Independently, Judith developed FIRO Theory Profiling, which has been lauded as the first innovation in the FIRO theory instruments aside from Dr. Schutz’ own developments. She continues to develop courses that synthesize her studies and experience and are based in FIRO theory.

Starting in her teenage years, Judith has been a pioneer in her passion for authenticity, clear communication, and positive change. She is lauded for her ability to see others’ potential and help them realize it—be they individuals, pairs, teams, or organizations. Judith’s zest for life, appreciation for others, and generosity of spirit inspires those with whom she works.

An honor’s student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Judith’s desire and passion to learn about authenticity motivated her to move her studies to The Institute for Creative and Artistic Development (ICAD) in Oakland, California. As the youngest student in their teacher training program, she created and graduated with an undergraduate degree that focused on authenticity through California State University, Sonoma. Continuing on her quest to study authenticity and creativity, Judith began taking courses at California State University, Hayward where she also created and graduated with a unique Master’s degree that focused on communication, transformation, and the creative arts.

Interested in systems and change, Judith began experimenting with her innovative action-oriented approach to assess and intervene with families, groups, and organizations. Through this work, she became a much sought-after instructor, training masters and doctoral students in her seminal work. As chair of a psychology program focused on Creative Arts Therapies at Antioch University, San Francisco, she developed curriculum and continued to serve as guest faculty and lecturer at universities nationwide.

In addition to leading Rewire Leadership, Judith and her husband, Daniel Ellenberg, co-founded Relationships That Work®, where she serves as Vice President. She and Daniel co-authored Lovers for Life: Creating Lasting Passion, Trust, and True Partnership, which applies the principles of Rewire Leadership Institute® to romantic relationships. Recently, they co-authored a chapter in Mastering the Art of Success: Volume 8. With Matt White, Judith recently co-authored Leading with Courage.

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