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How Sliding Doors Moments Can Give Us Better Outcomes

Do you ever wonder how different your life would be if you’d taken a slightly different path?

A potentially pivotal moment that dramatically changes the course of your life is sometimes referred to as a “sliding doors moment.” The name comes from a late 90s movie called Sliding Doors that depicts two different life paths based on whether a woman just makes it onto or just misses it onto a subway train. Her career, her romantic life, even her mortality all hinge on this one event.

Usually we think of “sliding doors moments” as big, dramatic decisions over which we have little control.

But smaller, more mundane moments can have a huge impact on life outcome as well. Thankfully, there’s a useful technique that can increase our chances of choosing the better outcome: pause-notice-choose.

The Pause - Notice - Choose Technique

Pause-notice-choose is a technique that helps us recognize how much control or agency we have in different situations, understand which details we should pay attention to, and make more informed decisions about how to act in the moment. It consists of three distinct steps:

  • Pause = Taking a breath and committing to taking stock of the situation.

  • Notice = Observing the situation, including how you feel/think/act, and how others are feeling/thinking/acting in the moment. What’s most important? What’s at stake? What’s the best outcome of this situation?

  • Choose = Deciding how you want to respond based on your desired outcome or highest priority.

Let’s look at an example.

You're having a hectic day at work when a colleague (we’ll call him Bill) comes by your office to ask you a question about a project you are both working on. However, you are busy working on something that has to be turned in before lunch….and it’s already 11:15. How do you respond?

Possible Response Path #1

Your reflexive response might be to hold up one hand and say in a flat tone, “Sorry, can’t right now,” while not looking up at Bill. You are in the zone and don’t want to be disturbed, plus you know Bill well, so you don’t think this chilly response will offend Bill. Unfortunately, Bill took your actions as you being dismissive, and interprets them as dumping your responsibility for the joint project onto him.

Because you didn’t pause to look up, you failed to notice that your colleague was in total distress: face flushed, hands jittery, acting very concerned. You also failed to notice that you had been feeling stressed all morning, and that this panic may have been clouding your judgment.

Your failure to pause and notice led you to choose a less empathetic response. And now the outcome of the situation is worse than it had been before. Bill is mad at you, and you’ll need to find time to repair that relationship and help him with the joint project. Not only that, the tension with Bill is yet another mental worry added to your already frazzled plate, making it even harder to concentrate on the immediate deadline in front of you.

All this collateral damage from responding reflexively instead of taking a moment to pause, notice, choose.

Possible Response Path #2

Sure, you are feeling rushed, but you and Bill have a great working relationship, and you are as accountable for the outcome of the shared project as he is. You pause for a moment to finish the sentence you’re reading, look up Bill, and take a deep breath. You notice that he is clearly in distress, and recognize that him coming to you for help must mean his concerns are serious.

These observations tell you that you need to help Bill - your relationship with a close work friend and the outcome of this shared project are at stake. You choose to tell Bill to come in and sit down. You do tell him that you are under a tight time crunch, though, so you only have 10 minutes right now. Otherwise, you could continue the conversation after your lunchtime deadline.

Because your response indicated empathy and concern for Bill’s needs, he immediately feels a bit better, and agrees to come back at 1:00. You’ve saved your bacon on a major project, and will have no trouble meeting your lunchtime deadline. You’re also proud to know that you strengthened your ties with Bill by showing your responsiveness to his panic; you know that Bill would have done the same for you (in fact, now that you think about it, he has been a vital support for you many times in the past).

Make Sliding Door Moments Work for You

We can’t determine which moments in our everyday lives are potential sliding door moments, which is why it’s so important to practice using Pause - Notice - Choose. The more we develop the habit of deliberately, thoughtfully responding to minor events in our lives, the better our outcomes will be. This is certainly easier said than done, which is why I use the word “practice.”

As much as we try to be thoughtful and empathetic to those around us, we all live in our own heads. It can be fatally easy to only consider our immediate concerns when reacting in a situation. We can all do better.

I encourage you to practice using pause-notice-choose. Think about a recent situation when you perhaps didn’t make the best choice in your response. What could you have noticed? How might this have changed your actions? What might the alternative outcome have been?

Pause - Notice - Choose is a powerful tool that can redirect the direction of our lives, moment to moment. Remember pause-notice-choose when you’re interacting with your colleagues today.


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