‘World peace is none of your business’ – so runs the title of Morrissey’s latest solo album. It’s a title that made me smile and reminded me of Steven Covey’s concept of the circle of concern vs the circle of influence. World peace would be a good example of an issue that, for 99% of the population, is in the circle of concern i.e. an issue that we can choose to worry about yet over which we have little control. In contrast, Morrissey could have written a song called ‘Family peace is all of your business’ since, for 99% of us, family peace is a good example of an issue in Covey’s circle of influence – issues which we can influence if we choose to exert proactive behaviour.
According to Covey, proactive people focus on issues in the circle of influence, developing positive energy and confidence by making things happen and so gradually enlarging their circle of influence. In contrast, reactive people neglect the issues that are under their control and influence and grow increasingly bitter and frustrated as their circle of influence progressively shrinks. Hence the first habit in Covey’s global best-seller ‘Seven habits of highly effective people’ is ‘Be Proactive’.
Recently, I used this simple model from Covey in helping a coachee take the first step to achieve a courageous goal. The goal itself had been declared by the coachee quick as flash accompanied by a great deal of frustration that events were not progressing at a faster pace. Frustration is often a clue that focus is on the circle of concern rather than the circle of influence. In line with the challenging coaching approach, I asked my client how they could begin to move towards their courageous goal. What was the first step? In response, they replied that they needed someone to facilitate the change, someone to create space and time for them and someone to give them the opportunity. This was their frustration speaking from within the circle of concern.
I persisted in asking what else they could do to make a start towards their goal. Eventually, the frustration was spent, the client sighed and declared ‘I need to work smarter, I need to communicate more effectively, I need to clarify my role’. Now we had entered the circle of influence because all of these issues were in the control or influence of the client. Immediately, the energy shifted from frustration to empowerment.
Afterwards, I wondered about the sigh that preceded stepping into the circle of influence. What was that sigh all about? I have now termed it the ‘sigh of responsibility’ because I regard it as that moment that we realise that, as Covey said, ‘being proactive is about being responsible for our own lives….our behaviour is a function of our decisions not our conditions’. It’s a tough message. We’d all love someone else to wave that magic wand and make it happen, whatever ‘it’ is. When faced with daunting goals and irreversible decisions it is tempting to regress and seek out a suitable parental figure to whom we can outsource responsibility and later blame or praise accordingly. However, this is not the path that will lead to sustainable fulfilment in our lives.
We can re-state Covey’s maxim by saying that in very similar conditions people make very different choices. Each day our experience verifies that this is true. Some of us run for the bus, others don’t. Some of us drink tea, some of us drink coffee. Some of us say ‘yes’ and some of us say ‘no’. And these choices accumulate minute by minute, day by day, year by year. These decisions come to determine who we are, showing up as habits, prejudices and knee-jerk responses. This might be a bleak prospect if it were not equally true that it is never too late to stop worrying about world peace. It is never too late to sigh. It is never too late to assume responsibility and take that first step. Be proactive.