What’s Wrong with Picking Your Battles?

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It seems virtuous, disciplined — wholesome, even. But is the time-honored conflict-avoiding technique of ‘picking your battles’ causing more problems than it solves? Here’s why picking your battles has a dark side.

A Common Sense Response to a Common Problem

Again and again, in discussion with clients and friends alike, I hear the same story over and over. It usually goes something like this:

“So I was having this problem with Bob. He’s always slurping his coffee in the next cube over from mine. It’s driving me batty.”

“And what did you do about it?”

“Oh, I decided to ‘pick my battles.’ I won’t say anything unless he really ticks me off.”

That last line is usually delivered with a sense of pride. The speaker has turned the other cheek, demonstrated forbearance, made nice. Picking your battles seems like a virtuous action. It certainly requires self-discipline. However, as wholesome as this tactic seems, I’d like to point out a dark side. A few days later, I’m chatting with the notorious coffee-slurper, Bob.

“Wow…Amy just went off on me for no reason!”

“No reason? Really?”

“Well, maybe not exactly. She said she couldn’t stand the way I was sipping my coffee.”

“OK, so that’s what she was upset about.”

“Yeah, but that makes no sense. I drink my coffee like that every day and I’ve not had one complaint from her until now. It’s got to be something else.”

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From Bob’s point of view, Amy wasn’t taking the high road, or showing forbearance. Bob interpreted Amy’s silence as a signal that his behavior was just fine with her. Then, out of nowhere, she bit his head off for doing what he always does as a matter of course.

Feedback is Golden

How much better the world would be if we replaced the phrase pick your battles with give false and inconsistent feedback! What the latter version lacks in grace it makes up in accuracy. The core issue with ‘picking your battles’ is that silence is the most ambiguous signal imaginable. Silence can mean almost anything from approval to resentment. Worse still, silence is the signal we get most of the time from most people. Ask workers how they know if they’re doing a good-enough job at work and the answer is often “nobody complains”.

Rather than waiting for problems to become acute before complaining, I would like to recommend giving feedback all the time. If you’re used to communicating only when the situation is about to spiral out of control, then constant feedback may seem exhausting. Yet constant feedback is easy feedback. Once the feedback habit is ingrained, it can become nearly effortless. Your car’s engine makes a specific sound when it’s running right. It’s giving you feedback all the time. Yet you never need to give it more than the slightest sliver of attention unless the sound changes, suggesting something may be out of tune with your car. Similarly, just a smile or a few words are more than enough to affirm that everything is indeed all right. Pointing out problems when they occur requires just a bit more skill, but need not lead to harshness or hurt feelings.

Disagreeing Agreeably

People avoid feedback because it is often equated with criticism or conflict. This is a shame because so many people are hungry for quality feedback, whether positive or negative. The key word in the previous sentence is quality. Quality feedback means letting people know how their choices affect others. Generalized praise (or condemnation) fails to make the grade because it never points to a specific effect of a decision the recipient made. Consider, “You’re always late with your reports” as opposed to “When your reports are late, Accounting sends me nastygrams about it.” The first version neglects the material effects of late reports. Likewise, “I’m confused by your reports” versus “When you give me spreadsheets without analysis, I have a hard time understanding your reports.” This time, pointing out the specific choice and behavior that cause confusion increases the quality of the second feedback. Note that by focusing on the choice and behavior, it automatically directs the criticism away from the person and towards a specific problem that can be solved.

Instant Replay

How would my earlier conversation with Amy change had she decided not to ‘pick her battles’ but instead to give Bob some feedback before his slurping reached intolerable levels?

“So I was having this problem with Bob. He’s always slurping his coffee in the next cube over from mine. It’s driving me batty.”

“And what did you do about it?”

“Nothing yet, but I’ve got to let him know. I bet he has no clue how much his coffee-slurping affects me.”

Meanwhile, Bob has his own story to tell:

“Amy told me something I never would have suspected.”

“What’s that?”

“I slurp my coffee. I never knew that!”

“Really…”

“Yeah, and it really bugs her. I would have never known.”

“And you stopped slurping coffee?”

“I want to. It’s embarrassing, but I guess I have a habit. I still slurp from time to time when I’m not thinking.”

“How is Amy dealing with it?”

“She’s great. She reminds me every time I slip up, but she’s nice about it. We’ve kind of made a joke of it. I’m really glad she told me because I bet I’ve annoyed lots of people and never knew.”

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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