Concern, Influence, and Control
In Stephen Covey’s bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes a technique that can help us identify our lowest and highest priorities.
He illustrates this by drawing two circles. One is a Circle of Concern. The Circle of Concern includes a wide range of things—things that are completely outside your control and that, frankly, you can’t even influence directly. I would include things like:
- The state of the economy
Think about it. We hear people griping about these and similar issues all the time. How many conversations do you get into where the first 5 minutes are spent just talking about the weather?! We’re choosing to spend our time and energy on things that we cannot influence and certainly cannot control. Those things in the Circle of Concern are things that Covey would describe as low priorities.
His second circle is the Circle of Influence. This is where you find things that you can actually do something about. You have some level of control. Even if you don’t have true control, you can still influence the way things go—you can influence the way a decision is made by someone close to you, you can influence what others think about your performance, etc. While you can’t make up their mind for them, you can take action to shape the decision maker’s perspective. Another example is health—some things are beyond your control, but you have some level of influence over your health. You can choose to go to the gym. You can choose to eat healthier. You have some level of influence.
Now here’s where I add a third circle, one that isn’t used by Covey: a Circle of Control. There are some things that you actually do have absolute control over. For instance, you control how you will respond to people and situations that you’re presented with. You can’t control other people, but you can control yourself.
So we have three circles, each one smaller than the one before it: Concern, Influence, and Control.
So what does this look like as we move throughout our day? Covey splits it up into people who are proactive and people who are reactive. He defines proactive people as people who are being responsible for their own lives. “Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions,” he said. Proactive people are making a decision to focus on the issues that fall into the Circle of Influence or the Circle of Control. They work on the things they can actually do something about.
Reactive people, on the other hand, will spend most of their time focused on items in the Circle of Concern. These are things they have no influence or control over. So you might overhear people hanging around the water cooler for 15 minutes just talking about the weather or traffic, when they also have a burning issue with a customer that they could have been spending their time on, instead. Reactive people are not focused on the Circles of Influence or Control, and as each day progresses, they have less and less focus on what really matters.
If you’re looking for clues into when someone is being proactive or reactive, as you listen to yourself, your colleagues, or your peers, pay attention for people talking about “have’s” and “be’s.” Have is common among people who are very reactive. You might hear someone saying something like:
- If I could only have a little more time…
- If I only had a little more money…
- If I had only gone to a better school…
That’s choosing to focus on things that, at this stage, you have no control or influence over.
On the other hand, if you start hearing yourself or others using the word be, that’s a sign of someone being proactive and deciding to make a decision to take control or influence the outcome of something they’re facing. For example, you might hear or say:
- I can be more patient and understanding…
- I can be more curious and ask more questions of my clients…
- I can be more prepared for my next meeting…
- I can be more persistent and not get discouraged…
It’s invaluable to understand the three circles: Concern, Influence, and Control. When you find yourself spending inordinate time thinking and talking about issues that fall into the Circle of Concern, or you hear yourself making the kind of have statements we talked about above, then snap out of it, move yourself into a mode of action, and make a decision to do something about those things you can influence or directly control.