Do You Take the High Road or the Low Road?

A simple formula to make better choices

A useful definition:
If someone takes the High Road, they choose the course of action which is moral or ethical and which is least likely to harm or upset other people—even in the face  of negative treatment. You choose to do what’s in keeping with your highest ideals for yourself.

You take the High Road when:
You are feeling confident, positive, focused and morally clear, and when you are being the most authentic.

You take the Low Road when:
You are feeling unsure of yourself, wanting to please others, confused, anxious or fearful, when you are not acting true to your own values.

When you make choices based on taking the High Road, you will feel more positive, have less stress, be more comfortable in your own skin, increase your trustworthiness, increasing your own self-worth.

How can you learn to make more decisions based on taking the High Road?

Here’s a formula to help you decide what course of action to take when you’re not sure—or even at times when you think you are sure, but feeling some discomfort.

First, when you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation: ask yourself what thoughts or feelings are prompting what you say—or don’t say, and how those thoughts or feelings influence the choice you make to do something—or nothing. Think of a prickly situation you’ve experienced recently: What were your words or actions based on?
• Did you make a choice in an effort to make unpleasant feelings go away?
• Did you make a choice you thought would be what the other person wanted to hear?
• Did you make a choice in an effort to avoid disagreement or conflict?
• Did you make a choice you thought would put you in a better light or impress someone?

Now think about what you would have done differently if you answered “no” to these questions. (additional suggestions listed in the section on when you take the High Road)

Some things you are likely to do when you take the Low Road:

  1. Make an explanation when it’s not asked for
    Explanations are often given when you feel guilty (e.g. for being late, forgetting a commitment, going back on a promise). You anticipate a negative reaction to your action, so you try to head off the unpleasant response.
  2. Apologize for something when you haven’t done anything wrong
    This is often used when you sense another person is irritated, angry, or curt with you. Your emotional brain gets the signal of fear and you jump in to try to calm the situation down
  3. Become angry or indignant
    When someone makes accusations, judgments, or assumptions that are hurtful or untrue. You feel misunderstood and become defensive, needing to strike back at your accuser.
  4. Become Argumentative
    You feel a need to make a point, to let others know you have strong opinions or that your position is the correct one. You engage in debates and don’t let go until you have proven yourself right. At these times, you feel your value or self-worth is being tested or threatened.
  5. Jump into rescue mode
    The other person is presenting him/herself as a victim, triggering your sympathies You buy into their sad story without evaluating the situation, feeling sorry for them and/or see an opportunity to feel noble and important. Even when the other person is telling the truth, rescuing them is not always the best way to respond. You may be encouraging them to stay helpless and you become an enabler.
  6. Quick to give advice
    Someone comes to you with a dilemma or asks you what they should do about an issue they are grappling with. This is another form of rescuing. Your ego gets hooked and you see an opportunity to show how smart, wise, efficient you are. As you speak, you may already be picturing how much the other person will be grateful, see you as clever, cool, or someone to look up to.
  7. Become judgmental
    Again you see an opportunity to show how smart you are and how you can correct the other person’s inability to see the “truth.” Often you think you are doing this to be helpful.

How you can respond when you are taking the High Road:

  1. Make an explanation when it’s not asked for
    You may make an unemotional explanation in a situation where there is genuinely some confusion. Otherwise you might simply apologize for your behavior. You also acknowledge the other person’s feelings.
  2. Apologize for something when you haven’t done anything wrong
    You only apologize when you recognize you have said or done something inappropriate, and you keep it brief. No explanation is needed. Consider this: there is real guilt and unreal guilt. Real guilt is when you have done something rotten. Unreal guilt is everything else.
  3. Become angry or indignant
    When someone is less than kind, you act as if their arrows have missed their mark. You can also choose to acknowledge their feelings: “You sound really angry.” No need to follow that up. They may likely agree with you and continue their rant. You can listen, or you can say, “I’m not willing to be in this conversation.” Or, “I’m willing to discuss this when you have cooled down.”
  4. Become argumentative
    When you feel the urge to argue your position, tell yourself you will withhold your strong opinions for now. Instead, ask the other person to tell you more—or allow them to express themselves as fully as possible without engaging in a debate (unless that’s the agreed-upon purpose of your conversation, and even then, it’s wise to withhold your comments). The more you listen, the more you will learn. Allow yourself to recognize the other person’s views are valid for them, even if you don’t agree.
  5. Jump into the rescue mode
    When you feel compelled to rescue someone, restrain yourself and just listen. You can summarize or paraphrase what they are saying (as in Active Listening) and still be kind and empathic, without offering to help.
  6. Quick to give advice
    When you feel inclined to give advice, switch to an inquiry mode: “How does this make you feel?”  “What ideas might you have as to how you can fix this?”  You will be far more helpful if you can get them to use their own resources.
  7. Become judgmental
    When you feel tempted to be judgmental, contain your impulse and just listen. Again, you can ask open-ended questions like: “What thoughts were you having that brought you to that conclusion?”  “How did that make you feel?”  Or, simply let them talk it out—there’s no need for you to comment. 

Shifting from the Low Road to the High Road can be challenging. You’ve likely been doing this for a long time, and just like any habit, it takes time, attention, and practice to make a change. Your motivation and best reward will be to feel better about yourself, knowing you have responded in the most appropriate way. The benefits accrue to both you and the other person.

You will also find your stress is reduced; you have saved time and energy  that can be used in more productive ways.

“Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although   difficult, is the high road to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.”

— Margaret Thatcher

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts or other ideas you might have on this topic.

Please feel free to share this with anyone who might find this useful.
You can also check out my previous blogs on my website:


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