“How much does it hurt on a scale from 0-10 (with 0 being no pain, and 10 being your arm’s off)?”

In medicine we assess pain in several ways, one of which is The Pain Scale. Why use a scale? Because pain looks and sounds differently in different people. Someone may be a groaner. They will vocalize their pain, even if mild. Another might not groan until their pain is very severe. Some stoics become completely silent when they are in severe pain.

Without the scale, when asked about pain, all patients will vaguely respond, “It hurts.” Medical professionals need a way to more accurately scale the pain so that we know whether or not a person needs medication, and if so, how much. Following up with the same scaling question after the medicine helps us know how effective it was–or if more is needed. We want to drop that number as low as we can safely.

At some point, I realized that this scaling language makes it easier to communicate in other areas besides pain management. I’m a loud person. Sometimes, especially when I’m caffeinated, I get really excited about things. My volume goes up, my gestures get bigger, and my friends feel like I’m sucking up all the oxygen in the room. Here’s the kicker: I might be all excited about something that I don’t even care that much about. But on the other hand, maybe I really care a lot. How is my poor family to tell the difference?

By scaling. I’ll literally tell them how much I care by giving them a number on a scale from 0-10. (And then open a window to let some air in.)

It works great for decision making too. Have you ever been caught on this hamster wheel: Where do you want to eat? I don’t know–where do you want to eat? You pick, I’m fine with whatever. No you pick–I picked last time, and I’ll be fine with whatever. Okay, how about Papa John’s? Sorry, that’s no good. Pick something else–I’m not in the mood for pizza. You just said you’d be fine with whatever. I know, I’m sorry–but can you pick something else? How about you pick? I don’t want to pick.

Nevermind. I’ll just help myself to a handful of cereal.

Now, watch this elegance:

“Where do you want to eat?”

Dan: “Cracker Barrel–4”

Diedra: “Panera–8”

Panera it is. Done and done. Now this obviously won’t work if you both always pick fives. It also won’t work if you both always pick tens. You need to pick a different number than your partner. (If you always go higher, you’re a jerk. And it won’t work very well if you always go lower–you’ll frustrate your partner because they love you and want to go where you want to go–this loving deferment is why we end up on that hamster wheel in the first place.)

Now, it’s really important that you reserve your tens for things you really really really want. Diedra and I have noticed over the course of years that we’re almost never both tens on something at the same time. I honestly can’t remember the last time it happened. Your underlying goal has to be a service mindset that enjoys the other person’s preferences.

We also use it when we’re sorting out the calendar and trying to make our plans. And, as I mentioned above, we use it whenever there seems to be a confusing incongruence between our body language and our actual desires.

So, scaling. It’s a bit awkward at first–you’ll think you sound like a robotic survey taker. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll love the clarity it brings to your conversations.