One of the hardest tasks I face as a mediator and coach is helping people weigh and make hard choices. Here’s how I use a refreshing and liberating new framework to help my clients decide between hard choices when there is no clear frontrunner.
Ed asked me to help him decide whether to accept a $500,000 buyout from his two business partners or stay with the business his father had founded. Anna wanted help deciding whether or not to leave her husband of two decades after years of love and conflict between them. Opposing parties in a medical malpractice lawsuit needed help considering options that went to the heart of justice and identity. Carlo was agonizing over remaining in his law firm or striking out on his own as a professional mediator. In a workplace mediation between two senior managers, one confided that she needed to decide whether it was worth continuing to try to work it out with her nemesis (and staying with an organization she loved), or quit and move on to something new.
“This is a such difficult choice,” she told me in private. “I’ve weighed the pros and cons and the answer isn’t clear. I’m so afraid I’ll make the wrong decision. How do I decide?”
Indeed. How do any of us decide when we’ve weight the pros and cons and neither option is the clear winner? Is there a way to make good decisions without the agonizing, hand-wringing, teeth gnashing, and inertia that are too-common hallmarks of momentous life decisions?
Philosopher Ruth Chang thinks so and since watching her 2014 TED Talk, I’ve been experimenting with her very simple and powerfully liberating framework. I’ve been using it in my own life and with clients. The results have been remarkable and so I want to share Chang’s approach with you.
Why some choices are hard
Chang tells us that there are several reasons hard choices can feel so hard:
- Neither option is clearly best overall: We can see that one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and yet neither is better than the other overall. Without a different way to think about it, we’re stuck.
- Fear of the unknown: We may fear that one alternative may actually be better than the other but that we don’t have enough information or the smarts to know which. Such fear can immobilize us.
- Scientific thinking isn’t always helpful: Post-Enlightenment thinking and today’s emphasis on data-driven decision-making have left us trying to weigh values like justice, beauty, and kindness in the same way we measure things like length, mass, and weight.
Three ways we usually think about choices
Greater, less, or equal. Better, worse, or equal. Good, better, best. We tend to approach hard choices by trying to put them into categories or rankings like these.
The world of value, though, is different from the world of science. We get ourselves stuck by trying to rank or categorize values because they defy scientific measurement.
Chang proposes that when what matters to us can’t be represented by rankings — things like joy, freedom, or happiness, for instance — we need a fourth way, one that is still rational yet completely different from the usual approach.
A fourth way
Chang’s fourth way to approach hard choices is to stop looking outside ourselves for the right measurement and instead look inward:
When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am. I am for banking. I am for chocolate donuts. This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us.
When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives…So when we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be?
Where do I want to stand? What do I want to stand for in this? Who am I to be? These are questions my clients have found very liberating to consider. I have, too. A year ago, as I agonized over the direction to take my private conflict resolution practice, I found such relief in Chang’s framework.
They are not always easy questions to answer, yet they have an undeniable power to them when the traditional weighing of options leaves us stuck. Says Chang, “It is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.”