Monday, April 01, 2013

How to make a decision (ask lots of questions)

Have you ever been astonished by a decision made by someone close to you? You know this person well. You respect them. And then - apparently out of the blue - they make a decision you didn't see coming.

Sometimes, of course, the person who makes an astonishing decision is even closer to us: we all surprise ourselves from time to time.  As much as we gather information and perspective, as much as we truly believe that it's important to think things through, as much as we are committed to living smart, intentional lives: we surprise ourselves.

There's actually quite a lot of information on how people make decisions. Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is likely to be a classic on the subject for some years.  For those who prefer a little less density and a more direct line to application, there's Decisive by the Heath brothers. There's no reason for someone who is involved in motivating, coaching or managing not to have at least a little familiarity with the complexity of human decision making.

My own training is all about pushing people through a process that delays their decision making until they have gathered multiple perspectives and used a variety of techniques to test the new information.  I use the word push because this delay does not feel natural for anyone. If they were not a part of training, it would take some real discipline for my clients to go through all the steps. When they apply what they have learned later, they are tempted to skip steps. That's human nature. It's hard enough to make a decision about what we want: when we think we know, we really don't want to question it.

Questioning turns out to be the key to good decisions. This is whether our criteria for deciding come from our own minds or from expert advice. Asking questions allows us to gain emotional distance, to test possible consequences, and to understand the relationship between our own decision and typical results achieved by other people. Asking questions improves the odds that we will make a decision and like the results.

If you are someone who asks a lot of questions, people will often shut you down. They'll choose to be offended by your questioning of their expertise; they'll accuse you of being difficult or resistant or unwilling to change.  All of this is a way of saying that they believe they can predict your future more clearly than you can.

The research says they are unlikely to be right (and if they are right, the best way to show you is to answer your questions). Asking questions uncovers risks and benefits and probabilities and emotions. It's our finest tool for understanding the present so that we can step into the future with just a little more confidence.

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