I recently read a newspaper article written by the journalist, Oliver Burkeman, about the complexities of decision-making (1). Mr Burkeman starts by asking why people find it so difficult to make important decisions. He essentially answers his own question by suggesting that perhaps what makes decisions agonising is because they matter and there is too much uncertainty to know which option to choose.

In looking at what others have written on the subject of decision-making he highlights the difficulties that may ensue where no single option clearly stands out. In this vein he highlights Fredkin’s (2) Paradox which essentially is: “The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them – no matter that, to the same degree, the choice can only matter less.” The net effect of this is that a decision maker might spend the most time on the least important decisions.

Mr Burkeman also refers to the philosopher Alan Watts (3) who once wrote that frequently, the process we call “deciding” – moving gradually towards a resolution – is no such thing. Rather, he suggests it is just a period of flipping back and forth between options, followed by a sudden, intuitive, semi-random choice.

Remaining firmly and very commendably rooted on terra firma Mr Burkeman ultimately and very pragmatically urges his readers not to overcomplicate the decision-making process. However, what he does not discuss is the role or position of possibly “unhelpful/obstructive”, “vexatious”, “litigious” or “disingenuous” third parties in the decision-making process.

The decisions that we all make, even the routine ones, are often dependent on the input of views of other people such as a spouse, a business partner, a sibling or neighbour. We may like to think that we have control over our own lives but in reality, in most instances we may be forced to admit that we cannot control the thought processes and actions of these “others” on whom we may be very dependent.

Perhaps one reason why we get embroiled in disputes is because we do not or cannot take sufficient account of these considerations. We may be forced or driven to make what may turn out to be unwise, even bad decisions because we cannot or in a great many instances, simply will not communicate with the relevant people. In some instances, matters can be rectified quite simply but that is not always the case. Accordingly, we can end up in dispute and find ourselves involved in one form of dispute resolution process or another.

As well as not addressing notions such as “dispute” or “disagreement” Mr Burkeman does not acknowledge that in instances where we find it difficult to make a decision or more particularly the “right” or the “appropriate” decision, we invariably have recourse to possibly potentially costly advisers such as lawyers or other professionals. Equally, he does not comment on the important concepts such as the ability to communicate that go to the very heart of decision-making and dispute resolution and he does not consider how or why disputes with others become both protracted and intractable.

An independently provided, confidential ADR service such as mediation, a facilitated meeting or possibly input from a psychologist or counsellor trained in the process of dispute resolution will help those involved in fraught or difficult situations not only to resolve their dispute but to make mutually acceptable decisions. In the context of these attractively cost-effective and timely mechanisms, mediators and facilitators listen, empathise and ask the right questions. Accordingly, those affected will find themselves better able to listen, communicate and think things through. There will be much less of Mr Watts’s “flipping back and forth” and much more of a careful, thoughtful and forward-thinking process that will bring clarity.

This specialist, facilitative input means that the decision-making process will be made much easier. People are able to move on and for many there will be closure.

(1) Find it hard to make a big decision? Don’t overthink it by Oliver Burkeman, Guardian Magazine, 20 Oct 2018
(2) Fredkin’s paradox concerns the negative correlation between the difference between two options and the difficulty of deciding between them. Developed further, the paradox constitutes a major challenge to the possibility of pure instrumental rationality. It was proposed by Edward Fredkin (born 1934), a distinguished career professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pennsylvania, and an early pioneer of digital physics.
(3) Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) was a British-American philosopher who interpreted and popularised Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.

Principal Director of ASMADR, civil/commercial, workplace, employment, family and educational mediator and trainer with a judicial/legal background. He has knowledge and expertise in dispute resolution in a wide range of areas and disciplines and mediates online.