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When does a choice become a dilemma?

Updated: May 1, 2022

I frequently work with clients who reduce their problem down to a choice between two options. This is very seductive as it creates the illusion of making things simple and straightforward, unfortunately it just creates a different problem.

For example, I remember working with a client I’ll call Nancy. Nancy came to see me after another huge argument with her partner. She had had enough and saw only two options going forward; 1) to leave her partner of ten years, or, 2) to accept everything as it is and just carry on. She narrowed her choices to two extreme positions, all or nothing.

And who amongst us has not put ourselves in the position of only considering two choices in a difficult situation? I know I certainly have.

When I graduated, I couldn’t get the type of job I wanted and finally took a sales assistant job in a jeweller. I was desperate to move on but convinced myself that my choices were that job or no job at all.

When an opportunity unexpectedly appeared for a last-minute opportunity to work in America for two months, I suddenly realised that there were other options still open to me. As it turned out, ditching that job and going to America was one of the best things I ever did.

When you find yourself narrowing your choices down to X or Y, train yourself to stop and have a think. Having two options is not a choice, it is a dilemma. It effectively shuts down your ability to creatively search for alternative possibilities. You just mentally stand there going, “On the one hand… on the other hand.” And nothing changes, or worse, you just pick one and possibly end up regretting it.

Aim to find other options, three as a bare minimum, but ideally more. You still have the original options, but this just lets you consider additional alternatives. If our X or Y position has become entrenched, we may find it hard to come up with new options. This can happen because we can get so focussed on the only two options we have so clearly defined, that we become blinkered and convince ourselves that these are the only possible choices. To get round this it may be helpful to ask a friend or family member to brainstorm options with you. Doesn’t matter how crazy those options might be, often an outrageous suggestion can sometimes spark other more practical ideas.

I once just randomly suggested to a client that they could take six months off work unpaid and they immediately said, no, however, they could apply to work in another country for six months. This had not been an option prior to that suggestion.

Going back to Nancy, I pointed out how her two options, leave or stay with no change, were at two extreme ends of a continuum. I asked about her relationship, and on the whole it had been good for them both, but her partner’s pressured job and money issues had created a lot of friction between them recently. We worked together to look at alternatives, such as talking calmly and honestly with her partner about what was worrying her, arranging to do something nice together, looking at debt management services and seeing if her partner was open to talking to someone about the stress he was experiencing at work.

When Nancy had more options, she started to come up with many more and found she had many new ways to think about her situation.

At the end of the conversation, neither of the two original options were even on the table as first steps. There was no guarantee that they would sort the relationship out, but Nancy had lots of options to try. That meant that instead of being stuck with a dilemma where she just felt desperate, she could now see the situation in all its complexity, and feel much more capable of doing something about it.

Learning to pause and find additional options when you are only considering a problem in terms of X or Y is a great way to start making more balanced decisions in your life.

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