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13 Steps for
Difficult Decision-Making

Natalia J. Garland

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Some decisions are much more difficult than others. There are important but moderate decisions such as which college to attend, which car to buy, or where to take your next vacation. These decisions can be made with pro-and-con comparison lists or other techniques. But what about decisions having a right or wrong quality, or involving serious gains and losses? Some decisions can have a political impact, capture a historical moment, or create a personal legacy. These decisions can never be taken back after the action is implemented. For better or worse, the result is either beneficial or damaging. Below is my personal guideline for these types of difficult decisions.

Step 1: Think through the situation
Difficult decisions can involve numerous and complicated factors. You need to be able to sort through all the factors and to predict the Double-O's: obstacles and outcomes. You have to plan how you will overcome the obstacles if encountered, or how to avoid the obstacles without diminishing your goal. Likewise, you need to be able to predict both favorable and unfavorable outcomes, and be prepared to justify your actions and cope with others' reactions.

For example, when I began writing essays, I predicted that many of my professional peers would disagree with my ideas because I tend to be more conservative than most social workers. I tried to overcome this obstacle by developing multiple entry points into my essays. That is, my goal was to reach beyond a singular audience by also addressing teachers, students, the religious, the political, and other writers. These are all people with whom I share concerns and who might be interested in what I have to say.

In addition, I realized that opening my essays to the public might affect my ability to get jobs in the future. I knew that if any prospective employer did a background check on me by googling me on the internet, then my essays would be discovered. A politically liberal employer might not want to hire me. However, writing and publishing seemed essential to my psychological wellbeing. In our post-9/11 world, I concluded that freedom of speech meant more to me than the possible loss of jobs.

Step 2: Know your own limitations
Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. You need to utilize your strengths and be aware of your weaknesses. On the one hand, lack of confidence in your strengths can cause you to under-estimate your potential to do good in the world. This can have lifelong repercussions for yourself and others. On the other hand, failure to assess to your weaknesses can result in a big mess which somebody else will have to clean up. This could damage your reputation and create burdens for the very people who counted on you to do good.

Step 3: Know when to ask for help, and whom to ask
Develop a network of trusted friends or, at least, acquire one confidant to whom you can turn in stressful times. Not only is this necessary in order to compensate for weaknesses, but it is also a wise practice to discuss your situation and get another's viewpoint. In our internet age, it is easy to make a list of favorite websites which provide the same kind of informational help that a friend might provide. Doing some research on the internet is a safe and private way to get help.

Find out if anyone else was ever in a situation similar to yours. What decisions did they make? What process did they go through? What were the results? What can you learn from them? Browse current events, and also dig back into history.

Step 4: Detect any outside pressure
Overcoming negative outside pressure requires courage when you are in a financially dependent situation. If your employer, for example, expects you to do something against your will, then you might have to choose between what is right and what is expedient. If you decide not to do the right thing, then your self-respect as well as your ultimate goal is lost. You might seem to gain personal survival through expediency, but it will only be temporary until the next time when your employer (or other abusive authority) expects your submission again. Not only do you make life emotionally miserable for yourself, but you make life troublesome for any co-worker who is trying to resist the same kind of pressure.

Step 5: Know when to say "no"
Unless you have the ability to say "no" when appropriate, then you will spend your life enabling others' inappropriate behavior.

Step 6: Trust your instincts
At the risk of sounding kooky, I think we all have an inner voice that tells us when something is not right. We can feel when something is wrong for us. When physical danger lurks, there just seems to be a certain vibration in the air that tells us to get out of there. The presence of danger, evil, mischief, etc., can often be sensed before it manifests actual harm. Personally, I have always suffered and regretted each time that I did not trust my instincts, but chose instead to proceed on illusive or misleading evidence.

In a similar manner, when making ethical decisions, I think most of us have a conscience that signals to us, even though we may not be able to get an immediate cognitive grip on all the dynamics of the situation. We often know, instinctively, what is right and what is wrong. It just takes a while to sort the factors rationally and align them into an ethical decision.

Step 7: Consider how others perceive you
Sometimes successful decision-making might involve others' perception of what you stand for. Of course, this is not to suggest that you appease people or act like a phony. On the contrary, this is to make it impossible for others to manipulate your intentions or to trap you in your own value system. For example, if someone needed your permission to do something, they might try to twist your understanding of right and wrong to permit their agenda of evil.

Try to imagine that you are a university president, and a cruel dictator wants to give a speech at your university. This dictator also happens to be supplying weapons to the enemies who are killing your country's soldiers. Should you allow the dictator to speak because you value the academic exchange of ideas? In other words, freedom of speech is right and censorship is wrong. Or, should you refuse the dictator because you are certain the dictator will manipulate the university's educational status to spread his lies farther into the world? The trap: a warping of academic discourse and free speech. The reality: a prestigious podium for an agent of destruction and death.

As the saying goes since 9/11: freedom is not free. It seems that all good things come with price tags, standards, and limits. If you lessen or remove the standards and limits, then the price gets steeper. Decision-makers need to remember this, or else their refusal to exercise legitimate authority and proper judgment will extinguish civilization's values and accomplishments.

Step 8: Find alternate courses of action
Situations of right and wrong do not always involve an either/or or yes/no decision. Try to be resourceful and creative. Use the common decision-making techniques to stimulate thought: brainstorming, visualization, list-making; as well as the gathering of information, facts, and others' suggestions.

Step 9: What are you really trying to accomplish?
No matter what the external complications of any decision-making situation, you must understand your own internal motives. Are you trying to make the best decision regarding the dynamics of people and places, ethics and values? Or, are you are attempting subterfuge? Are your own psychodynamics interfering with a rational thought process? Are you blinded by your own unfulfilled desires?

Step 10: Understand that the results of your decision will necessitate a re-appraisal of the future
Decisions are not made in a vacuum. What you accomplish or fail to accomplish can have an impact on the quality of your life, and on other people and the environment in which they live. In other words, life will never be the same again. The outcome(s) of difficult decisions alter the future. An altered future yields a new base from which to work and love, and this demands assessment and adjustment.

Step 11: Maintain the option to change your mind
Before finalizing your decision--especially if you have nagging doubts--give yourself time to change your mind. If possible, do not take any action until you are absolutely sure. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind. This is not the same as procrastination, hypocrisy, or promise-breaking. This is a willingness to renounce a decision that seems wrong upon further reflection. Then, you can start the decision-making process again with the advantage of one wrong direction having been eliminated.

Step 12: Are you engaged in self-sabotage?
Do you have a pattern of poor decision-making? Do your decisions inflict personal disappointment? Do you reject help? Do you always fail to realize your dreams? There might be a self-defeating component to your personality. You probably do not commit self-sabotage intentionally, but are engaged in a deeply embedded psychodynamic of which you are unaware. Getting some psychotherapy might be the best way to change the course of your decision-making.

Step 13: Are you engaged in self-importance?
If you lust for power and fame, then you probably will not heed this paragraph. Some people make decisions in order bring attention to themselves, using other people as objects in a self-serving drama. The decision is simply the vehicle by which to gain notoriety. Getting married, getting divorced, filing lawsuits, protesting in the streets, appearing on T.V. for a cause, donating money: all of these situations can be abused to promote vain self-importance. The only real antidote is for everyone around you to watch out. (Written 11/05/07)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2007 Natalia J. Garland