Happier households through narrower choice sets

Parents frequently give their kids choices: “What do you want to eat for breakfast today?” “What do you want to wear to school today?” And choices are great for enrolling them in the decision-making process.

But often, to no one’s great surprise, kids choose an option that is not particularly attractive to their parents. “Definitely some Fruit Loops!” “Definitely my (ratty old) Frozen shirt!”

And then comes the inevitable negotiation: “Don’t you want to eat something a little healthier, Billy?” “Don’t you want to wear something a little nicer, Petunia?” And so on, and so forth.

Conversations like these play out in millions of households, multiple times a day, to everyone’s great frustration. But I’m here to tell you that there’s an easy way to make life negotiable: presenting a narrower choice set.

A recent story to illustrate: I was planning out a daddy-daughter Sunday and really wanted to attach a tasty restaurant visit to the typical outdoor activity. But I suspected that the typical open-ended question—“What do you want to do with daddy this morning?”—would probably elicit an answer wholly at odds with a restaurant: “Swimming!”

Now, I know from experience that two little girls shivering from wet hair are not particularly inclined to dine at restaurants—at least without a fight. So I didn’t present the question that way. I gave them a different choice set: “Girls, do you want to take a hike in the state park or go on a bike ride?” Either choice, I knew, would be just as enjoyable for the girls. And either choice would leave their desire to go to a restaurant in-tact—even enhanced by their desire for some air conditioning and a cold drink.

The lesson is clear: In this type of negotiation and many others (even with adults), we control the options we present. But often, from a lack of preparation or genuine inclination to be as flexible as possible, we put many options on the table—including more than a few that would leave us utterly dissatisfied. So next time you face a negotiation, with your kids or someone older, consider narrowing the choice set to the point at which you too would approve of all the remaining choices.

Capturing the attention of kids and executives alike

Anyone who works for an organization must at least occasionally negotiate with the people above them in the org chart. And anyone who does that knows that capturing and maintaining an executive’s attention is essential to negotiation success. What you might not know is that interactions with kids can highlight some important lessons about interactions with executives—lessons about attention that can make life more negotiable.

Consider the following examples about kids and attention, and whether they could better your organizational life:

  • Attracting attention: Perhaps you need to get a kid dressed for school, but they need to play with a million toys first. To accomplish your goal, you have to attract their attention. Likewise, at work, you might need to attract the attention of an executive in order to get your plans approved. With kids, mentioning what’s in it for them upfront (time to play before the bus?) can often help. How about executives?
  • Maintaining attention: You might need your kid to clean up the remnants of 23 intermingled puzzles, but the kid, having started the task, might discover the need to first assemble 22 of them. To accomplish your goal, you have to maintain their attention. Likewise, at work, you may have gotten a meeting scheduled with an executive, only to find the meeting punctuated by 14,000 emails and phone calls. Persistent repetition seems to be the only method with kids. Executives?
  • Directing attention: You might need your kid to focus on the fun part of the doctor’s appointment (the post-visit sticker) rather than the less fun part (the shot). Similarly, you might want an executive to focus on the more exciting parts of your proposal. While you can’t ignore either the shot or the duller parts of the proposal in good faith, you can order your statements in a way that generates excitement before trepidation or boredom. It works at least occasionally with kids. Executives?
  • Breaking attention: You might need a kid to pay less attention to a particular scene in a movie. What was that thing rated again? Similarly, at work, you might need an executive to stop pursuing a line of reasoning that you know to be wrong. Here are a variety of tips that may work with kids and executives alike.
  • Not calling attention in the first place: You might need to avoid talking about a social event that you know your kid would enjoy, but that you also know your kid’s schedule won’t allow them to attend. Likewise, at work, you might want to avoid a discussion of a report that you plan to start soon but just haven’t had the time to start yet. Initiating a discussion yourself and directing it down the right path can help at home. At work?

The bottom line is that attention is a great asset in negotiations (and in organizations generally). If we have a kid’s or executive’s attention, and it’s directed where we want it, we stand a better chance of achieving our goals. If we don’t have their attention or it’s focused elsewhere, our goals remain a distant dream.

How do you capture and maintain the attention of the people around you?

The power of false dilemmas

Whether we use the term or not, most of us know the concept of false dilemmas. Should we carpet bomb ISIS or take zero action? These are obviously not the only options. Most of us know that—and thus know better than to choose between them, lest the questioner control our thinking.

And yet, there are reasons that people pose false dilemmas, some more ethical than others. So I submit that we should at least consider some situations where it might help to pose them ourselves. Used ethically and appropriately, false dilemmas can help make some of our most difficult personal and professional situations more negotiable.

Which ones? Consider the following three:

  1. When a decision-maker won’t focus. How many decisions don’t get made simply because the decision-maker gets distracted? I’m certainly talking about kids, who can’t be bothered to choose a shirt before building a spaceship out of all the couch cushions. But I’m also talking about executives, who have so many important decisions to make that many don’t get made at all. Sometimes posing a false dilemma—the blue shirt or the red shirt, the quark strategy or the lepton strategy—can simplify the decision just enough to attract their attention.
  2. When a decision-maker will focus but won’t decide. Sometimes the problem is not attention but indecision. The decision-maker is focused but still can’t decide: how to choose among the 342 shirts in the closet? Or the 50 states where we might pilot our leptons? Sometimes a false dilemma can cut through the indecision, convincing them to act instead of worrying about the risks of a failed decision. Having done research indicating that New York or California are the best places to pilot the leptons, for example, you might tell the decision-maker as much and ask for a preference.
  3. When any other options are unacceptable. Sometimes you feel so strongly about a decision that any other options just won’t work. Little Charlie, do you want to go to a private university or a public university after high school? Though the dilemma may seem false to them, set as they are on working at McDonalds, it’s not false at all to you. In that case, posing the choice as a dilemma can help to persuade them.

So false dilemmas can in fact be useful. But the word “false” should immediately call our attention to their ethical implications (even today, the Monday after the spring time change, when many people are so sleepy as to worry less about moral issues). By suggesting that two choices represent the entire decision set, we are inevitably attempting to control their decision. And this is probably the most popular reason for posing false dilemmas: to attain self-interested objectives by curtailing another person’s autonomy. Just my opinion, but that motivation seems ethically suspect.

Indeed, false dilemmas are probably only justifiable when the costs to the decider are trivial (it doesn’t really matter which shirt they wear) or the benefits to the decider are substantial (you know that New York and California are the best pilot sites; you just need to get approval).

An ethically-fraught strategy, then, but one to consider in the face of the difficult dilemmas that surround us—even or especially on “sleepy Monday.”

Getting your ideas implemented: What a prospect (theory)!

From time to time, we all have good ideas that could help our organizations thrive. Assuming we want to share them, and assuming decision-makers want to listen, the obvious challenge is to convince them that the benefits outweigh the costs, the upside justifies the risk.

In a world of slim budgets, that’s never easy. But a dose of prospect theory can make this difficult prospect negotiable.

In short and in simple, prospect theory indicates that people act very differently when they think they’re losing versus gaining something. In particular, “losses loom larger than gains,” meaning that our pain from a $1 loss is greater than our pleasure from a $1 gain. A critical corollary: when we think we’re losing, we take risks to right the ship; when we think we’re gaining, we get conservative to protect our gains.

What does this have to do with selling ideas? Well, any idea can be described as a gain or a loss—it’s a matter of language (i.e., “framing”). And I would argue that most people (self included!) intuitively put the wrong frame on their ideas, unwittingly limiting their persuasiveness.

To see why, imagine you discovered a cheaper way to make your organization’s widgets. You’re confident your new method can save the organization $1 million a year, but it requires them to buy a $250,000 technology. The question is how you sell it to your superiors.

Well, if you’re like most people, you’d make sure to emphasize the benefits. So you’d say something like: “This will save us a million dollars a year!” Since you’re saying what your organization will gain, you’re describing the benefits with a gain frame.

A gain frame could work, but it’s probably not your best strategy. Why? Because, according to prospect theory, gains aren’t very motivating; people who feel like they’re gaining don’t feel particularly inclined to take risks, like shelling out $250,000. But what if you instead said: “If we don’t adopt this method, we will continue to lose $1 million a year.” Same information, and just as true, right? But prospect theory clearly suggests that the loss framing will strike a deeper chord, motivating the decision-maker to pay closer attention and accept more of the inherent risks. In sum, when talking about the benefits, our intuition suggests a gain frame, but a loss frame will probably work better.

And what about the costs? Assuming you caught a decision-maker’s attention with your loss-framed benefits, she’s sure to ask about the costs. Well, the intuitive and direct answer is obvious: “It’ll cost us $250,000.” Since you’re emphasizing the outflow of cash, you’re essentially using a loss frame to describe the costs.

A loss frame is alright; hopefully, she will rationally compare the small costs with the huge benefits and sign on the dotted line. But since you’ve put her in a loss frame, prospect theory suggests she could also experience amnesia about the benefits and start worrying about where in the world she can find a quarter million dollars. So what if you said something like this instead: “We would have to make an investment in a promising $250,000 technology.” Again, basically the same information, and just as true. But you’ve now portrayed the expense as a gain, which it really is if your projections are accurate. So, when talking about the costs, our intuition suggests a loss frame, but a gain frame will probably work better.

Does this all seem like a lesson in language games? Well, over three decades of research suggest that small words can have huge effects. So if your projections really indicate a major organizational opportunity, and if you really believe that you’ve gotten them right, then it’s worth your time to carefully consider the smallest turn of phrase.

Here’s to the prospect (theory) of getting your next idea implemented!