Helping Indecisive People To Make A Decision

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Helping Indecisive People To Make A Decision

September 2, 2009 Dealing with Difficult People Life Skills Persuasion 5

In today’s post, I’m going to discuss the challenge of getting a reliable decision from an indecisive person, and how to increase your success in meeting that challenge.

The first thing to know about people who can’t make up their minds is that their indecision usually comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what goes into making a decision. The person gets their mind torn between choices because they are trying to find ‘the perfect’ decision, instead of ‘the best possible’ decision based on available information and resources.

The person who can’t make up their mind may also be blinded to logic and reason by the strength of their feelings, about themselves, about their options, or about the impact of those options on others.  Strong feelings encumber thought, and that’s why it is so difficult for stressed out people to be decisive.  Obviously, calming them down and connecting their brain to their mouth is a high priority.

You can do this by making it safe to think in your presence.  Offer assurances that it’s okay to be honest, let them know that you understand it’s a tough decision and, not surprisingly, they’ll probably calm down and become more open to thinking things through with you.

That’s when you need to know how to make a decision quickly yourself.

Use a decision-making system. The best way to make a decision is to use a system. There are plenty of systems already developed so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. If you have one that works well for you, teach it to the indecisive person.

If not, a tried and true simple system is the old Ben Franklin method of drawing a line lengthwise on a piece of paper and dividing the page in half. Put one of your choices at the top and list all of the pluses of that choice on one side and all of the minuses on the other side, and then repeat the process for each option.

Some people can do this mentally, in their mind’s eye; others need to write it down until they’ve fully integrated the pattern of it. For the person having trouble making a decision,  you will find that writing it down is probably better, clearer, and more useful when it comes to the follow through. After creating these upside and downside lists, you should have a sense of which one is more positive or which one is least desirable.   Since it becomes easier to get an overall feel for which is the strongest choice, or the least negative one, once all the pluses and minuses have been made explicit, you now have something to compare.

Whatever system works for you, use it consistently with an indecisive person and it will become second nature for them.

Reassure and then ensure follow through. Making a decision is one thing.  Holding to it is something else entirely.  Like buyer’s remorse, people often think of reasons to doubt a decision only after they’ve made the decision.  That’s why it’s important, once the decision is made, to reassure the indecisive person that there are no perfect decisions, and that the decision they’ve made is a good one, and the best possible under the circumstances and with the available information at the time. Then, to ensure that the person follows through, a good idea is to stay in touch until the decision is fully implemented. You can keep things moving along by keeping this small piece of the action in your own hands, and setting up a few benchmark moments along the way to determine progress.  That’s a superior approach to waiting until it’s too late to do anything to get back on track.

Strengthen the relationship. When a person succeeds at follow through, and when a person fails to follow through, you are in a teachable moment, a learning moment, and have the opportunity to strengthen the relationship to make future decisions and actions more reliable.  You do this by highlighting the success and talking about it as if it is both amazing and normal for the person, or by highlighting the failure and finding out what’s behind it.  IN this case, always ask the question, “What do you know now that had you known it then, you would have followed through?  This is also a great opportunity to promote the idea of a better future for the both of you as a result of their honesty and follow through.

Don’t agonize too much now, just give me your comments!  It’s the right thing to do and you’ll feel better about yourself having done it!

Be well,



5 Responses

  1. Guest says:

    I’m a little surprised that you seem to think that logic and reason are the only useful lenses through which to make a decision. While I agree that calming down is more effective than not, I also think its worthwhile to examine the feelings – perhaps values come into play in this decision, and strong feelings are a good indicator that it’s time for a “gut check.”

  2. Dr. K says:

    Thank you for your comment!

    I’m not aware of where I said anything about ‘only.’ But I do think that logic and reason make an excellent lense for decision making in most situations … unless you know for a fact (logic) that you can trust your gut (feelings), in which case, a feelings check would offer a reliable method!

    But you’ve raised a very interesting point. I’ve heard, and my gut says its true, that people make most decisions emotionally, and then justify them logically. Which is why, in my work teaching the principles of persuasive communication, I encourage people to master the signals of persuasion, all of which pitch to the feeling side of people. And there’s the rub. A persuasive person has a stronger ability to speak persuasively and engage those ‘good’ feelings that lead others to a decision, whether the decision is a good one for them to make or not.

    I love that you’re taking values into account in this equation. When people know their values, (and I mean specifically, not generally) that gut check is significantly easier to do than when they don’t.

    I enjoyed your comment and hope to hear from you again!
    best wishes,

  3. Anonymous says:

    Gosh, I never thought about it but I think I have a system for this , too. My husband has a *terrible* time making decisions ~ I think you’ve nailed it ~ he’s looking for the “perfect” decision every single time. So I wheedle out of him the attributes that he “has to have” and what’s “unacceptable” and then I help to take things off the decision table that don’t meet his requirements. Like, “Well, the Sony doesn’t have Bluetooth which you have to have” or “The Thai restaurant will have longer than a 30 minute wait tonight which we don’t want to deal with”. It really speeds things up, lol.

    Thanks for the fun posting, Dr. K!


  4. karen says:

    I love all your words on this way of reasoning…BUT How does the emotional part of thinking get put asside? My Mother lives with my controling sister. She can’t make up here mind to continue to live in My Mothers house and get a job in the town they live in. Or move back to the place she came from and lived for 20 years. Or move to England with the Man she is engaged to.
    Wow you say??? How did this all come to be?
    LONG STORY……….. so far what are your words of advice when both parties are waiting for the best thing for them ,and no one tells the other what they really really want!
    a very bad situation is at Play right now.

    • HI Karen, thanks for your comment and questions. I’ll respond in two parts. First, I think the best way to get past emotional reactions is to breathe into them, then change the way you talk to yourself about what’s happening by finding a useful assumption on which to base your behavior. All this is easier to do if you rehearse doing it in the privacy of your mind, using past experiences as the staging ground.

      Now, in the situation you describe, the lack of clarity about desired outcome is the problem. What you can do with that is help your mother think through her options in a coherent way, instead of going back and forth between them. Take staying in the house. Evaluate the upside, then the downside, then put it aside. Then take moving back, and do the same. Lastly, take moving to England, and do the same. BY helping your mother to do this, she’ll wind up with a stronger sense of what her best and worst options are. Then gently remind her that there is no such thing as a perfect decision, and that instead all she can ask of herself is her best decision. Offer her some reassurance after, and I’m guessing she can work it out.
      Best wishes,

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