Sunday, 13 November 2016

Progress: The stages with a worked example


  1. Stage 1: Situation and Decision

    Advice on: Understanding the Situation and Decision

    1. Where Are You Now?

      Exercise: Initial Thoughts about the Situation and Decision
      Exercise: Initial Emotions About the Situation and Decision
    2. How Did You Get Here?

      Exercise: The Decision in the Context of Your Personal History
      • Example: John's Context (under construction)
      Exercise: Assess the Trigger To Choose the 'Best Problem'
      • Example: John's Trigger (under construction)
    3. Moving Forward

      Exercise: Be an Ace Investigative Journalist and Your Own Sympathetic Critic

      Exercise: Be an Un-Spin Doctor
    4. Reassess Your Initial Thoughts and Emotions

      Exercise: Reassesses Your Thoughts about the Situation and Decision

      Exercise: Reassesses Your Emotions about the Situation and Decision
  2. Stage 2: What Matters

    Advice on: Working Out What Matters

    1. Exercise: Generate Candidate Values
      Exercise: Weigh Up Candidate Values
  3. Stage 3: Generate Options

    Advice on: Generating Options

    1. Exercise: Generate Options
  4. Stage 4: Assess Options

    Advice on: Assessing Options

    1. Exercise: Assess Options
  5. Stage 5: Implement Your Decision

    Advice on: Implementing Your Decision

    1. Exercise: Check Your Analysis
      Exercise: Work Out How to Implement Your Decision
      Exercise: Work Out How to Monitor Your Decision
      Exercise: Review: What Progress Have I Made
      Exercise: Motivation Tips

Introduction - why wise decision-making?

 Necessity of Decision-Making

If there is one thing that we can be certain of as human beings it is that we make decisions. This happens even if we don't want to make decisions - decisions will then get made for us by others and by circumstance and then we have made a decision by not making one (effectively we have decided to give our decision-making capacity away). 

Our Lack Of Training In Decision-Making

What is astonishing is that we get no formal guidance in school or work, and precious little informal guidance from those around us, about how to make wise decisions. Hardly surprising given this that we often struggle to make wise decisions and that our lives, and the lives of those around us, don't always go as well as they might.

Why Help In Making Decisions?

There are three reasons to get help in making decision:
  • Pivotal decisions have very significant implications for how the lives of everyone effected by these decisions goes. It can be worth the time and effort to make these decisions wisely.
  • Some situations are repeatedly encountered (often with slight variations) and for these it can be worth developing a policy for how to deal with these recurring challenges..
  • Spending time on improving our decision-making process can streamline and improve our future decision-making.
Pivotal, and other important, decisions can hang over us for months or even years, while we worry about them daily. Many of our clients, before coming to us, report spending many hours - sometimes thousands of hours - agonising over their decisions. Given this time we often already spend in making decisions, making the decision in a structured way, aided by someone who can help you work through the issues, can be a worthwhile investment of time and effort.

Decisions Can Involve Both Prudential And Ethical Values

A brief consideration of the range of decisions that we make shows two things. First, how inescapable decision-making is and, second, that decision-making often involves both prudential considerations about our own welfare and also that our decisions, both personal and work related, will often impinge upon important aspects of other people's lives. That is to say our decisions will involve ethical values.

What Makes A Decision Wise?

Ultimately a decision is wise if it produces outcomes that are desirable. Much of what occurs in the world is the result of factors outside our control. However we can do much to bring aspects of the world under our influence. Decisions can be made wisely thus increasing our chances of a good outcome. We suggest that the following are important ingredients to making a wise decision:
  • spotting the need to make a decision
  • understanding the situation you are in
  • getting clear on the decision you are facing
  • working out what matters in the situation
  • thinking of possible courses of action
  • assessing these courses of action in terms of what matters
  • effectively carrying out your decision
  • monitoring and revising your decision

What Abilities Are Needed To Make Wise Decisions?

These ingredients of wise decision-making require certain abilities upon our part as we need to both understand ourselves and the world we are in. These include:
  • understanding and using emotions
  • assessing values (what matters)
  • being an effective critical thinker
  • being an effective creative thinker
  • being an effective communicator


PROGRESS is designed to allow us to make wiser decisions in our personal, interpersonal and work lives. It provides a structure to decision-making to make sure that important aspects of the process are properly carried out and a series of tasks that exercise and develop the abilities needed for wise decision-making.

Publications on Wise Decision-Making

Articles published in the Practical Philosophy "Towards Wise Decision-Making" Series
  1. Towards Wise Decision-Making (i): Decision Analysis (pdf file) Practical Philosophy (3:1 November 2000), by Tim LeBon and David Arnaud
  2. Towards Wise Decision-Making (ii): The Emotions (pdf file) Practical Philosophy (3:3 March 2000), by David Arnaud and Tim LeBon
  3. Towards Wise Decision-Making (iii): Critical and Creative Thinking (pdf file) Practical Philosophy (4:3 November 2001), by Tim LeBon and David Arnaud
  4. Towards Wise Decision-Making (iv): A Case Study (pdf file) Practical Philosophy 6.2

  1. Wise Therapy: Philosophy for Counsellors by Tim LeBon (offsite)
Other Articles
  1. Progress Towards Wise Decision-Making (pdf file)  in Philosophy of Management. 
  2. Its Good To Think by Antonia Macaro 
  3. Using a Decision-Diagram For Ethical Decision Making (pdf file) by David Arnaud Practical Philosophy (6.1, Spring 2003)

The Progress Model

The key to making wise decisions is to choose the course of action with the strongest reasons in its favour. But how do you think of this option, and how do you know its a good choice? Progress provides five stages to help you achieve this.

Stage 1. Understand the Situation and Decision

You need to understand the decision you are facing, and the situation it is located in, accurately, fair-mindedly and fully. Without this understanding any attempt to make a decision is likely to be flawed through making errors about what the situation is really like and through not choosing the best problem to work on. For example, you are unlikely to make the right decision about whether to help a drowning man if you think they are waving, not drowning

Advice on understanding the situation and decision

Stage 2. Work out What Matters.

Think as widely as possible about what you want to bring about. What do you think matters? What values really matter? And which of these matter most ? Unless you have thought carefully about what you want to achieve you're unlikely to achieve it! For example your angry partner criticises you - should you respond angrily or let it pass? To decide on this wisely, you need to think about whether asserting yourself now matters, or whether asserting yourself at the right time, is most important.

Advice on how to work out what matters

Stage 3. Generate Options.

Creatively generate options. We easily get stuck in ruts of thinking so you need to be imaginative. Once you have understood the situation fully you are in a good position to creatively think up options. If you want a quiet life now and to assert yourself, then you might decide to let this criticism pass, and choose a better moment in which to raise the question of how the two of you communicate with each other.

Advice on how to generate options

Stage 4. Assess Options

The fourth step follows on logically from this - you need to evaluate each option, and you do this, of course, in terms of what matters (stage 2). Select the option that, while based upon the reality of the situation, best captures what you have determined matters most.

Advice on how to assess options

Stage 5. Implement Your Decision

Finally, you prepare for implementing the solution, armed with a fallback plan and follow-up activities. Once you have made your selection of the best option you need to make a final check on it, and work out how to implement and monitor it. Finally you need to commit yourself to carrying it out. The best decision, if not carried through is not going to be much help to you.

Advice on implementing your decision

The Stages In Order

To increase your chances of coming to a wise decision make sure you do the five stages in this order.

If you don't understand the situation and have a clear idea of the decision you want to make you can hardly start to work out what matters in it. You cannot think up or evaluate options without an idea of what you want to achieve with your decision. And of course you cannot implement a solution until you have selected the best option.

As you are working on later stages your understanding of the situation, the decision you want to make, what matters, or the options you have might change radically. If so there is nothing to stop you iterating back through earlier stages.

The Theory Powering Progress: A 5 step Wise Decision Making Procedure

PROGRESS was developed to cover what its authors see as a gap in counselling and management practice. While counselling takes as its main aim helping people to live well the different schools within it have remarkably little to say about how to help people to make wise decisions. Management theorists have devoted considerable resources to producing models of decision-making but, we believe, these models have tended to focus on providing a means for people to make 'purely' business decisions rather than the personal and interpersonal decisions that are part of the fabric of our private and work lives. These models have also tended to ignore the role of the emotions and insights from the values and critical thinking literatures.

This position, and the theory behind it, is more fully explained in our series of articles "Towards Wise Decision-Making" published in Practical Philosophy.

The practical consequences of the theory are to be found by looking at
The main theoretical sources powering PROGRESS are:
  1. values: values are central to making decisions because the whole point of a wise decision is to bring about something that is valuable. Theoretical insights from ethics are used in order to help us ask the right questions to judge what matters, both prudentially and ethically. There is a vast literature on this. An inspired introduction is Weston's A Practical Companion to Ethics. James Rachels' The Elements of Moral Philosophy introduces ethical theories and John Kekes' The Examined Life prudential values. PROGRESS author Tim LeBon's book Wise Therapy: Philosophy for Counsellors provides many techniques to help think through their personal values. We have drawn heavily on Covey's, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic for the idea of win-win thinking.
  2. emotional wisdom: wise decision-making is not purely a matter for the head. Awareness of emotions and how they might both undermine and help wise decision-making is vital. In order to prevent us from misperceiving the situation, and also to inform us about what is valuable, we need to use our emotions wisely. Our emotions provide information about the situation and decision facing us, about what we value, and motivate us to carry out our decision. See for example the account of emotions in Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thoughtand Solomon's The Passions. PROGRESS author Tim LeBon's book Wise Therapy: Philosophy for Counsellors examines the various roles of emotions.
  3. creative thinking: we use creative thinking skills, in particular when thinking up options, but also to identify potential values.The ubiquitous Edward De Bono offers many tips in, for instance Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step By Step. An early influential text is Osborne's Applied Imagination.
  4. critical thinking: critical thinking is used at all stages, and especially to understand the situation we are in, to weigh up the kinds of values we wish to bring about and to assess our available options.There is a rapidly growing philosophical and psychological literature on critical thinking. Philosophical texts, among many excellent ones, include Anne Thomson's Critical Reasoning in Ethics, Johnson and Blair's Logical Self-Defense, and Robert Ennis' Critical Thinking. Social psychologists Nisbett and Ross cover the dangers of the power of vividness very well in Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of social Judgement.

  5. decision-making: wise decision-making involves being aware of the different stages involved in the process. Our favourite book on this is Smart Choices by management consultants and decision theorists Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa. One of the few books in counselling that looks at decisions is Egan's, The Skilled Helper.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Existential Decision Coaching

The worlds of existential and coaching may at first sight appear to be polar opposites. Smoke-filled Parisian cafes and angst-ridden discussions about the futility of it all  might appear to have no place in the  boardroom or when  dealing with your own personal issues.
A new book,  Existential Perspectives on  Coaching, would suggest otherwise. The perspective it offers is that the existential dimension is exactly what is needed to provide depth to the process.

David Arnaud and I have written a chapter aiming to demonstrate exactly this in the realm of  major life decisions.

The management literature informs us that there are 5 logical steps to decision-making
1) Understanding the situation and framing the decision-problem
2) Understanding what matters
3) Searching for options
4) Choosing the best option
5) Implementing the decision

It is helpful to work through these stages logically when making decisions. As you do so, though  you may well  encounter existential concerns, often  masquerading as doubts, anxieties and paradoxes.
The six existential concerns that we find most relevant to decision making are as follows:-
1.    Emotions -including existential guilt and existential anxiety
2.    Values and Meaning
3.  Freedom, Responsibility, Facticity and Choice
4.  Uncertainty
5.  Sedimented beliefs, behaviour patterns and values
6.  Time and Mortality

So how can this work in practice?
Consider Susan  who is 35 and  contemplating whether to have children. She tells you, her coach, that  she thinks about the question every day and lurches between desperately wanting to have children and thinking she wants children, but not just yet. Her sleepless nights and news of friends' pregnancy and recent birthday bring her to see you, a coach who specializes in decision-making. Using the five steps given by the management literature will help - it provides a logical framework, and helps her focus on her questions.  What it does less well is her her deal with conflicting emotions or  provide the tools for reflection on values or  other existential concerns. Our chapter goes into much more depth about how this works in practice with a case involving a career change and one about making a choice about a relationship.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Wise Decision Making in a nutshell

At times, wise decision-making can be very complex - and on this site we won't shy from going into some of the difficulties - such as how to tackle decision paralysis, whether you should ignore or take notice of strong emotions and desires during decision-making and how to deal with uncertainty.
I was asked the other day to give a two sentence summary of what I'd learnt most from over a decade of helping people with decisions. I thought I would share with you my advice
Most important, ask yourself what really matters in this situation - not just what matters to you at this second , but what will matter in a years time, and what matters to people you care about? Secondly, what can you do in the next hour that will either work towards achieving what matters, or help you find out information towards doing so.
That's it.  In a nutshell

  • Think about what matters
  • Take a step towards it

Of course there will be some decisions where you will need unravel your emotional reactions first and deal with complex situations - in which case seeing a decision coach may be a good idea.  But try these two steps first and see whether it helps.