Do you notice how often it appears difficult to DECIDE WITH SOMEONE WHERE YOU WILL GO TO DINNER?  With your spouse, it may sound something like this:

You: “Where do you want to go to dinner?”

Spouse: “I don’t care.”

You: “Ok, why don’t we go to Alfredo’s?”

Spouse: “Hmmmmm. NO!”

You: “Ok then, so where do you want to go?”

Spouse: “I told you, I DON’T CARE!”  (Of course, you are now both infected with that chronic and familiar state of mind where nothing sounds good!)

You: (As you are becoming increasingly crabby and impatient and you start imagining what you now might want to say.)  Ok, so why don’t I go to Alfredo’s and you stay home!!!”         

Now both of you are cranky, defensive, and whatever appetite you may have had has evaporated!  

Does this sound familiar? 

This record plays over and over a lot with your spouse, family, co-workers, network, et al.

HERE IS ANOTHER FAMILIAR STORY that you have likely experienced with your parents when you were little, and then — in order to keep the family pathology ongoing through the generations — again with your own children.   

The setting:  You are at the dinner table with your young child. 

            You: “Now listen, son, you either finish your dinner or you go to bed!”

            Son: He stares off into space, begins whining, starts pushing back, and wants to negotiate with you. 

 Perhaps he says, “Well, in consideration of the consequences of having to go to bed, the most intelligent and pragmatic decision I could make now is to finish my dinner with all deliberate speed, and in the meantime, may I say thanks for your patience!”


You know what is likely to happen.  You remember how you behaved when you were little and certainly your son is likely to be just as difficult.  Virtually every parent has experienced this screenplay.


It may surprise you that the biggest and most counter-productive initiative you made in both of the above examples is that you provided only two options.

When it came to the restaurant choice, there were only two options available: 

  1. Go to Alfredo’s together
  2. Go to Alfredo’s alone

Because there were only two options presented, it became very difficult to make a choice between you and your spouse.

When it came to getting your son to finish his dinner, you gave him only two options:

  1. Finish your dinner
  2. Go to bed

You may now say, “SO WHAT!”

What you want to appreciate is what happens to just about everyone when they are presented with only two options.

When people are in any type of stressful situation or conflict they start to polarize and become anxious thinking in TWO OPTIONS – and employing a contest mentality. 

The contest mentality is:

  • right / wrong
  • win / lose
  • good / bad
  • success / failure
  • all / nothing
  • ally / enemy
  • together / apart
  • accepted / rejected
  • liked / disliked
  • black / white

When people polarize, they become stuck, usually fixated, and obsessing on the negative of the two options – the bad, the loss, the failure, and the wrong which grinds any potential progress or resolution to a halt. 

THE BIGGEST ISSUE IS THE NUMBER OF OPTIONS!  In these situations you have likely only considered 1 or 2 options.  When 1 or 2 options are presented, polarizing will emerge and thus the contest mentality.

The result?  Constant fear, worry, anxiety, anger, suspicion, and conflict.  You see this behavior often in issues surrounding unions and management, religions, divorces, parenting, political parties, lawsuits, and government. 

What to do?  In every situation CREATE MULTIPLE OPTIONS – MINIMUM 3!

It is amazing how powerful three options can be in any situation that might be problematic.

There is something that happens to your brain when you hear three options:


With three options, your state of mind becomes more flexible, in part, because there is a significant reduction in the likelihood that a bad result is coming. The contest is largely removed!


I have treated many couples in marriage therapy.  Most of the time when married couples come to see me, their marriage is in trouble and they are close to a divorce.  They believe that they have only two options: stay together or get divorced. Certainly most everyone in that situation finds either option unacceptable.  The risks appear to be colossal and the downside is overwhelming.

So, because the couple continually catastrophizes and awfulizes they become hamstrung and unable to make a decision on how to proceed. 

What I do is listen to their situation and then say to them, “It seems to me there are at least 5 or 6 options that you can do here.”

The moment I offer up 5 or 6 options, before I even talk about what they are, there appears to be a profound look of relief on the faces of the couple. WHY? Because the number of options reduces the risk of the polarizing options.

You must reduce the polarizing before you can begin to solve the problems.  When you increase the number of options the catastrophizing goes down.


For example, you are about to close an important sales deal with a client.  You name your price and your client balks.  Your client wants the product but not at your price.  It is looking like a lost cause.  He either pays your price or you walk.  It is rapidly becoming an all or nothing situation. 

To break the deadlock try changing your strategy.  Offer him three options: good, better, best.

  1. hamburger – basic, least expensive
  2. cheeseburger – better and a little more expensive
  3. cheeseburger with fries – the entire meal at a premium price

 Three options with three different price points. 

Set in the context of the magic third option you will be amazed how reasonable the original “hamburger” option now appears to your client.  And what’s even better, he is now even considering the “cheeseburger with fries.” 

The message is simple, in every conflict situation CREATE MULTIPLE OPTIONS – MINIMUM 3!  And put the preferred option last.

It works!

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