Decision Making: How, Exactly, Do We Decide?


  1. Information does not teach someone how to make a decision.
  2. Decision-making follows a specific, unconscious process.
  3. Decisions are neither haphazard, irrational, emotional, or faulty.
  4. Decisions are based on conscious or unconscious values-based criteria, generated from historic beliefs, that created and maintain the current internal, underlying system of rules, roles, relationships.


Whether in the field of sales, negotiations, change management, or just getting a three year old to clean her room, nothing will change without a decision being made. And, decisions correspond to the unconscious, values-based norms of a person’s (or group’s) internal, beliefs-based criteria.

Historically, we have assumed that offering good data can influence a decision. We have built industries on this assumption: sales, marketing, advertising, training, coaching, PR, politics, teaching. Indeed, even the foundation of Decision Sciences is information: the testing of what a person decides given X input, regardless of what internal criteria is involved that would influence the behavior.

The basic belief has been that if, as Outsiders (marketers, sellers, influencers, parents, coaches), we presume an Other is experiencing a Problem, and we offer to resolve that problem through our solution by pitching, presenting, promoting, or marketing the ‘right’ information, in the ‘right’ way, at the ‘right’ time, to the ‘right’ demographic, we will be able to influence decisions to get the Other to adopt our solution.

I’m here to tell you that the premise is wrong. And this premise has been singularly responsible for the 90%+ failure rate in the field of sales, and 50%+ in marketing, advertising, coaching, and training.


We make new decisions only when our values-based criteria are triggered and found to be deficient; we rarely make a decision that is out of alignment with our underlying beliefs, and if we do, we are incongruent and, therefore, uncomfortable. Indeed, behaviors are the external manifestation of our beliefs – our beliefs in action, as it were.

I once noticed a young man smoking. It was quite a surprise for me, after seeing the array of pictures he produced of his young family. It seemed odd that he hadn’t noticed the incongruence between smoking and being a healthy Dad who would want to be around to raise his very young family.

“How will you know when it’s time to shift your criteria from the pleasure of smoking to the need to be a healthy Dad as your children grow up?”

He threw his cigarettes away at that moment. Last I heard, several years later, he was still abstaining from cigarettes. His decision to quit was based on a different criteria than his decision to smoke, and higher up the criteria ladder in his unconscious.

Note the use of the Facilitative Question. I formulated the question to help him make conscious his unconscious criteria around pleasure and fatherhood, and trusted that once he saw the incongruence, and shifted his criteria to fatherhood and health, he would reconsider his decision to smoke. If I had asked him why he was smoking (gathering information), he would have told me. If I had told him it wasn’t healthy (offering information), he would have agreed. But once I led him to his unconscious, and taught him how to engage a higher-level criterion (family and fatherhood being a higher level criterion than smoking), and assign a different weight to ‘smoking’ and ‘fatherhood’ and ‘health’ than he had, he was able to make a new decision for himself.


We each internally hold a tangled system of unique, idiosyncratic, personal values and beliefs acquired from our history of family, school, religion, friends, and living conditions.

From here we build a series of beliefs, values, hopes, dreams, fears, assumptions, biases that I call our ‘internal system’, making up a set of belief-based criteria from which we make all of our decisions. And, to make a decision, we unconsciously filter all incoming data through our system.

As a lifelong health person, I automatically filter out any conversation, ad, or commercial, which might suggest I smoke, eat processed food or wheat, purchase candy, or harm the earth. Regardless of the quality of the data or the intent, I will not attend to it. It would be going against my beliefs, and is therefore a waste of my time. I am a sucker for articles or shows on health, longevity, exercise. When I buy a health magazine at a check out counter on ‘impulse’, it’s never a behavior-based decision but a decision that has already (quickly) gone through my belief criteria.

As with others, much of my decision making is unconscious and automatic, biased and comfortable. I ignore direct mail no matter how clever the packaging. I hang up on any cold callers that begin a conversation trying to get me to listen to them (i.e. taking care of their needs rather than mine). I ignore people who think they know what’s right for me and offer to show me the error of my ways without discussing criteria, beliefs, outcomes.

Like each of us, I have a whole slew of things that I believe and that influence – and bias – the data I seek, the thoughts and activities I’m willing to attend to, the filters I listen through, the conversations I’m willing to have, my choice of friends, clothes, food. They influence where I live, who I marry – or not – what I read or watch. And we all have the same sorts of influences and biases that are self-sustaining. They are part of our internal system that maintains itself daily.


Decision Scientists, OD folks, leaders, sales folks, and change agents, would like to pretend that people are blank slates, and available for influence if approached nicely or rationally. People are deemed irrational, or making a bad decision, or stupid, if their behaviors are outside of our comfort zone, or our proposed solutions.

But do people understand exactly what is going on for them internally that is instigating their biases and decisions? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the motivation or ability to look inside. But just because underlying beliefs are hidden doesn’t mean people don’t, or can’t, understand what is going on, or that they can’t be influenced to do something differently within the boundaries of their personal criteria.

We make these sorts of assumptions in Sales and Coaching: as outsiders with a knowledge of what a ‘problem’ in our field looks like, we might recognize that someone has a problem that needs resolution (with our product or ideas, naturally) and we can’t understand the hesitation. In Change Management, we offer the initiative and all of the strategic behaviors that need to be addressed, but there is resistance that cuts short success. Vendors place product, but users won’t do what they are supposed to do after the implementation – and we never got buy-in before we started.

We fail to realize that external data will only be used or perceived or considered in relation to beliefs and values and are not considered in a vacuum.

Sales mistakenly acts as if an Identified Problem is an isolated event and ignores the entire body of internal systems that created the problem, and develop creative work-arounds to maintain it daily. Change Management mistakenly believes that if requests for change are positioned and presented rationally and nicely, people will behave as requested. Parents and doctors, lawyers and teachers, believe that they should be obeyed because they have professional, historic or well-meaning data, separate from the beliefs held by the Other.


Sadly, Outsiders cannot understand the full range of internal/hidden influencers of Others. It’s been the basic underlying flaw of sales, advertising, marketing, medicine, teaching, negotiating: as Outsiders, when we perceive a Problem, we mistakenly assume that our viewpoint is accurate and that a fix is necessary.

We then go about gathering data around the Problem we think we can resolve and then we diligently figure out how to pitch or present our solution so the other will buy-in. But we are operating out of our own biases, making assumptions based on partial data, and have no way of addressing the full set of internal elements that would need to buy-in to change.

An analogy would be if we were Iceberg Specialists and noticed a problem with the tip of an iceberg. We might assume that our product could move the iceberg once we understood the dimensions and how our solution fits. While we have the means to move it, the tip won’t move without the entire iceberg being engaged.  And only the iceberg itself can understand and manage the internal elements that would have to be engaged for buy-in to occur.

There is a way we can influence another’s decisions while engaging their full range of internal criteria. We can enter a communication believing that our job is to assist Others in uncovering their own array of beliefs and biases, and help them test for congruence. We can help Others unravel their internal landscape to determine if, where, and how they need to make a new decision. Using a Facilitative Question such as “How would you know when it was time to reconsider your hairstyle?” might bring up an internal viewing of past, present, and future criteria around self-perception, future needs, relationships, etc; whereas saying “Why do you wear your hair like that?” or “Do you plan on changing your hairstyle?” (both of which are gathering data and challenging current beliefs) only meets the unconscious biases and will not cause reflection or change.

Indeed, when we ask information gathering questions, we are only eliciting answers on decisions already made, and not helping the brain decide differently. Decisions already made are stored in the brain in such a way to be easily retrieved. But recognizing these decisions will not change behavior as we’re not addressing the unconscious issues and internal system that would need to shift if change were required.

It’s time to change the way we help folks make better decisions: we must help them recognize what criteria they need to shift and assist them in considering how to reconfigure their own internal system. This way, change can happen congruently while the tangles that hold the status quo in place get untangled, and the integrity of the system gets maintained.


Here is my sequential, internal process of decision making. It’s based on systems-thinking and addresses the order of considerations necessary for a decision to be made (ie: we can’t try to discover a fix before we realize something is broken). I have also developed a new form of question (Facilitative Question) that addresses the criteria and tangles that hold the current decision in place and would have to be reconfigured in order for change – a new decision – to happen.

1. Where are you? What’s missing? Because we begin at the level of the ‘leaf’ and can’t see the entire forest, we start off being unable to recognize the full fact pattern of our status quo. As a result, it’s impossible to get a full understanding of our complete complement of needs or shortcomings – we can’t initially understand exactly what might be missing – so long as we are close to the problem. The first step in Decision Facilitation is to help the Other move away from where they are, and get a bird’s eye view of the entire internal landscape. This includes people, relationships, history, socio-politics, hopes, fears, needs, ego issues, future dreams. All elements within the system must be dissected and examined, in order to recognize how, where, why, and if change might need to happen.

RULE:  If nothing seems to be missing, there will be no decision to change. But once a system recognizes something missing, it must attempt to find a fix.

2. Fix it internally A system seeks homeostasis. At the point that the system recognizes that something is indeed missing, it must attempt a fix to maintain balance. And it must seek the fix internally, as anything foreign and unfamiliar to the system creates more imbalance. This is where many efforts to create change get lost: because outsiders assume that if the Other (client, customer, coachee, friend, etc.) recognizes a problem, they need a fix. But an internal, or familiar fix must be sought first so the integrity of the system can be easily maintained. It’s only when the system recognizes that it cannot fix the issue with something familiar will it consider seeking help from anything outside.

RULE: The system will reject unfamiliar resources until it has determined that it cannot fix a problem on its own. It will therefore do everything it can to find familiar resources – old vendors, colleagues, internal departments – to limit disruption. Once it realizes it cannot self-correct, it will then seek an external/unfamiliar solution.

3. Maintain the integrity of the system during change Once the system realizes that it must use an external resource for a fix, it cannot move forward until all of the internal ‘arteries and veins’ that keep the system in place – including the identified flaw – are in alignment with the external fix. Herein lie the biggest problem with sales, marketing, teaching, advertising, medicine – whatever. The Identified Problem starts off sitting within a complex set of systems that hold it in place and maintain its relevance. Making a change disrupts the system. So the system will fight to remain as it is until the entire system is able to agree to some sort of reconfiguration that will allow for a fix while maintaining homeostasis.

This last is the length of the sales cycle, or the decision cycle. This is why folks don’t floss, won’t eat healthy, won’t stop smoking, or take so long to buy your product. It’s why people buy the same sort of car, use that old vendor or training, and why it takes so long for them to do anything new.

RULE: The time it takes Others to come up with their own answers to maintain homeostasis through change is the length of the sales/decision cycle.

Our current models of influence push IN to the system, rather than teaching the system how to manage and reconfigure itself.

Let’s help our buyers, patients, friends, colleagues, make decisions based on their own internal landscape, not our need to sell or offer solutions. The Buying Facilitation Method® does this. There are several forms of training and coaching to help you learn the skills to formulate the Facilitative Questions, do the Presumptive Summaries necessary, and listen for systems in order to recognize the Other’s internal issues. You can learn to do this in weeks. Call, and let’s see how to work together.

Would you rather sell? Or have someone buy? You decide.

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