WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

This book explores the concept of choice, and the paradox it can create. When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable, and as our choices expand so does our sense of autonomy, control and liberation. Choice improves the quality of our lives (and, side note, our capacity to manage conflict). But Schwartz cautions that too much choice can result in us becoming overloaded and debilitated. Some choice is good, but more choice isn’t necessarily better. Schwartz warns that we can get caught up in the tyranny of small decisions and it can be the cumulative effect of added choices that causes distress.

This book is not just about how to manage the challenges of enthusiastic marketing in a world of overwhelming product choices. While it does contain lots of information and examples of these kinds of challenges, it also describes how we tend to make choices and why these processes of choosing are often flawed.

This book made me critically analyse some of the tools that conflict managers and leaders often use, such as goal setting, information gathering, brainstorming and evaluating options. Often as practitioners we feel that if we only had more time, we could help our clients achieve better outcomes. But is that actually true? How much time and energy are we using to create multiple options, or trying to find the perfect choice, when we could be better engaged elsewhere. How can we support our clients to make good choices about the things that matter, and to let go of the things that don’t.

I re-read the book recently and it suddenly had a whole new relevance when considering choices about whether or not to be vaccinated against COVID.

Schwartz teaches some challenging lessons (especially if you have perfectionist tendencies), including:

1. We would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.

2. We would be better off seeking what was “good enough” instead of seeking the best.

3. We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions.

4. We would be better off if the decisions we made were nonreversible.

5. We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.

The final chapter has some great advice about how to manage the paradox of choice, which we can all take on board personally, but also reflect on how we can support our clients to make choices about how to manage their conflict in a way that maximises their autonomy, control, liberation and energy levels!

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