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Smart Choices – A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions

Review by John Wade
Published by: (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999) pp 244.

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This article has been reproduced with permission of
Bond University Dispute Resolution Newsletter September 1999, Vol2. For past Bond
mediators, courses, publications, see website.

The dispute resolution movement fluctuates between triumphant anecdote and dogma, and fragile connection to established forms of learning and wisdom. Helpful connections are found in literature and practice particularly to psychology, communications and cross-cultural studies. A rich field also lies waiting in management, military and business schools in relation to how to make wise decisions.

Mediators, lawyers, psychologists and other skilled helpers are fundamentally assisting people to make wise decisions in the face of conflict and uncertainty. This book, Smart Choices, and similar books which follow it, will become standard prescribed texts for lawyers and mediators as mandatory knowledge and skills slowly emerge in university and other dispute resolution courses.

In simple language and using easy-to-follow instructions, the book takes the reader through a series of cognitive steps which are essential to learn and practise in order to reduce the chances of unwise decisions for self or client. Although hindsight is 20/20 vision, this reader was reminded constantly of major organisational, legal and family conflicts which had escalated at least in part because none of these helpful steps were identified or addressed.

These ten steps can be practised like a golf swing. In summary, they are set out in each chapter as:

  • Problem: How to define the problem (Mediators will hear echoes of the endless practice of reframing and problem defining on whiteboards)
  • Objectives: How to clarify goals (Good news and bad news – “We’ve arrived early; but we’re lost”)
  • Alternatives: How to create a range of alternatives apart from the usual “your solution” or “my solution”
  • Consequences: How to set out what are the possible probable consequences of each alternative, and then measure these against your objectives
  • Tradeoffs: How to pick which alternatives should be prioritised for the time being? (Negotiators will hear echoes of “You can’t win everything”; “What can you live with?” “What can you give up for now in order to achieve your top priorities?”)
  • Uncertainty: How to think about and act on uncertainties affecting your decision (This chapter is often missing from mediation and dispute resolution courses)
  • Risk Tolerance: How to take into account your own and other people’s appetite for risk-taking (This is a factor which is blurred in the ubiquitous writing and dogma on “inequality of bargaining power” found in early dispute resolution literature)
  • Linked Decisions: How to plan ahead for a series of decisions based on collecting information; then deciding
  • Psychological Traps: How to avoid some of the standard tricks which the mind plays on us all when we are making decisions. (This chapter is mandatory reading for lawyers. We have been taught to believe that psychological truths do not apply to us)

This reader has already used “the system” of smart choices to advise clients diagrammatically on litigation decisions, and future career choices.

The book raises many fascinating questions for theorists and practitioners including:

  • How can such a structured and rational method be used with a highly emotional client?
  • How can the anecdotal cultures common to lawyers and mediators incorporate such a systematic problem-solving approach?
  • How to deal with clients who resist systems and rationality?
  • How can this degree of organisation be meshed with educational theories on different learning styles of clients?
  • How can this vital systematic methodology of decision-making be incorporated into the already overcrowded curricula of mediation, law and psychology courses?
  • How can mediators and negotiators use this helpful approach without causing loss of face for lawyers, managers and other skilled helpers (who should have already applied this method in the same systematic fashion)?

Smart Choices provides an excellent overview of systematic knowledge, process and skills attached wise decision-making. For conflict managers, this is the centre of our world.


John Wade

John Wade is an Emeritus Professor of Law at Bond University and was a practicing lawyer in Australia until 2012. John is a nationally and internationally acclaimed expert in dispute resolution, legal education and family law. For the last 40 years he has taught at two Australian, three Canadian, one… MORE >

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