This fallacy could cripple your business

When you accept and respond to false dilemmas, the results could devastate your business. Unfortunately, many of us fall into this trap without even realizing it. Chalk it off to distractions, information overload, or general busyness. Whatever the reason, we often fail to question premises when communicating, a step that could dramatically alter outcomes. In this article, I recommend developing habits to avoid falling prey to false dilemmas.

A false dilemma, also known as the “either-or” fallacy, simply presents a finite number of options, usually two, when many more may exist. Much like a real dilemma, a solution is needed; however, in an effort to persuade or achieve a desired outcome, the presenter of a false dilemma will offer limited options. The person presenting a false dilemma may have ulterior motives, may stand to benefit from both options, or simply may be unaware or not in the habit of seeking other options. In many instances, we play the role of both messenger and receiver, forming in our own minds a false dilemma and acting on one of two choices without taking time to consider or solicit additional options.

Consider the classic close. Once a customer shows interest in a widget, a savvy salesman might simply say, “will you be paying cash or charge today?” In his haste, the customer might not even consider option three—not making a purchase. His actions depend upon his mental and emotional state at that particular moment. If he’s distracted or ever so slightly emotionally attached to the widget, the sale could be a slam dunk. If he’s an over-thinker, a minimalist, or tight with a buck, the salesman won’t stand a chance.

Now consider typical business communication. Any number of scenarios unfold regularly. The trick to avoid being pigeonholed is to adopt the habit of looking for more options.

In a panic, an organization might react hastily and either delete or respond to a negative comment on their Facebook post without considering a third option, doing nothing. If the negative comment is merely aimed at embarrassing the organization, the person who posted it stands a greater chance of looking bad, so leaving the evidence for all to see without reacting to it may be the best option. Of course, establishing in advance a policy for reacting to public criticism is one way to avoid dilemmas like this. Any established policy should account for a variety of outcomes that align with the organization’s position, mission, and brand.

The automatic “no” response is another tangible false dilemma because it forces closure to what might otherwise be an open-ended question or statement. Again, chalk it off to busyness, habit, or aversion to change, but much can be gleaned about the culture of an organization whose leaders automatically shut down innovative or novel ideas. In my experience, the reflexive “no” usually can be interpreted as “I don’t feel like it.” If there is an “I don’t feel like it” attitude anywhere on your roster or chain of command, there’s a growth hurdle and possibly a morale killer. Well-trained leaders ask a lot of questions. The alternative to an automatic “no” might look like this: “Hmm, to the best of my knowledge that idea has never been broached before. I’m not sure how we could do it. What are your thoughts? How do you see that playing out? Paint the picture for me.”

Benefits to this approach:

  • It engages and empowers the inquiring party, thus boosting morale
  • Listening to understand is a form of empathy that will make the other person feel valued
  • An employee or team member who feels valued will work twice as hard
  • Those who feel valued have a greater level of trust for others, and we know everything moves at the speed of trust
  • A good idea properly executed translates to profit
  • If the idea is weak, talking it through will uncover vulnerabilities, forcing the presenter to go back to the drawing board and prepare more thoroughly the next time

When I began consulting in 2005, a very successful businessman gave me a great piece of advice that I wrote on a Post-it, which still adorns the top of my desk. It reads: Partner and repeat sales. I have carried that advice into many PR/marketing strategy sessions. A question I often ask is, “With whom can we partner to double our exposure and reduce costs?” Much to my chagrin, the concept is not always adopted. Partnering with outside entities and, in some cases, competitors scares many people. The false dilemma “do it alone or don’t do it at all” surfaces frequently. Having learned that early on, I have become accustomed to preparing accordingly by presenting the idea along with pros/cons and cost/benefit analyses. Such details usually inspire others to come up with options three, four, and five. Presenting options stimulates conversation. Instead of talking about whether we should partner, we may deliberate over who would be the best partner.

Limiting options limits outcomes. If you are inclined to tell yourself or someone else, or if someone tells you there is but two choices in any given situation, challenge the assumption. Consider all possibilities and how each would unfold. Paint the picture.

Lorraine Ranalli

Lorraine Ranalli

Lorraine Ranalli is Chief Storyteller & Communications Director, as well as published author. Her most recent work, Impact: Deliver Effective, Meaningful, and Memorable Presentations, is a pocket book of public ... Web: LorraineRanalli.com Details

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