Everyone is familiar with a pros and cons exercise, whether we’ve walked ourselves through the process when we had a difficult decision to make or use it as a tool in a corrections context, typically with an individual who is ambivalent or on the fence about making a change in their life. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to understand how differently I applied this exercise with others compared to how I used it with myself.
The first thing that seems obvious when I think about using pros and cons in my own life is that it isn’t a math problem. You don’t write down a list of pros and a list of cons, tally them up and make the decision based on which column has more items. It doesn’t work that way because certain items have more value than others. If a single con represented me not being able to see my children, I almost don’t care what’s on the pro side. We walk ourselves through this exercise to organize our thoughts and try to predict outcomes. But that’s only the first step in the decision-making process.
The second point is again obvious when we apply pros and cons in our own lives; a decision doesn’t always get made immediately after the list is completed. Just because we’ve laid out our pros and cons, doesn’t mean we are ready to act. Far from it in some cases. Sometimes we need another opinion, sometimes we need to further investigate the outcomes, but most importantly we should be exploring or thinking about why each item is a pro or a con. Ultimately, it becomes an exercise in determining what we value, and why. When we take this step, we can better understand what is most important in our lives, we can question our own bias, and determine what really drives our actions.
When I think about the lack of patience I’ve had in the past with some of the individuals I’ve supervised, I think a lot about how I’ve misused pros and cons. When a client would bring their list back to me and I would walk through it with them, the answer of course always seemed so obvious to me and I would be surprised when resistance or ambivalence remained. Trained in motivational interviewing, I would of course take the approach of developing discrepancy which due to my limited skill set probably felt more like me trying to tell them how wrong they were about their own ideas. This, of course, was rarely successful and led to frustration on both sides.
It wasn’t until much later in my career when I dusted off the ol’ pros and cons assignment and took a different approach. I managed my expectations to avoid frustration if a client wasn’t immediately ready to make a firm commitment. I began to ask questions, not in an attempt to catch the other person contradicting themselves, but because I was genuinely curious to know more. I wanted to better understand why an item was a pro and why it was a con. Why they valued some things over others. What I found was even when the pros and cons exercise seemed unsuccessful (based on past expectations), I was still able to use the exchange to build stronger rapport and better understand their values, or what is most important to them. These finds became the key that opened the door just a little bit wider for the interventions to follow.
I know this may seem obvious now, to treat others how you want to be treated, but for a long time, this was not how I thought about pros and cons with the people I worked with. I assumed we all have the same values and everyone makes logical decisions; they just needed to be told what’s logical. So the next time you use pros and cons, learn from my mistakes. Trust me, it’s more than a math problem.