How to Improve Your Decision Making Skills

How To Make Better Decisions | Strengthening Modalities | Solving Problems in Sleep | The Best/Worst Decision Times | Proof “Mirroring” Works | Body Language That Stinks

How to Make Better Decisions

The more you learn how your brain works, the better the decisions you’ll make. The best decisions you’ll ever make are ones where your logic and emotions agree. They “shake hands” even though they speak different languages. If they don’t agree, delay the decision until they do agree. Otherwise, do nothing. Never make a major decision just for the sake of making one. You’ll probably regret it. All of us can recall our “good decisions” which went “bad.” If you go back and think about your decision at the time you’ll probably recall that part of you had a bit of doubt.

For example, I still remember buying a gorgeous Datsun 240Z sports car back in the 70’s. I fell in love with the way it looked and how I felt when driving it. I was a bit concerned about New England’s winter driving conditions, but remember assuring myself that I’d be okay because most of my driving is on the highway. And I’d put sand bags in the trunk for extra insurance. Unfortunately, that winter I also remember going into a 180 degree spin at 75 mph on the Mass Pike when I hit black ice. I spun across three lanes past two other vehicles, just missing them. Fortunately, I crashed backwards into a snow bank without doing much damage to my Z. I should have listened to my winter-driving concerns. A lesson learned, I made a new decision. I sold the car within a month, sandbags included.

Why is this “shake hands” method of decision making effective? It’s because the left-side Thinker part of the brain provides specific logical reasons to do (or not do) something. It’s all about words and numbers. However, the emotional non-verbal parts of the brain (Visualizer and Commander) connect to “gut feelings” regarding everything you’ve ever experienced. It’s not easy to get logic and emotions to agree, but it’s worth the exercise. Delaying decisions can be as important as making them. I’ve been using this technique for 20 years and have never made what I consider to be a bad decision based on all factors at the time. Sure, I look back on decisions that didn’t work out long term, but it’s because conditions changed or new information became available afterward, not because it was a poor decision at the time. Try it. It works.

If you let logic overpower your emotions you’ll probably regret it. For example, years ago my partner (Harry) bought a Cadillac stick-shift Cimarron. I was surprised because Harry was a car person and had never considered a Caddy. He was predisposed against Cadillacs because he’d heard about high repair costs. But, he was also intrigued by this new compact version. It made perfect logical sense: lower price, smaller size, better gas mileage from a small 4 cylinder engine and 4 speed stick shift for fast take offs and better control in New England’s snowy winter conditions. And to top it off, Harry was getting a good deal from a family member in the car business. What could go wrong?

This turned out to be one of Harry’s worst decisions ever. The Cimarron probably spent more time in the repair shop than it did on the road. Forbes confirmed Harry’s poor decision when they placed it on their “Legendary Car Flops,” due to low sales, poor performance and the fact the car “didn’t work, coming from a luxury brand.”

Tips to Strengthen Modalities

It pays to strengthen modalities. You’ll become a more interesting, well rounded person who is better able to connect with people on their individual wavelengths. It is also fun as it makes life’s experience richer. Modalities are like muscles. The more you use them the stronger they get. See Oprah and Einstein. Here are a few tips.

To strengthen your Thinker modality, do more of what Thinkers do. You’ll exercise your brain and give it the message that you want to use this modality more. Try reading or listening to more books, join a book club, do crossword puzzles, try chess, listen to talk and news radio (words) or classical music, write more letters, try brain teasers, do crossword puzzles, or force yourself to use Thinker “trigger words” such as think, question, know, understand, etc. (“Talk the talk” as they say.) Engage Thinker friends in conversation. Ask more questions.

To strengthen your Commander modality get more involved in competitive team activities, especially athletics (basketball, baseball, badminton, soft ball, volley ball, shuffle board, bocce, bowling, whatever). Start working out or going for brisk power walks. Attend more social events and don’t forget to shake hands. Join Facebook and be actively involved. Be sure to send out birthday wishes to Facebook friends each week. Do volunteer work at a homeless shelter to get in touch with your feelings. Make a gift to the shelter or your alma mater and you’ll feel good. Try expressing your feelings a bit more with a therapist, close friends or family members you can trust. Play video games that involve two competitive players. Try using Commander words more often such as feel, hit, winner, play, power, etc.

To strengthen your Visualizer modality, initiate more visual activities. Take up photography, video, sketching or painting. Watch more movies. Watch YouTube videos. Try remembering people’s names by looking for a memorable visual feature of their face or body that reminds you of an acquaintance or a celebrity with the same name who shares it. This could be a big toothy smile, a large nose, piercing eyes, red hair, large physique, bald head, a limp, etc. For example, I remember meeting a guy named Terry who was as bald as a bowling ball so I recalled Terry Francona, the Red Sox manager at the time. Try to say the person’s name out loud twice, if possible. They’ll love hearing their name and you’ll remember it much better because you’ve programmed your brain with logic (the name) and visual. Try using more visual words to communicate such as see, look, perspective, vision, etc.

If you’re into meditation, this incredibly valuable practice can help you relax while strengthening your modalities. To strengthen your Thinker mode I suggest Zen koans which require intuitive thinking such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” To strengthen your Commander mode try walking meditation. To strengthen your Visualizer modality, try meditating while observing a burning candle or a beautiful sunset.

How to Solve Problems in Your Sleep

It’s no secret that the brain is totally underutilized. It never sleeps, so why not put it to work while you’re getting your zzz’s. In fact, the brain will be pleased to get more exercise. It’s like my Labrador. It loves to do tricks providing you give it the right direction and don’t pressure it to come up with an immediate solution. I’ve been solving problems in my sleep for over 30 years.

Chances are that you’ve already used this method without doing it intentionally. Do you ever have answers pop into your head in the middle of the night, when you’re taking your shower, waking up over coffee, or commuting to work? If you program your brain and don’t get too “pushy” it will reward you time and time again. The answers will pop up like pieces of toast in a toaster.

The best time to program dreams is just before you go to bed. First of all, be sure you know what the problem is you’re trying to solve. Can you state the problem in one sentence? Like Ted Levitt, Dean Emeritus at the Harvard Business School, used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” If you don’t know the question, how will you recognize the answer? So start with defining the question.

Once you have the question defined in one simple sentence or less you can give your brain the task.

This process should not take more than five or ten minutes just before bed. Start by thinking of all the possible answers you can. Don’t try to evaluate their merit, just “program” your brain with as many potential answers as possible. This will let your brain know that you want help. Be honest with yourself. Think about every solution you can think of even if it sounds unrealistic. Intensify your thinking about possible answers until you “hit the wall.” When thinking becomes almost painful, stop. Now, let go and stop thinking about it. If your brain keeps thinking about it, gently let go of any thoughts or possible solutions. The egg takes time to hatch. Don’t allow yourself to make a decision until you’ve slept on it. Go to sleep, but have a pad and pen next to your bed in case you wake up with a possible answer in the middle of the night which you should write down so you don’t forget it.

Your brain hasn’t been trained yet to know that you’d like the answer in the morning after you wake up. In time it will get the message. If the answer doesn’t pop up the next day, just remind your brain to please keep working on it. Sometimes, the answers take time, especially big decisions. You’ll know when the right answer appears because it will make immediate logical and intuitive sense.

Here’s an example. A few years ago I was trying to come up with a new name for our Internet surveying which would grab peoples’ attention and interest them in participating in a survey. Every good name I thought of was taken. I spent three months thinking of names and checking them out. No luck. Then, one evening I went to see the movie Gladiator with my girlfriend at the time. Later that evening we had a late dinner in South Boston. The waiter mentioned that he did website design, but was waiting tables to pay the rent. I asked him what would “grab him” in a survey name. He said it needed to sound fun and interesting even if it was for a business survey because everyone is looking for a bit of entertainment in their day. I was still thinking about what the waiter said later as I fell off to sleep.

The next morning as I crawled into the shower, the last thing on my mind was a name for our web survey. Then, out of the blue I flashed on the part in the Gladiator movie when the crowd gave a thumbs up for the Gladiator (Russel Crowe).

The name Thumbs Up Research popped into my head. It seemed to make immediate sense. Everyone likes the thumbs up/thumbs down rating method. It’s fun. Maybe it was available. I raced to my computer and checked it out. No one was using the name. I was on cloud nine. The wait had paid off. I called my girlfriend later to tell her the good news and her reaction was, “That name is stupid. It’s boring.” I told her I disagreed and thought to myself that she was a bit “boring” in her lukewarm, negative reaction. Didn’t she know that in creative problem solving there are no bad ideas? Within a few weeks I had a ThumbsUP logo created.

Testing showed that it increased open rates and participation by as much as 5 percentage points. Today, we use it in all our research because it’s proven its value over time, which is a bit more than I can say for my ex girlfriend.

The Best Time to Make Decisions

As stated earlier we recommend making decisions in the morning after your brain has a chance to rest a bit and work on it overnight at its own pace. New brain research confirms this.

A 2011 article in the New York Times by John TierneyDo You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” arrives at the same conclusion about morning decisions, but for different reasons.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts…

The Worst Time to Make a Decision

Overeaters Anonymous, a successful 12 step program based on AA’s formula, suggests that one avoid HALT situations where you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. Just add Stressed or Rushed to the list and you’ve got the bases covered. Try to avoid decisions no matter what time of day when you’re in these states. You’ll probably regret them.

Proof That “Trigger Word” Communications Works

If you’re wondering if this modality stuff really works, here’s an easy test that can pay long-term dividends in helping you improve your communication skills. The next time you’re going to have a potentially “heated” discussion with your significant other, partner, boss, or client, relax, disengage from your primary modality, and try communicating with them using their primary-modality trigger words. You can probably figure their mode by listening carefully for modality “trigger words.” Or, you could check out our book (“Why People Don’t Buy Things” at amazon.com. Another shameless plug.) You might even interest them in taking the Decision Mode quiz.

So, for example, if you think they’re a Visualizer, ask them what they, “see as the issue.” If you have a question, ask them to help you “see the big picture” better or “show you more details” so you can better-understand their point-of-view. Try not to interrupt them as they explain their perspective. Be a good listener as they explain their view. Get everything out into the open so you can uncover the real issue. If you agree with a point they make, don’t hesitate to say “I see what you mean.” The more they talk, and the more you ask them questions using their “trigger words,” the more likely you’ll be to understand their argument, and therefore respond to it intelligently. They’ll appreciate your willingness to see it through their eyes.

Next, when you explain your perspective, try to do so using their modality Visualizer “trigger words” wherever possible. You’ll be surprised at how effective, and even fun, this method is. If they’re a Thinker, ask them to explain their thinking on the subject. If they’re a Commander, ask them how, and why, they feel the way they do, and so forth.

You may not win every argument, but you’ll gain a better understanding of the other person’s view and earn greater respect. In fact, you might even change your mind during the process and agree with them.

Body Language That “Stinks”

Here’s a useful body language tip. If you’re presenting an idea and the other person starts touching their nose as you explain yourself, they’re extremely bothered about something. (We heard that this goes back to the cavemen when they’d hold their noses if the food stunk. It’s a great way to remember the signal even if it’s probably a myth.) Anyway, if you see them touching their nose, stop everything and ask them a probing question in their modality such as, “It looks like we’re not seeing this from the same perspective. What do you see as the key issue?” If you don’t “smoke out” their concern, they’ll remain stuck and won’t hear a word you’re saying.

For example, recently my wife and I were looking at classic homes. She seemed very receptive to a beautifully restored 100 year old Victorian (which I loved) until we came to the kitchen. Marister immediately touched her nose as the agent described all the kitchen updates. She kept touching her nose on and off for the rest of the tour. It wasn’t until we got into the car that I had a chance to explore why. Come to find out, Marister liked the house too, but thought the kitchen was a bit small, too dark and the storage limited. A 17″ mini-dishwasher was the ultimate insult. She pictured herself in the dark, washing piles of overflow dirty dishes by hand. Her Lodge cookware would probably need to be stored in the basement.

It wasn’t until we brought in a creative kitchen designer who assured us we could add cabinets, replace the dishwasher with a larger one and install halogen lights under all the cabinets, recessed floods in the ceiling, that Marister became excited again. Within a month we passed papers. If I hadn’t spotted, and responded to her negative body language, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now in the kitchen proofing this writing.