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Volume 21, Issue 19;   May 12, 2021: Pre-Decision Discussions: Emotions

Pre-Decision Discussions: Emotions

by

Some meeting agendas include exploring issues related to upcoming decisions. Although we believe that these discussions lead to rational decisions, some contributions evoke possibly misleading emotional responses. Here are five examples.
Lady Justice

A statue of "Lady Justice", the symbol of objective decision making.

In the first part of this exploration of contributions to pre-decision discussions, I identified four of the more commonly recognized contributions — Facts, Opinions, Beliefs, and Hearsay. I explored how they relate to the factual basis of the issues at hand. But facts alone are rarely the sole foundation of any decision. Emotions usually play a role.

Because emotional decisions can lead to unpredictable and unwelcome results, we must manage the effects of emotions on our decisions. And managing emotion is a more achievable goal if we're familiar with the ways emotion can enter pre-decision discussions.

Following are descriptions of five patterns of pre-decision contributions selected for their connection to the emotions of the participants. Remaining for future posts is consideration of other factors, such as the misuse of reasoning, or the effects of cognitive biases.

Preferences
Preferences are the contributor's (or someone else's) personal likes and dislikes. Stating one's preference might seem relevant to the decision at hand, but rarely is it strong evidence that one option is more valid than another.
Although preferences might not be evidence relevant to determining validity of the issue, information about participants' preferences can be useful for evaluating information that might be evidence. For example, a participant might withhold information because it supports a position the participant opposes. Or a participant might offer support for another participant's contribution for a similar reason. When someone is silent unexpectedly, consider encouraging a comment.
Warnings and threats
A warning is a very strong suggestion that specific adverse events might occur or certainly will occur. A warning can be a simple contribution such as, "We'd best prepare for Hurricane Katrina." The strength of the suggestion derives from the basis for the warning, which the contributor regards as validated. Warnings might or might not be conditional. A conditional warning is one such as, "Unless we begin to retire some technical debt, costs for even simple modifications will grow."
A threat is a form of warning in which the author of the adverse event is either the person expressing the threat, or someone closely associated with the person expressing the threat.
Some threats are conditional. Because emotional decisions can lead
to unpredictable and unwelcome
results, we must manage the effects
of emotions on our decisions
For example, "If you do X, I'll do Y." Issuing a threat is often a tactic for persuading a target to make a choice that favors the threatener.
Warnings and threats differ from other kinds of contributions in the intensity of the emotional responses they can elicit. Groups intent on making rational decisions need to be alert when warnings or threats become part of the pre-decision discussion. Until warnings and threats abate, decision quality is at risk.
Advice
A contribution can function as advice when it recommends a position or action on some basis less well validated than facts, such as an opinion, belief, or hearsay.
Because of differences in organizational status, some contributors offer advice instead of warnings even though they have a strong factual basis for their contributions. For this reason, some contributions that appear to be advice are actually "stealth warnings." And those listening to the contribution might respond to such "advice" as if it were a warning — that is, emotionally. When a contributor provides advice, it's best to determine whether the contribution should be taken as a warning. For example, one might inquire about the factual basis for the advice.
Examples
An example is an illustration of a point the contributor wants to make. A term often used instead of example is anecdote. Examples are usually helpful, but they come with some risks attached.
One risk associated with examples is mistaking examples for proof. For example, 2 is an even number, and it is also a prime number. This is not a proof that all prime numbers are even, nor is it a proof that all even numbers are prime. Actually, because 2 is the only number that is both even and prime, it is an example of how examples can be confused with proof.
A second risk associated with examples is their ability to evoke emotional responses. By choosing examples that might trigger memories of fraught situations, contributors can cause participants to accept propositions that they might easily reject if they were thinking more clearly.
Another risk of examples arises from the complexity of the issues some groups are compelled to consider. The space in which most pre-decision discussions occur is complicated. That's why examples that arise in pre-decision discussions can be unreliable. The examples chosen might have subtle, special properties that cause them not to be representative of the point the contributor wants to make.
Rhetorical fallacies
A contribution contains a rhetorical fallacy (other names are logical fallacy or formal fallacy) when it uses deceptive or flawed logic to gain acceptance for a proposition, whether or not the proposition is justifiable by legitimate means. Dozens of these fallacies have been identified. An example of a fallacy known as False Dichotomy is: "You're either part of the solution, or you're part of the problem, so get with the program." Because real life rarely provides such a clear delineation between positions, the False Dichotomy prevents discussion participants from considering more nuanced or practical alternatives.
Rhetorical fallacies use verbal tricks to evoke emotions that prevent people from considering alternatives to the positions the users of the fallacies prefer. But malice isn't necessarily the motive. Users of rhetorical fallacies may be unaware that they're transgressing; many mislead themselves with their own rhetoric.
To mitigate the risk of rhetorical fallacies, learn to identify those that are in use in your organization. Peruse a collection.

Certainly there are many more ways to offer contributions that evoke emotional responses stealthily. Observe your own pre-decision discussions and collect the more popular forms. Next time, I'll examine how reasoning (and its misuse) can mislead decision makers. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Pre-Decision Discussions: Reasoning  Next Issue

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