By guest blogger Tara Miller

forced choice exerciseOften in life, we are faced with choices between two—or more—good options, but we don’t have the time, energy or money to do all of them. We have to choose. It’s especially difficult to choose when both options seem quite good.

When the person making the choice is a child or teenager, it can be particularly tempting to simply tell them what you think they should choose. After all, you have experience and insight that they don’t. However, if you want them to truly commit to their own decision, they’ll need to take ownership of it themselves.

The “forced choice” approach

Here’s a coaching-based exercise you can use called the “forced choice” approach. In this case, I used it with my 18-year-old daughter who was choosing a college this spring, but it could be applied to any situation where there’s a choice to be made between options.

Knock-out factors

My daughter had first narrowed down her choices using some “knock-out factors.” These are criteria that would make her decide against a school outright. For a serious student athlete, a knock-out factor might be a school not having a good basketball team. My daughter had two knock-out factors: she wanted a school that was out-of-state and she wanted one where the campus felt like a positive fit on an intuitive level. One school looked perfect for her on paper, but when she went to visit it failed the knock-out test. It quickly fell off her list and she didn’t apply there.

forced choice universityAfter the narrowing process, she was left with two colleges. Both of them seemed to be equally good choices, she had been accepted to both, and she could picture herself attending either school rather easily. So how should she make this decision?

Think through the reasons

I started by asking the opening question: “What are you seeking to accomplish by going to college?” This question was designed to help her think through her reasons for going at all and to consider what she most wanted from the experience. She responded that she wanted to get a degree so she could go on to graduate school; she wanted the opportunity to make friends and live away on her own, and she wanted what she called, “the college experience.”

Criteria to evaluate

Then I asked her, given that processing, what criteria she wanted to use for evaluating a college.  Here are the options she generated in no particular order:

  • good opportunities to make friends
  • professors who are engaged and available
  • good preparation for graduate school
  • good financial package/pricing
  • opportunities for fun off campus
  • good study abroad program
  • an acapella group

Compare options: Which is more important?

Then came the forced choice part. I asked her to compare each option with each other option and ask, “Which is more important?” No ties or passing, and sometimes she found the choices very difficult, such as when I asked, “Which is more important—a good financial package or a good study abroad program?” Whichever option she deemed more important got a tally mark, which created rankings.

So she made 21 choices– comparing each item with each other item. Here are the rankings she came up with. The tally marks at the end of each item reflect how many times that item was chosen over other items, resulting in a weighting of how important each item was to her.

  1. good financial package/pricing (6)
  2. good study abroad program (5)
  3. good opportunities to make friends (3)
  4. professors who are engaged an available (3)
  5. good preparation for graduate school (3)
  6. opportunities for off-campus fun (1)
  7. acapella group (0)

Some takeaways

The financial package held a lot of weight for her as she was concerned about going into debt. She really, really wants to study abroad– even more so than she had thought. An acapella group is just a nice-to-have, not an essential. Off-campus fun doesn’t mean as much to her as opportunities to make friends on campus.

forced choice coin tossShe can now use these criteria—weighted by importance—in order to decide between colleges. And if two schools come out basically the same even when compared, there’s always the coin flip test: toss a coin in the air, call it, and when it lands gauge your level of disappointment or excitement.

What are some choices the kids in your life are currently facing? How might you use this exercise to help them make decisions that are most in line with what they value?

Tweetable: Is your son or daughter processing an important decision? One mom shares a coaching exercise she used that helped her daughter choose which university to attend. Click to Tweet