Let me tell you a story. Sometimes, my mother will ask my father something like "would you like a biscuit with your coffee?" And sometimes, he will say, mostly without thinking, "hmm, that might be nice, do you have?" to which she will reply "if I didn't have, I wouldn't have offered it." I've codified this into a rule of thumb for myself that I call "No False Options". It says that you should only ever give people options you are okay with them choosing.
On the face, this seems deceptively obvious. However, it's also something that is surprisingly easy to trip up on once you apply it to more complex situations. Not only is this something that has benefited my relationships, but it has also given me much clarity, as I'll illustrate later. I'm hoping that with this article I can give you some inspiration to create honesty for yourself in your own relationships, whether they be to people, or concepts like your career. I really hope it will bring you as much as it has me.
Anyone else hearing the jaws theme in the background?
Let's start off with some groundwork. Why should you not give people false options? Putting aside the moral implications of lying for a moment. A false option is neutral in the case you don't know they're there, but incredibly annoying at best and potentially devastating at worst when you find out.
When you give someone a false option, there is a tension to it. Will they choose the option you don't want them to take? Will they "call your bluff"? Because giving someone a false option is gambling that someone will choose the way you think they will. Think of the classic movie ultimatum: "it's X, or it's me". Nobody ever says that, thinking you'll choose the option that is not them. But it is, however, still a gamble and that is where the tension comes from.
Because what you're doing, in that situation, is trying to convince people to do something that is beneficial to you, all the while making them think they were actually the one to make that choice. This makes giving false options either lying, manipulating, or both, depending on your perspective.
I have found that this changes how I engage with people. Perhaps this also just is because I'm quite a risk-averse person, but I cannot stand the idea of giving people false ultimatums, both from a moral and tactical point of view. I realise that I'm subject to a very particular culture that values direct communication pretty highly and that this might not translate to other situations, but I'd much rather explain my reasoning for not giving someone an option. I'm not saying that there is no situation in which you can't give ultimatums, but trying to be mindful of that dynamic has helped me a lot.
Whatever nerd, what's in it for me?
Luckily, the flip side is also true. Offering no false options does not mean that you cannot hope for them to make a particular choice, but it is important that you can accept any choice they make. This gives people much more confidence in making choices they get from you. It means they are truly free to consider the choice on their own terms. This was really liberating for me, even from the perspective of the one who offers the choices.
Another point that comes hand in hand with this rule is that once you give someone an option and they choose it, you have to accept it. This again can be harder than you'd think.
Consider for example, the question "do you need help in the kitchen?" In a lot of situations, there is an implicit assumption that if people say no, they are lying for the sake of politeness. However, part of "no false options" is that you have to respect people's choices. Most times, I think that means taking their choices at face value. If they say they don't need help, I will do nothing. This can take some getting used to in your relationships, especially if you're used to a lot of implicit communication like aviation pilots as described in Malcom Gladwell's Outliers. I think, however, it's a worthwhile skill training. It helps people gain trust in you, even if it's sometimes uncomfortable.
Okay, sure, sounds cool. How though?
Here are the more tricky bits. If you want to commit to "no false options", how can you do this? Well, let me go over some key components that will hopefully save you some pitfalls.
It is important that you know what all the options are. Sometimes you think you're okay with an option, but you later discover you're not. At that point you should at least make a mental note not to offer that option in the future.
For example: In my eyes, responsibility and autonomy come hand in hand. If you give someone no autonomy, that also means that they have no responsibility. This point comes up during my work remarkably often. I used to think to myself that "I'm fine with either option, you give me autonomy and let me take responsibility for things or, you micro manage me and don't hold me responsible for what are now your decisions."
However, after some careful consideration, I've discovered that I'm not okay with the latter option. I just don't have it in me to follow people blindly. I can do it for a while, especially if it's keeping the peace, but as I've progressed in my career, I've realised that I can only do that for very limited periods of time. It just eats away at me when I have to do things I don't agree with or I think are likely to give bad outcomes. I like to be proud of the work that I do, and if I can't work in a manner that I think I can be proud of, I will become very unhappy and unmotivated. So I've stopped giving people that option.
Which leads me into the next topic: what if "no false options" means giving them no option at all? For example, take the ultimatum of "it's either X, or me" I gave earlier. If you truly cannot live with X, should you make them stop? Should you make them go away? What about their agency in this situation?
Well, as I said, I'm not trying to say that giving ultimatums is out of the question. But one of the harder parts of "no false options" is how to do it and still leave the other party with agency, especially in situations where there isn't a lot of agency to go around.
Here, there are several important but subtle distinctions. First, "no false options", is not about not giving options that are impossible, but also about not giving options which may be possible but not acceptable to you. In the ultimatum example, the other party can hypothetically leave. What makes it a false option or not is whether you are willing to accept that. This means that it is very hard to say anything specific about false options because they are entirely subjective.
The other distinction I want to make is about delivery. Saying "It's X or me" when you are gambling on things going your way is manipulative. Saying "Sorry but I cannot live with this, but if you wish to choose your life this way, I wish you the best" is very different. Few things feel as bad to me as an interaction that goes like so: "Do you want A or B?" "I want B" "Well I want A, so you're gonna do A". I realise that this is preference but in that situation I'd much rather be told that "You have to do A, that's just the only viable option." I've found that, if delivered correctly, most people respond best to that, even if they haven't told me that's what they prefer.
And in true meta fashion, I believe that "no false options" is an option for anyone. It will require a deft touch to master and a lot of trials and error to see how you can apply this correctly to your own life, but as I am offering this option to you now, it is to the best of my knowledge, not a false one. Good luck.