A Guide for Making Tough Decisions

A Guide for Making Tough Decisions

"I don't know what to do..."

It’s a phrase that’s embedded in almost every coaching conversation I have. Sometimes it’s explicitly stated, but even when it’s not, it’s there.  

  • I’m working too many hours. I’m exhausted, distracted and I’m not spending enough time with my family.  (The unstated question: How do I decide who to disappoint?)

  • Someone on my team isn’t performing at the level s/he should be. Do I let them go or do I just deal with it later? (The unstated question: What’s the right thing to do?)

  • I like working with smart people in academia, but a part of me wonders what it would be like to work in a start-up environment.  (The unstated question: Do I give up something good for something that could be great?)

I recently had my own “I don’t know what to do” moment. After signing a contract with a new client, I was made aware of a significant conflict of interest with an existing client. The new client gave me an ultimatum that I had to choose between the two organizations. While it was clear to me that my loyalty was with my existing client, it was more challenging to figure out how to handle it, particularly because the senior sponsor of the project was putting pressure on me to choose them. I knew I was going to have to have a difficult conversation that was going to result in an unhappy client. If I was being factually accurate, I knew what to do, I just didn’t want to do it.

Maybe that’s the place to start – to step back and determine which of the following is the real issue:

  • I don’t want to deal with it. It’s uncomfortable and I know I’m going to disappoint someone.

  • I don’t know how to do it. I know what I need to do, but this has to be done right.

  • I think I know what to do, but it’s hard to trust myself. I’ve been seriously wrong before.

Or maybe you really are stuck in a winding maze full of blind spots, competing priorities and dead ends. The ability to make decisions in a complex environment is both a core component of emotional intelligence, as well as a crucial leadership skill. The good news is that it can be improved.

So how do you do it? There are a variety of approaches or frameworks (see Resources section below), but here is a simple 4-step process to help you “coach” yourself:


Emotions cloud your ability to see the choice or problem clearly. Either write down or talk to a friend about what the facts are. Describe the situation with as little embellishment as possible. Strip it down to the fundamental facts.


Choose one of the options available to you (e.g staying in academia in the aforementioned example). Answer questions in the Decision Making Scorecard below. 


What is it like to live in that particular reality? What does your energy feel like? Do you feel a sinking feeling or are you excited when you imagine it?


What information do you need, or how can you experiment to get it? What is the next smallest step you can take to experiment or to gather more information?

Decision Making Scorecard

Decision MakingWorksheet QAChecklist

For some decisions, this may be enough. But the bigger the decision, the more time it will take. I know that’s not the answer you want to hear, but when you are facing a question that will change the trajectory your life, it deserves time.

So if yours is a decision that is asking you for time, I offer you one of my favorite quotes to keep you company while you wait:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the question now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. 

– Rainer Maria Rilke

Additional Decision Making Resources:

  • Decision Making Scorecard:

  • Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow

  • EQ-I 2.0 Training: Reality Testing, Problem Solving and Impulse Control are all elements of the Decision Making aspect of Emotional Intelligence

Starla Sireno is recognized as one of the top executive coaches in NYC. Starla is in the business of transforming executives into better leaders and better humans. Inquire how to work with Starla or her team.

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