You left me no alternative - conflict and the self denial of choice

“You leave me with no choice…”

“What else could I have done?”

“There was nothing else I could do.”

“I couldn’t do that.”


You know what?  We always have choices.

We can do this or that.  We can agree or disagree.  We can go with an idea or we can come up with any number of reasons why we could not, but it all boils down to choice.

When we are in conflict situations we can feel a heightened need to defend our position and the assumptions that we have made.  When an alternative is suggested we are presented with a challenge; will we consider that alternative or will we dismiss it?

Very often when we dismiss it we will do so without particularly thinking about it.  We might do so just because the other person came up with the idea.  We might dismiss it because it simply cannot be right or feasible.

We might dismiss it because we are over committed to our current direction of travel and argument.

Perhaps the alternative would require change – change in ourselves, in our position, our remuneration or status.

Research into fast and slow ways of thinking suggests that we can reach a decision on a proposal almost instantaneously and then we shore up that decision with reasoning only once the conclusion already been reached.

We might see this in mediation or facilitation work; One disputant dismisses a suggestion out of hand and then struggles to build up cogent reasons for having done so.  It is also revealed when cogent reasons are satisfied only to then be replaced with new objections.  It can rather feel like we are fighting the hydra at these times, lopping off the head of one objection only for two new ones to sprout in its place!


Sometimes we do not even bother with reasoning and, instead, stonewall a suggestion.  We adopt a `No’ strategy.


Here we do not even entertain that there could be rationale on either side of the debate.  We refuse to be drawn in denying that whatever has been proposed has any merit or application.  It does though.  Heck, even the worst ideas have validity – in our conflict training and dispute resolution work we will often invite individuals who are stuck in generating options to come up with the very worst ideas.  We then invite them to identify what aspects make the idea bad and can then consider what the inverse would look like.


The “No” strategy is all about self preservation.  The post-rationalised rejection discussed above is only partly self-preservation and part psychological.


We need to convert the “No choices” into choices.  When we do so we can reveal important values and information.

“Well that does it then.  We’ll have to go to court.” translates the into “I choose to exercise my right to go to court and to try my chances before the tribunal.”  It might also reveal a sense that we are not currently being heard or acknowledged.

“No, that will never work.” may well translate into “I am worried that it might just work and, if it does, we might get to a resolution that I find deeply unattractive.”  Exploring the reasons for that unattractiveness would reveal further information – a parent for example rejects a practical suggestion as to how to implement child contact not because of a genuine concern for the implementation but because the resolution it brings about – the child seeing the other parent, or perhaps the two parents being locked into 15 years of now having to work together to implement contact on an ongoing basis – is unattractive to them.

“You left me no choice.” is a difficult one, not least because the person holding this viewpoint will be greatly challenged by the revelation that they had a choice.  We often use the “You left me no choice” line as a shield against criticism for having taken that action.  When we challenge this assumption the result is this – “These are the actions that I myself chose to take.”  This hands back responsibility and agency to the active agent.  Unfortunately the person claiming they had no choice often reacts strongly to this suggestion with a predictable “So it’s my fault is it?” couter-challenge.  The “You left me no choice” is all about attributing blame. Shifting from blame to contribution talk can sometimes help to alleviate this;

“These are the actions that I myself chose to take in response to…”

“I took these actions in order to advance the following claims/assert or protect the following rights…”

You might go on to consider what alternative actions would have been preferable.


In summary, when in conflict we can delude ourselves that we have no choice.

We do.

When we recognise this then we can learn more about what lies beneath the conflict issue.  We also reclaim power in the conflict.  We also take back responisbility for our own actions and decisions.  After all, why would we want to surrender our own agency and self-determination to another person, especially the person or department with whom we find ourselves in conflict.

We always have a choice and just because the alternatives that we have neither named nor chosen are deeply unattractive does not mean that they are not options.

Recognise them as options and explore what is unattractive about them.  The solutions, and the seeds of consensus, might just lie in those dark spaces.

What ideas do you have for how we can reveal the self-denial of choice and shift disputants to greater option generation and engagement?

Originally published at

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