Polarity Series #5: Practicing Both And Thinking

In a world where we have become conditioned to see many issues in terms of black and white, ‘either-or’ options, adopting a shades of grey ‘both and’ mindset may seem daunting and contradictory. Let me reassure you that fear is both real and false. Establishing new habits is always daunting at first and rarely as contrary as imagined.

We adopt new practices to gain the benefits associated with them and simultaneously seek to avoid or minimize the negative repercussions of the old habit we are trying to replace.

What we forget is that the old habit became a habit precisely because it generated positive benefits for us when we first adopted it. That is the essence and power of a polarity.

If you have been following this series of posts on polarity thinking, you know the basic steps involved in identifying a polarity, mapping out its inherent up and down sides, putting those outcomes into context and creating an action plan to minimize the downsides. As with all habits, it will take some repetition and practice to become comfortable working through these steps in more spontaneous and proactive ways. Here are some tips to help you use polarity thinking in real life situations.

Start with Yourself

When you believe you have a polarity to manage (not a problem to solve):

  1. Think and talk using ‘both and’ language. Examples:
  • I am striving to speak with diplomacy and candor.
  • How might we work to support individual and team success?
  • I am committed to balancing work and personal/family commitments.
  1. Clarify your overall goal or vision for success (Greater Purpose Statement) to provide context and shift your thinking. Acknowledge the fears associated with a failure to achieve your vision.
  2. Identify your personal (or organizational) preference – the pole where you are generally most comfortable and secure (everyone has a bias, however slight). Think about the downsides of operating too much from this perspective and remind yourself about the upsides of the other pole.
  3. Make a quick polarity map outlining a few key words/phrases in each quadrant and then determine where your attention and energy is currently focused (map and assess). Share your map with others and ask them how they see the situation.
  4. Concentrate on how you can obtain the benefits associated with both options (action steps) and identify a couple of early warning signs to alert you to any imbalance in your behaviours so you can course correct quickly.

Involve Others

Look for those ‘teachable moments’:

  • The times when people are in conflict and both sides have a valid point of view.
  • Situations where people have identified a ‘problem’ and an obvious ‘solution’ yet are encountering resistance to the proposed solution.
  1. Listen for the values and fears being expressed by those involved and note which quadrants those fears and values fall into.
  2. Take notes and summarize what you have heard using a polarity grid on a flip chart for all to see.
  3. Help people identify (or reconnect with) a shared higher purpose (GPS) and acknowledge the deeper fear associated with failing to achieve that vision.
  4. Seek out and recognize the wisdom found in the perspectives of those resisting change. Resistors appreciate the benefits associated with the ‘status quo’ and fear the downsides associated with the proposed ‘solution’. They can help you develop a fuller picture of the polarity tensions you need to manage.
  5. Ask people to focus on how they can keep the best of what they have, avoid what they don’t want and build new ways of doing things.

In his book, The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, Roger Martin noted that individual perspectives and organizational paradigms do not accurately represent reality. They are constructions that we create in an effort to make sense of our world. Furthermore, these existing models and frameworks are not perfect. Better versions exist; they simply have not yet been invented.

Adopting a ‘both and’ mindset, can inspire individuals and organizations to develop these more effective operational models and find solutions to seemingly intractable, complex issues.

Dr. Stephen Covey described this process as a ‘win-win’ thinking. Win-win (both and) thinking helps us to consider issues from a wider perspective and then work to find solutions that leverage the desires and strengths of both sides.

A word of caution: Practicing both and thinking requires time and patience. Choose your practice opportunities wisely. Look for issues that are important not necessarily urgent or time-sensitive. You want people to focus on the process not on the clock.  As the oft used saying goes, “We must learn to walk before we can run”.

I hope you have enjoyed this series on polarity (both and) thinking. Please share any questions you may have about the process as well as your success stories in the comments section that follows each post. We have much to learn from one another and are stronger together when we share that wisdom.

Note: The content for this post and the others in the Polarity Thinking Series was drawn from Barry Johnson’s book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems by Johnson Ph.D., Barry (2014) Paperback and workshop materials developed by Polarity Partnerships.

 I completed the Foundations in Polarity Thinking training program in 2011 and deliver a one-day introductory workshop on Polarity Thinking to organizations seeking to deal with complex problems and dilemmas in a more strategic and effective way.

 For additional information and a short video series on Polarity Management, visit Polarity Partnerships.




2 thoughts on “Polarity Series #5: Practicing Both And Thinking

  1. Critics of duality often hinted at the “grey zone”, and then proceeded to suggest the integration results which formed the synthesis they hailed as the truer solution; kinda “win-win”. Simply done! If only life is so simple and easy. My sense is this trendy philosophy is still very linear and that it gives the holder a false sense of security after having had arrived at the solution. I’d propose the arrived at synthesis is likely another ” approximation” of the so-called “truth” until the next synthesis is called upon. And lastly, I’d propose that the force to arriving at the “win-win” lies in the culprit, namely, “ambivalence”. If one could seat on it long enough, I believe one might not be in such a hurry to “arrive at” the solution. Learning to seat and delve on the ambivalence, unfortunately, isn’t a discipline taught or understood in our world of solutions aka result-oriented, duality society. Jus my 2-cent thought …


    1. blackberry cat:
      Thanks for taking the time to read this post and offer your thoughts on the topic. Dynamic concepts like polarities often appear linear when described in text format when in fact they are quite dynamic and ever-changing. And, I would observe that we humans have the tendency to look at things in black and white rather than hues of grey which further reinforces a linear thought process and outcome. If you are dealing with a solvable problem – black and white thinking is fine and actually called for. If you are dealing with a complex issue – both/and thinking is likely required to achieve sustainable, long-term success because choosing one option will only produce short-term success.


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