By Holly LeMaster

In today’s complex world it can be easy to see things in terms of absolutes: black or white, right or wrong, left or right, male or female. Perceiving situations and acting from the extreme end of the spectrum–either end–can be problematic. Extreme thinking often comes with judgment attached. And for leaders, polarity thinking–whether our own or our team’s–can be crippling. If people are unable to come to a mutual understanding of what’s best and how to move forward, initiatives can come to a grinding halt, morale can suffer, people may leave. 

As we zoom out to understand a bigger context, seek to understand the other, and embrace more sophisticated ways of thinking we see that it can be very useful, indeed, to move from an extreme position toward the center. To soften our gaze and our perspective to take in more information or find empathy and understanding. To compromise and negotiate.

Even while we are swimming in the midst of our own strong convictions, opinions, and perspectives, we might find some aspect of the situation in which we resonate with the “other” side. Consider the yin/yang symbol. What does the dot of black in the field of white, or the dot of white in the field of black represent? This is the aspect of the opposite pole with which we can resonate, finding agreement or commonality. This higher level of thinking can help us realize that it doesn’t have to be this or that; rather, both things can exist and be true at the same time. The answer can be, “yes, and…”

When we’re stuck in polarized thinking it is limiting. It cuts us off from being curious about what else might be possible. It shuts us down and restricts us to a small container, rather than opening us to opportunity and new ways of experiencing the world. It can even damage our relationships with others if we’re unable or unwilling to even try understanding the world through their eyes. 

But–here’s a mindbender: it’s polarized thinking to say that polarities are inherently bad. It has been noted, for example, that we can’t have light without the dark. The richness of the human experience comes in our ability to see and honor everything, even the things we disagree with; even when our tendency might be to label something  “wrong or bad.” 

And sometimes taking an extreme position is actually necessary. Our values and morals may dictate that we stand firmly and speak loudly in some situations. And that’s where looking for glimpses of your perspective in the other side’s position can be powerful. It can be the interdependent pull between the two sides that actually enables a creative solution to emerge in ways that would not be possible if the tension did not exist.

When both sides are certain we are right and committed to our own agenda, how can we find mutuality and common ground?

First, we have to look inward. Overcoming the pitfalls of polarity thinking requires engaging in self-awareness. 

  • If you find yourself stuck in your own limited thinking, pause to consider: What is my part in the conflict or polarization? How am I making the situation worse instead of better?
  • Examine your own pattern of thought or belief. How do I articulate your position? Try writing it down in a clear, succinct way. Then, walk away from it for a while and return after some time has passed to honestly examine your own thinking. Can you see where you might be stuck in a limited or extreme position? 
  • What do you know about yourself that may be foundational to your polarized thinking? What do you value or care deeply about related to this topic? What lived experiences have shaped the belief? What makes it hard to see or accept the other side of the issue? What is the payoff for holding onto your position? 
  • Finally, get real with yourself about where you might be able or willing to soften your position or let go of a thought pattern that is not serving you. Where might it be better to have peace than be “right?” What might be the payoff for letting go?

When you feel clear and accountable for your own thinking (or at least somewhat more so – this is hard work!), you can turn your attention to helping others get to the same place. To guide or coach a group or team through a difficult situation where polarized thinking is getting in the way, consider the following approach:

  • Have the individuals reflect on the same questions and issues above to examine their own thinking (perhaps as “pre-work,” before the group comes together to talk).
  • Then, as a group, engage in a process of collective discovery: 
    • Do you have a clear North Star or vision to align you around the issue? How passionate are you about it?
    • Where is the group thinking most polarized, where are you in alignment, and where do you land somewhere in the middle?
    • Where can differences be celebrated and leveraged? And where are differences damaging trust, relationships, and progress? 
    • Where does alignment serve us, and where might it be causing “group think” and limiting our vision?

As the yin/yang symbol teaches us, there is wisdom and richness in learning the ability to flow between positions, to seek and understand the greater context, and to embrace the wholeness in situations. Polarities can limit us, and they can also be mighty when their power is harnessed to attract and harmonize, rather than to repel and divide.