“For every complex problem, there’s a simple solution. And it’s wrong.” Anonymous
If the prior blogs in this space have kept you coming back, you might be asking what Daniel Pink’s solution to the emergence of the Conceptual Age might look like. (Bricolage: Where Pink Meets Pinstripes) How does the “whole brain” thinking of blended right and left brain mental processes help our culture solve its persistent problems?
Thanks to Wendy Trachte-Huber for introducing me to Polarity Management! Wendy teaches our ICM class in Negotiation. As we discussed the traps of “either/or” thinking rather than the power of “both/and”, Wendy described the work of Dr. Barry Johnson. Almost 20 years ago, Dr. Johnson developed the intentional process of “polarity management“.
Rather than cycling between the strengths or weaknesses of two extremes (Democrat/Republican, Male/Female), Johnson encourages a deliberate path of “both/and”. He illustrates the principle of polarity management with the basic human need to obtain oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Take a deep breath . . . now hold it. Felt wonderful didn’t it? For how long? Within seconds what was exhilarating became painful. Now exhale . . . and hold it. Wow, that felt just as good . . . for an equally short time. Our ability to maintain life requires us to hold these opposing activities in a perpetual state of healthy tension. Millions of times in a short span of life we must manage the polarity of oxygen/carbon dioxide, or we die. Johnson graphically illustrates polarity management like this:
Make no mistake, not all problems can be solved by managing polarity. Only the most complex. There is only one answer to 1+1=2. However, when many possible outcomes are worth analyzing, managing the polarity of these competing forces can lead to innovative solutions.
Notice that managing polarity requires perpetual movement from the negative characteristics of one polarity to the positive traits of the other. Next, focusing on the negatives of the second polarity takes the process to the positives of the other. On and on . . .ad infinitum. In contrast, “Either/or” thinking is typically focused on the negatives (or positives) of one polarity and then back to the negatives (or positives) of the other. Like a pendulum, duality thinking can only swing back and forth between the incompatibility of two extremes.
Managing polarity is a radically different approach that requires analysis by moving from the negative characteristics of one polar extreme to immediately focus on the positive characteristics of the other. Managing polarity is not cyclical. It is a richly diverse process that examines positives then negative traits of each pole and moves immediately to the positives then negatives of the other.
Mediators and facilitative problem solvers engage in this process constantly, helping people in conflict examine first the weaknesses of their own “position” and then the positives of the other. Up and down, back and forth until the glimmer of the best of both worlds begins to dawn on the disputants. The outcomes that mediation generates are the dynamic synthesis of each party’s needs, expectations, fears and problems until a solution appears that is rarely the reality of either opposing position.
What might polarity management in public policy look like? What if the national crisis of immigration were analyzed in this fashion:
What might the opposing poles of economic theory look like?
What would managing the tension between religious fundamentalism and “liberation theology” look like?
Most importantly, what if we as a society abandoned the approach of polarization and partisanship for partisanship sake and explored the creativity of polarity management in politics and public policy? Yes, a few less careers built on demonizing “the other guy” might be made. Campaign budgets might be reduced to manageable levels. Problems might be solved rather than heightened to impossible dimensions of intractable conflict.
This could be the path to the Conceptual Age to which Daniel Pink has called us. Sounds like it might be worth the effort to me.
For more reading: