Some conflicts are problems to be solved: Where is the boundary between two neighbors’ properties? Which days and times will children reside with separating parents? Who will be the project manager on the big project?
But there are a few conflicts that involve finding the sweet spot between two mutually exclusive, equally important and connected opposites, each of which has its own pros and cons. These are referred to as polarities. They often pop up in intractable conflicts and heated discussions of change. Opinions on which “side” is “right” are often deeply held.
The classic example for understanding a polarity is breathing. We cannot inhale and exhale at the same time, but the processes are closely tied to each other and both are absolutely crucial for our continued life. The pro of inhaling is the necessary intake of oxygen into our lungs. The con is the build-up of carbon dioxide in our lungs from the bodily systems that used the oxygen. The pro of exhaling is expelling the toxic carbon dioxide from our lungs. The con is, you guessed it, the lack of oxygen intake. The only way to make this work is for our lungs to alternate in a well-timed movement that makes the most of the advantages of both actions, while minimizing the disadvantages.
So let’s explore other non-biological polarities a bit, and look at how we might manage them successfully.
Protection/openness, independence/connectedness, gun ownership/gun control, individual rights/common good, stress/tranquility, even cultural identity/inclusiveness – these are a few common polarities. Each has significant positive and negative qualities on both sides. We can’t have the pure form of both at the same time, yet we also can’t have one indefinitely without feeling its inherent disadvantages, like trying to inhale constantly without exhaling. Both aspects are true and necessary.
We can’t solve polarities; we can only manage them through time. Our best bet is to take the best from each, while minimizing the worst, creating a dynamic balance. It is a question of both/and, not either/or. We map the pros and cons of each aspect and tweak the system to get as many pros from both sides as possible.
It’s simple in theory, but challenging in practice. Usually we swing wildly from the disadvantages of one to the disadvantages of the other. For example, the extreme of individual rights is anarchy and chaos (think the Old West), which can lead us to idealize the common good and social rules. But a total focus on the good of the whole can lead to the quashing of individual expression, a group-think mentality, and strong censorship. The trick is to catch the point at which we begin feeling the drawbacks of one pole (chaos) and bring in some advantages of the other pole (commonly agreed upon rules of conduct), without succumbing to the drawbacks of that second pole.
In terms of discussing issues that are polarities, we have to be careful. We can get caught-up in arguing for one or the other end of the polarity, as though we could do without the other end and solve things once and for all. Our tendency is to romanticize either the status quo or the pie-in-the-sky change, downplaying the negatives of our side and touting the negatives of the other.
Instead, let’s accept the challenge of seeing the negatives of our “side” and the positives of the other. Rather than insisting that we’re right and they’re wrong, we can acknowledge the interconnectedness of the two poles and recognize that neither pole will be sufficient on its own, we need the perspective of those who see it differently. We can ask them: “Can you help me understand how you see this?”
Managing polarities is not easy, but, then, neither is enduring ongoing divisiveness.