Polarised thinking


Or don’t, this is a blog, not a meditation.

Take a deep breath in and notice how it feels.

Allow a deep breath out and notice how it feels.

Which did you prefer?  Breathing in or breathing out?  Whichever you prefer, do that one on its own.

And hold it.

While you are holding it, you can read today’s message which is about how our thinking tends towards polarisation.  What does this do for us?   How does it affect our ability to deal with complexity?

How’s your breath doing?

It is natural for the human mind to look at things in terms of distinctions.   Up-down, left right, hot-cold, we have an inbuilt tendency to view life through these many lenses. A rather under-rated psychologist called George Kelly built a significant theory of personality by looking at the constructs people use for these assessments.   It is a pity that he and Clare Graves didn’t work together:  They would have made a powerful pairing.   Values systems based on the constructs we hold, Safe /Unsafe, Powerful / Powerless and so on. 

Are you still holding your breath, or has your body taken over.   Your body has its own polarities.   Dead / Alive is one.  Enough / Not enough Oxygen or toxic / viable CO2 are others.  Your body knows a little about polarity management and has many mechanisms for water balance, salt balance, temperature regulation in order to preserve the homeostasis that sustainable life requires.  

So hopefully by now you are breathing according to your body’s normal preferences.  I take no responsibility for the consequences from now on.   The breathing cycle manages our oxygen / CO2 polarity balances.   It automatically registers when more is needed.    It preserves life.  Not that a polarity is not an issue.  It is not a problem to be solved. Like breathing, it is not avoidable.  Polarities are interdependent positive opposites that are both strengths or values needed over time.

Now contrast this with the way that humans often think about choices.  What happens very often is that we are drawn to one pole at the expense of the other.  When our life conditions indicate that we need to take additional personal power and direction in our lives, our Red responses are activated.  Our concern about tradition may drop away.  We may be intolerant of rules.  We need something and we need it now.  My friend who at the age of 66 dived into the Atlantic to rescue a father and child from drowning activated heroic Red, against common sense and almost at the cost of his own life.  He received a Presidential Commendation, but not a Health and Safety award!

At any particular time, we may need to operate at one pole or the other.  Over a span of time, our responses to life have to change.   The same friend didn’t accumulate driving penalties and had no car wrecks.  Healthy Blue is in place.  The Spiral is characterised by oscillations between poles and acts to create balances that sustain individual and social health.  The spiral illustrates a process by which multiple polarities are managed.  

As we engage with the transition to Second Tier existence, polarity management moves more and more to centre stage.  In first-tier existence we can take up a fixed position, say in our allegiance to a core Blue religious fundamentalism and find that to be an effective life strategy.   Orange can be similarly viable, and continues to be so for a large number of people.  Much of the discourse in politics (socialist vs libertarian) or in business management (stability vs entrepreneurial risk) takes place along such polarities.   Many business are no longer in existence because they clung too hard to the safe and stable pole.   Others have failed because they were unwilling to put the stable foundations in place. 

Whatever the arena, the speed of change and the requirement to balance a wide range of societal or business forces demands flexibility and responsiveness.  Thus the ability to see polarities not as an “either-or” to be decided upon, but as a “both-and” to be managed will be critical to our future success.  The image that the brilliant Cindy Wigglesworth uses for our positioning, is to see ourselves standing on the pivot of the see-saw, shifting our weight one side or the other in order to maintain equilibrium.  Suzanne Cook-Greuter is using this concept to help verticality in personal development and Cindy sees it equally as a tool for recognising and embracing complexity.

So in order to function in second tier we will need to get more and more skilled at holding multiple variables and dynamics in an operational tension within our viewpoints, and help others to develop the capacity to see multiple “truths” that are sensitive and dynamically responsive to the context and life conditions.  This skill will be a key signifier in the development of emotional and spiritual intelligences.  I will be talking more about Cindy Wigglesworth and Spiritual Intelligence (SQ) in the coming weeks.

By way of closing, I should acknowledge Cindy’s inspiration in the message of this blog, and give recognition to work of Barry Johnson, author of “Polarity Management” which provides the original basis for the concept.   

Still breathing?


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