We live in a polarized world. I know few people who doubt that. Through increased mobility and our digitally-enhanced ability to form like-mined communities, we are segregating into echo-chambers.
Last Thursday I wrote about Moderating Opinions by Confronting Confirmation Bias. (Confirmation bias is the tendency to only take note of information that confirms our biases.) I suggested ways we can resist confirmation bias as we wrestle with issues and gain better understanding. But it is wrong to think that this will always, or even often, lead to agreement on the truth of the matter and a unified course of action.
I say this because many issues we wrestle with are not actually problems. They have no solution. For instance, which is more essential to breathing: inhaling or exhaling? That is an unsolvable problem. It pits two opposite but interdependent realities against each other. Like breathing, many challenges we face are not problems to be solved but polarities to be managed. The answer lies in embracing both poles.
Dr. Barry Johnson, author of Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, uses a chart with four quadrants to illustrate how a polarity works. The columns represent two poles. The rows represent the positive (top) and negative (bottom) aspects of each pole.
So let’s look at an example. The board for a congregation is divided between those who want a regimented and well-planned ministry, and those who want an adaptive and free flowing style of ministry. We’ll call Pole 1 “Planned” and Pole 2 “Free-Flow.”
Quadrant A - The positive side of a planned environment is that everyone knows their responsibility. Lines of accountability are clear. People know what to expect and how to plan. Resources can be effectively and efficiently marshaled for a given task.
Quadrant B – Over time, life and ministry becomes stale. Activities are done by rote. Creativity is stifled. Opportunities are missed because the focus is on keeping the “machine” running. New people with new gifts and passions have no way to plug in.
Quadrant C – The congregation moves toward the free-form pole. The possibility of new dreams and visions is embraced. New opportunities are identified and pursued. Creativity is unleashed. People begin to find new ways to minister.
Quadrant D – Eventually chaos ensues. Overlapping activities happen while other concerns drop through the cracks. Creativity is stifled because there is no way to effectively engage the community. Opportunities are missed because there is insufficient structure to mobilize people to action. This pushes the group to Quadrant A and the whole thing starts over.
This oscillation is a natural and healthy part of community. Polarization blocks the ability of this natural flow from happening. Our confirmation biases can lead us to see only the positive of the pole we favor and the negative of the pole we dislike. We may come to see the “problem” as an insufficient commitment by others to our pole. As we become more entrenched in our view of “the problem,” people predisposed toward the other pole of the polarity, usually influenced by their confirmation biases, cling more strongly to their pole. They define the “the problem” as departure from their pole. This escalates into seeing opponents as “the problem.”
When polarization over a polarity emerges, the solution is to regain a polarity perspective. If I gravitate toward Pole A, I need to genuinely confess the downside of Pole A to those who gravitate to Pole B. I need to express an appreciation for the upside of Pole B. That opens the conversation to a discussion of balance, rather than of right/wrong or good/bad. It frees those that embrace Pole B to be able to confess the downside of their pole and the upside of Pole A. We cease seeing an issue as a problem to be solved and begin seeing it as polarity to be managed.
This doesn’t mean that polarity management will always lead to entirely satisfying decisions or resolve all differences. Most decisions require trade-offs. We value options differently. We assess risks differently. We have differing degrees of risk aversion. Sometimes we don’t agree on the practicality of particular options, even though we agree on ends. But correctly identifying polarities, and addressing them as such, leads to less polarization.
Working on our confirmation biases and being aware of polarities can significantly minimize polarization. They will not resolve all problems. Some things are not polarities. They have a binary quality. These conversations move us into another set of issues. But those issues become more manageable if we have learned and practiced the disciplines of depolarization where we can. I’m convinced that our practice of these disciplines is always imperfect and learning these disciplines is a lifelong transformational process. But the rewards are well worth the journey.
(If you are interested in learning more about this topic from a congregational viewpoint, see Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities by Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson.
What do you think? Does managing our confirmation biases and the idea of polarity management help us reframe challenges we face?