Photo: Christine Locher

How to unblock either-or thinking

I support people on making big change decisions, and I also had a few chances for gender diversity conversations recently, and they have — again — been mostly binary. And as I’m writing this, a politician is being interviewed about an upcoming election featuring two big parties.

We humans seem to like two big bold options. Like that thing as a child where your auntie holds both fists behind her back and you get to choose one. Nice and clear (or so we think). And then get a bit paralyzed if they don’t really fit as soon as we go to things a bit more complex than “soup or salad”. Big options force us to take side wholesale and puts us in the same group with everyone else on that side. It creates an “us over here” vs “them over there” dichotomy that might or might not actually exist. We then either dig our heels in, or start disengaging. If you watch the news, both things are happening right now. Reality is usually quite a bit more complex than A vs. B, particularly if these two are options that someone else created for you to pick from. This nags at us in our decision-making, politics, gender identity conversations, negotiations and a whole range of other topics, and often this increases our dissatisfaction.

Unblocking the duality of two options is therefore a very helpful practice to broaden your range and to invite options and combinations to the table that you haven’t thought of before you did that. It helps you get unstuck, and it challenges your flexibility. You won’t have to like everything that is coming up, but it is worth having a look, a conversation, see what this brings up, see what becomes possible with that option.

In my work with individuals and organizations, I often use a framework called Tetralemma or Catuskoti, with a small addition as 5th position (the star in the diagram).

Imagine a square. One corner represents A, the one diagonally opposite represents B (defined as “not A”). The one on the left of the diagonal represents “both”, and the one on the right represents “neither”. Start exploring what that does for the situation you are in. What new things can you discover? How do these positions feel? What is uncomfortable? What is inspiring? What would have to be true for these different options to work?

Depending on the topic you are exploring and your experiences with it so far, “both” or “neither” or the difference between these two might not immediately be obvious. For example, if you identify as clearly male or clearly female, both/neither/something else entirely might not be immediately obvious to you. But for the people that don’t identify clearly as male or female, this looks and feels completely different and offers conversations at a much deeper level of truth and understanding, to be truly seen. And it might expand your thinking about your own identification as well.

Whatever you are exploring with this, you might not be able to cognitively map this out all nicely and neatly right away. Stay with the experience, how these make you feel. Stay with the idea, the option, the “what if” and see if you can at least get to some elements of what that could look like in your situation. Confusion and discomfort are good signs. You are discovering new things that you hadn’t previously thought about. That’s why we do this.

Then there is the 5th position, “something different entirely”, just to blow open the doors of creativity completely. Don’t gloss over that one, however weird this might seem.

If you do constellation work or are facilitating groups, this works well with the 4 corners of a room, the 5th position can (safely) climb on a table or on a chair or something that breaks the 2 dimensions to make it clear this snaps out of the constraints for everything else. Keep them in the room though.

This helps snap out of binary either-or thinking and tickles your creativity in re-crafting options and solutions and inviting people back into the conversation that aren’t strictly A or B. The way the world is going these days, we need these conversations and explorations more than ever.

Decision coach for professionals looking for more depth, facilitator, writer, art lover. Book on values-based change out now.