The Power of "Both-And" Thinking

Embracing apparent contradictions can enhance healing.

Posted Oct 22, 2020

The 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” 

This idea can be applied now, at a time when people are navigating a minefield of apparent contradictions in the news and life.

Following President Donald J. Trump’s diagnosis of COVID-19, there was an outpouring of bipartisan get-well wishes, yet at the same time, only 33 percent of Americans believe he handled his illness responsibly. An Ipsos poll indicates that two-thirds of Americans believe Trump could have prevented his illness if he had taken the virus more seriously.

It is human nature to think in terms of “either/or,” that a person is either supportive or critical of a politician, and yet life is full of examples of “both/and,” when ostensible contradictions simultaneously co-exist.

The ability to embrace complexity and even paradox may be a key ingredient for both reducing polarization and generating greater unity in society and for managing stress and well-being during a crisis.

Now is a time of both isolation and connection. People are physically separated and unable to gather for important life events. Many are also strengthening bonds because of meaningful conversations and commitment to common causes.

As more than 222,000 people have died from COVID-19 in this country, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that even funerals be restricted, suggesting limited attendance and social distancing.

At the same time, people are finding greater purpose by helping others in need and finding connection, even virtually.  Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general of the United States and author of Together, says this is an “extraordinary opportunity” for people to clarify their priorities and identify the people who matter most in their lives.

It is also a time of both confusion and clarity. Many are overwhelmed with unprecedented uncertainty yet also report greater clarity around what matters most to them. 

The U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.9 percent, and business executives struggle to navigate near-constant change due to the pandemic. In my work teaching executive education at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in recent months, I have heard global leaders share their stress as their teams look to them for greater stability than is possible now.  

At the same time, many of the same leaders have reported experiencing greater clarity around their values and the kind of life they want going forward. Many CEOs are reporting more dinners with family while working from home, generating deeper connections and relationships.

I know the power of “both/and” thinking. I first learned of it through the sage counsel of my mentor and therapist, Kay Brownfield. It was during one of the many stretches of time when my mother was in grave medical condition, this time in the Intensive Care Unit. I was back and forth between working and being in the hospital to be with her, and to be her advocate. I was sad. I was scared. I was exhausted. 

One night, after I left the ICU, a group of friends invited me to join them for a local tango event. I yearned for the joy of dancing and being with friends, but I was sad and afraid about my mother’s condition; it felt incongruous, almost inappropriate, to enjoy myself during such dark times.

My mentor advised me that it’s possible to experience both at the same time. Wholeness is about embracing, not denying, all of our feelings.

Business leaders know that the issues they face are not simply black and white. They navigate creative tensions of "both/and" thinking between short-term and long-term focus, innovation and efficiency, purpose and profit. In these scenarios, both must be pursued for an organization to thrive, not one or the other.

During this pandemic, once companies get past short-term survival and adaptation, there is an opportunity to reimagine the business for the future.

Interests-based negotiation shows that when people move beyond a zero-sum mindset of winners and losers, by distinguishing the positions people hold from their underlying interests, and by exploring opportunities for mutual gain, there is a possibility to create more value and expand possibilities for all stakeholders. 

Employing “both/and” thinking about the interests of opposing parties can transform conflict into greater connection.

In the Executive MBA program at Northwestern, an executive coach said that what distinguished the most successful leaders was a combination of optimism and realism. Some leaders are unrealistically idealistic, and others are so realistic that they become pessimistic, she said, and great impact comes from those who never lose sight of their aspirations and yet remain grounded in reality. 

To be sure, particularly during this election season, many are passionately attached to their convictions and views of the world. Certainly, there are instances of clear right and wrong. Yet much occurs in the blurry space in between, in the domain of “both/and.”

Research in social psychology tells us that humans are motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance, a state of holding seemingly contradictory beliefs. It may be more familiar to see the world through a lens of polar opposites rather than the complexity of paradox. 

The country may not heal or unify, nor will individuals thrive, if the “either/or” mindset perpetuates polarization within society and within ourselves. 

What is useful is to listen to the perspectives of those who hold opposing views; have a mindset of curiosity about what we can learn from each other; tell stories and listen for the shared humanity and any common ground, no matter how narrow it may seem; and explore creative options that may transform different perspectives into new opportunities for mutual gain and shared goals.

“It’s both joy and sadness, both fear and hope, not either/or,” my mentor reminded me.

Tango and the ICU is my reminder, and almost my mantra, of the power of “both/and” thinking to transform a situation into greater possibility for a more connected and healthy future.