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I have a sense that I reference polarities frequently in this newsletter, but I’m not sure I’ve explained it substantially. I’m using it in a particular technical sense (Barry Johnson 1975, for those in the know already), which borrows this word from chemistry to use in the space of mental abstractions. We have a pull currently to work with polarity thinking inside of Intentional Society, so let’s do it here too. If you haven’t heard this already, then today is your lucky day!
A polarity is an interdependent pair of things - like positive and negative poles in an electric dipole, or that the earth has North and South poles. But instead of the physical, let’s compare polarities to problems. A polarity has a tension in it, but it is not a problem: Problems can be solved by bringing the actual and desired states of the world together. Polarities, though, can’t be solved – they must be managed.
The reason for this is that a polarity is made from two equally good things! Confidence and humility. Support and challenge. Structure and flexibility. This is not a bad side, good side kind of dichotomy. The tension comes from wanting both things, where we’d generally look at those things as being in conflict or opposition to each other. You can lean in one direction or the other, but there’s usually a tradeoff when you do so.
You can see the two-by-two “polarity map” model at polaritypartnerships.com: one pole on the left, one pole on the right, and the vertical dimension is positive vs negative results of focusing on that pole. There’s a motion across this map that illustrates the experience of being inside a polarity. We get attracted to one side, move toward it, and experience the positive effects that we’re seeking. Leaning further into that side though, perhaps overdeveloping that strength, we also experience its downsides. That leads us to head in the direction of the other pole, to fix the downsides of that pole by zooming toward the positives of the other pole. Follow the arrow, hit the negatives over there, and the cycle can repeat in a pendulum-like swinging back-and-forth.
Effective polarity management is about becoming aware of the swings of that either-or and figuring out how to manage the balance more intentionally – to look for both-and opportunities for complementarity and integration. It’s… not that they’re not opposed, but they can also cooperate with each other. There’s a lot of detail to reality everywhere, and asking the question, “How can we get more of the positives of both of these?” usually leads in a very productive direction. You want to get beyond just finding a balance between two monolithic opposing forces – dissolving parts of the either-or-ness can lead to integration (which is symbolized by the upward helix shape in the middle of the polarity map diagram).
Let’s take Radical Candor as a concrete example, where radical candor == care personally + challenge directly. These things can often be felt as a tension, when i.e. strong truth-telling doesn’t feel nice, but high niceness might lead one to sugarcoat a message. The success of this book/concept comes, IMHO, from the realization that it’s possible to do a lot of both without falling into either “ruinous empathy” or “obnoxious aggression.” The integration of those two poles doesn’t eliminate the management of the dynamic tension within the polarity, but folks have found that they can shift upward, as a whole, that arrow-of-movement on the polarity map.
I am very fond of polarity thinking when it comes to values and ways of being. Different people can lean towards different values, and this helps me to see the ways that “contradictory” values are not a right-wrong question, and how we need the goodness of both poles and how can we inhabit a space where both are true and appreciated? Seeing the system from that perspective helps me get out of the conflict frame trap. If you’d like to read more about polarities, here’s an article and a new book (let me know if you read this one!).